Alan Miller addresses Knight Commission on news literacy


Alan C. Miller, the News Literacy Project’s founder and executive director, discussed news literacy in the classroom — and NLP’s plans to provide it — in remarks to the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

He did so as part of a panel on “Information, Engagement, and Democracy at the Community Level” at the commission’s Nov. 17 meeting, held in the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago.

The 15-member commission plans to issue its findings in early 2009 and intends to recommend public and private measures to help communities across the United States better meet their information needs. “A well-informed citizenry is critical to democracy,” the commission said in its mission statement. “News, journalism and other information conduits play a central role in informing society. Yet, at a time when the problems facing American communities are arguably unprecedented in number, scope and complexity, the nation’s news and information systems, both commercial and not-for-profit, are in the midst of a technological revolution that is dramatically changing flows of news and information.”

The commission is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and organized by the Aspen Institute. Its co-chairs are former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search product and user experience. Its members include former FCC chairmen Michael K. Powell and Reed E. Hundt, Knight Foundation president and CEO Alberto Ibarguen and John S. Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times and the vice chair of the News Literacy Project’s board.

Miller’s remarks to the commission are reprinted below.

Remarks by Alan C. Miller of the News Literacy Project before the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Chicago, Nov. 17, 2008:

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this distinguished panel and participate in your important mission.

For the first 29 years of my career — most of them as an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, including five years working for John Carroll — my job was to provide news to the public. During the past nine months, with the support of the Knight and Ford Foundations, I have focused on figuring out how to give young people the tools to become consumers and creators of credible information.

During this time, I’ve heard some surprising things:

  • In April, a teacher at a school in Brooklyn told me that her students believe that if something is on the Internet, somebody verified it before putting it there.
  • A few months later, a senior in an AP social studies class in a Maryland high school asked what to read to learn about U.S. foreign policy. When I mentioned The New York Times and other well-regarded publications, he asked incredulously: “Is the mainstream media OK?”
  • Last week, I met with Howard Gardner, the Harvard educator. He told me that in a focus group of inner-city high school students the previous weekend, not a single student had heard of the financial meltdown gripping the country. Gardner even said he was “shocked.”

These anecdotes, bolstered by reports such as Young People and News (done for a Carnegie-Knight task force last year), raise serious concerns about the future of a well-informed citizenry, the heart of a healthy democracy. The Carnegie-Knight report for instance, found that half of teens and young adults aged 18 to 30 rarely, if ever, read a newspaper and do not make consumption of news from any source part of their daily routine. The study reported that respondents were drawn to stories “that have little or no public affairs content” and that many were “ill-equipped to process the hard news stories they encounter.”

Even as the Internet has given students unprecedented amounts of information at their fingertips, many consider Google their primary source. And most view all the information that appears on their screen as created equal. Often, the alternative is Wikipedia, with its provisional and participatory arc of truth. Students can, of course, act like historians and drill down to the primary sources — but how many devote the time and effort to do so?

How would students know otherwise?

Neither media literacy nor its more focused tributary, news literacy, is widely taught in American public schools. At the same time, the national education system has increasingly focused on standardized tests that have largely driven out what some of us knew as “civics” or “current events.” A 2007 survey by another Carnegie-Knight task force found that even those teachers who recognize the value of using news in the classroom said they planned to use it less because of the demands of mandatory testing. Hardest hit, the commission found, are disadvantaged urban and rural students, whose parents tend to pay less attention to public affairs and discuss news less at home.

Finally, amid the explosion of technology, young people today tend to be fixated on social networking — interconnecting through a virtual, omnipresent world of cellphones, iPods and laptops. Of course, students are learning a tremendous amount through these networks: about each other and each other’s tastes, about their comings and goings, about music and sports, and, in the election just past, about Barack Obama. There is no doubt that through Facebook and YouTube and all the other digital bells and whistles, they have access to enormous amounts of information.

Moreover, as they text and e-mail and blog in this new participatory information age, they are themselves not only consumers, but also producers — what Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, in The Elements of Journalism, call “pro-sumers.”

Yet these young people must deal not only with the many ways that information is delivered in this rapidly changing electronic landscape, but also with the daunting task of determining the reliability of myriad sources of “news.” Most are simply not learning how to discern credible information from raw information, opinion, gossip, spin, advertising and propaganda. How many understand the difference between a news report in The Wall Street Journal or on National Public Radio and a posting by the proverbial pajama-clad blogger or a politically charged viral e-mail? And if they don’t, why would they ever seek quality journalism?

Without some education and guidance, in this era of loud voices and short attention spans, how are students to know what to believe?

I began the News Literacy Project earlier this year with two primary goals: to light a spark of interest in information that has a public purpose and to give students the tools to separate fact from fiction in the digital age — enabling them to seek and prize unvarnished truth through whatever medium and on whatever platform they find it.

What skills do they need to do so? First, they need to recognize what my colleague Howie Schneider, who founded the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, calls “What neighborhood are you in?”: Are you in the news neighborhood? The opinion neighborhood? The advertising neighborhood? What kind of information are you looking at, listening to or watching? And what standards and vetting have been applied to the way this information was gathered and presented?

If you are looking at what purports to be news, how can you judge its veracity? First, assuming you can determine this, who created it, and for what purpose? Is the goal a dispassionate, even if imperfect, search for truth to serve the public interest? What are the sources — are they named, are they eyewitnesses or experts, do they have an ax to grind? What data or documents are cited to verify the assertions? Is the story fair — is the subject given a chance to respond? Is there bias, and how can you tell? What is the downside of audience bias — seeking information only from sources with which you are likely to agree?

We’ll also address the principle of accountability: How does any information provider deal with challenges to its veracity, particularly factual mistakes? Is there a willingness and a process to acknowledge and correct errors and set the record straight?

We intend to tackle this challenge by, first, partnering with middle school and high school teachers to provide them with an innovative, compelling curriculum that examines the First Amendment and the role of a free media in a democracy — particularly the watchdog role — and why news matters to these students.

Then we will bring journalists into social studies, history and English classrooms — in person, or through videos or videoconferences — to engage the students by sharing what they do in a way that resonates with our themes and with these students. The journalists will involve students in hands-on exercises that challenge them to think about where they obtain their information. The lessons will culminate with the students using the tools of journalism to spark critical thinking about their world — and the larger world around them.

And we will use the new media platforms to teach, engage and share our curriculum to achieve wide national reach.

In their efforts to hold on to their often-shrinking audiences, news organizations have tended to focus on the supply side. Our focus is on the demand side of the next generation.

Teachers, students and journalists have expressed excitement about the project. I believe that news literacy is an idea whose time has come. Some hope it hasn’t come too late.

Jules Mermelstein, who teaches history and government in a suburban Philadelphia high school, said, “This project could help me produce students who can function in the 21st-century information overload and, hopefully, become responsible participating members of our democratic society.”

At the same time, Marty Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, recently wrote to me: “I hope your efforts produce a generation of people who understand the elements of quality journalism, and I hope there’s enough quality journalism left for them to enjoy.”

Thank you. I look forward to your feedback and questions.

More Updates

Vetting election information: Tips for veterans, service members

To break through a confusing and misleading information landscape, the News Literacy Project hosted a panel of experts who work with the military community to discuss common types of election-related misinformation and practical tips for finding reliable news before voting.