We can’t rely on others to tell us what to trust
In the 11 years since I founded the News Literacy Project, I have learned time and again that it takes a lasting, comprehensive approach to overcome the scourge of misinformation.
A recent incident involving the Poynter Institute starkly illustrates that point. On April 30, the respected journalism education nonprofit released a list, under the title “UnNews,” of 515 “unreliable” news websites. The list was put together by the International Fact-Checking Network, a unit of Poynter, from five databases compiled by journalists, fact-checkers and researchers across the nation.
Almost immediately, Poynter received complaints that some of the sites on the list were actually legitimate news outlets and that some unreliable news sites had been left off. After conducting an audit, which found “weaknesses in the methodology” used to compile the information, Poynter took down the list on May 2, and Barbara Allen, the managing editor of Poynter’s website, apologized for the misstep.
Resources that aim to make it easier for people to sort fact from fiction amid a sea of misinformation — such as Poynter’s list, or NewsGuard’s red/green website ratings — have worthy objectives. However, this approach has serious limitations.
- Ratings and lists are created by people, who, no matter how knowledgeable or well-intentioned, bring their own perspectives and blind spots to the process.
- The news media are in a state of constant change, which makes it extremely challenging for curators to keep resources accurate and up to date.
- Media outlets are not monolithic. They can make mistakes in reporting or editing, have lapses in judgment or let bias slip into an article or a video. Each incident should be judged separately — and should not be used, by itself, to relegate a news site to the “good” or “bad” list.
- And most important: When consumers rely on others to vet sources and information for them, they fail to develop the skills they need to become news-literate.
A different approach
That’s why the News Literacy Project takes a different — and, I believe, a more effective — approach. We do not recommend for or against any sites or sources. Rather, we provide educators with tools and resources to teach their students how to navigate today’s complex information landscape and learn to judge the credibility of information for themselves.
Our Checkology®virtual classroom develops students’ habits of mind and patterns of behavior regarding the consumption, creation and sharing of news and other information. Through the platform’s use of real-world examples, our students are challenged to recognize the primary purpose of the information they see online, to determine its veracity, to check for bias — both the source’s and their own — and, in the case of news reports, to judge whether it meets the standards of quality journalism. Students who complete our programs gain the critical-thinking skills needed to make informed decisions about the content they come across, wherever and whenever they encounter it.
Poynter’s experience is just one example of how even the most responsible, well-intentioned organizations can falter when seeking to combat misinformation.
To win the fight for facts, we must help young people become news-literate for life. Doing so is not as easy as checking a list or relying on others to do the hard work of judging the credibility of information. It requires comprehensive news literacy education, which the News Literacy Project is providing to more classrooms every day.
Note: The Poynter Institute served as the News Literacy Project’s fiscal agent before NLP received its 501(c)(3) designation from the Internal Revenue Service in 2011. Poynter is a partner in MediaWise, a digital literacy initiative.