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Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Sarah Tobol

The News:  What’s True? Teaching Youngsters to Discern

WILLIAMSBURG — These days anyone can create a web site; you don’t need a degree in journalism to write a blog. Young people growing up in an environment with such an overload of information may not know how to discern fact from fiction. The News Literacy Project (NLP), about to embark on its first full year in schools, strives to make them evaluate information more critically. The project was founded last year by Alan Miller, a former investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times.

“I was concerned about what was happening to the newspaper business,” he said. 

After he spoke about journalism with 175 sixth graders at his daughter’s middle school in Bethesda, Md., the student response was so positive that he started the NLP. He enlisted journalists from many different media outlets with different specialties — print, broadcast, online, photographers — and matched them with English, history and social studies classes in middle and high schools.

The program kicked off in February at the Collegiate Charter School (a middle school within P.S. 16) in Williamsburg. Along with the Williamsburg school, pilot programs were conducted in a high school in Manhattan and one in Bethesda, Md. The journalists make presentations about a variety of topics to the classes, fitting into the curricula already in place.

Miller said that during the time spent in the classrooms, the journalists follow four essential themes: why news matters, the importance of the First Amendment, how to know what to believe, and the challenges and opportunities posed by the internet and the digital age. Students are instructed about journalistic terms and encouraged to participate and interact during the presentations.

"The project was completed over a two-week period, with one week of preparatory work done by the teacher in the classroom," said Miller. "Each section was assigned three journalists. The series of presentations and classes conducted by the journalists culminated in a project in most cases, such as creating a newspaper or conducting a mock press conference," Miller noted.

Subtle Power's of Chain E-Mails

Matea Gold, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times who lives in Brooklyn Heights, visited seventh and eighth grade classrooms at the Collegiate Charter School for the NLP. She said that chain e-mails are rampant in middle schools, so her presentations were geared toward this form of news, which she called “a subtle power that the media is not aware of. Gold brought to the classrooms an e-mail that circulated during last year’s election with the rumor that now-President Obama was Muslim. She passed copies of the e-mail around and didn’t tell the students whether or not it was true. The students focused their close reading of the text on several questions, Gold said, such as: “Who is the author?” “Are there any sources?” “Is there any supporting documenting evidence?” and “What is the tone of the e-mail?

The students’ response was sophisticated, Gold said — “I was just so impressed.” One student pointed to a quote within the text that wasn’t attributed to a source, and another brought up the fact that no one had signed his name to the e-mail. Even though chain e-mails are basically a form of gossip and are “a mundane part of teenage life,” Gold said, it was a way for her to relate “larger lessons about news and journalism” to the students.

"It would be great if we could spread this to a nationwide curriculum,” Gold said. In “cultivating a new generation of news consumers,” she added, there’s hope to save journalism.

Demystifying’ Journalism

New York Times reporter David Gonzalez also visited classrooms at the Collegiate Charter School to talk about his experiences reporting on neighborhoods in the city, specifically the Bronx, where he grew up. He approached his presentations to the students from the angle of a journalist, speaking with them about how to know what’s true in his profession. He discussed with the classes how to look at a neighborhood, when to visit, and who to talk to in order to learn the most and get the most accurate picture of that neighborhood. In his experience, he would investigate a neighborhood on a Saturday, when a lot of people are out and about, and he would visit a community organization or house of worship to conduct interviews.

"I wanted to demystify what we [as journalists] do," Gonzalez said, "and show them this is how we do it."

Another purpose of the NLP, as he sees it, is to help young people “learn the value of collecting and analyzing material,” he said. “We really need people out there who know what’s going on. Young people have to be reading something, not just following somebody's tweets."

Helping Teachers, Too

The NLP was designed not only to be beneficial to the students, but to the teachers as well, giving them ways to expand on their lessons and enrich their students’ learning experiences.

“Our goal is to figure out how to have as much impact as possible for teachers and particularly the students,” Alan Miller said. "The response has been tremendously positive." 

Ryan Miller (not related to Alan), an eighth-grade history teacher at the Williamsburg school, said that yellow journalism was already a subject of his curriculum, so working with the journalists was a good way to expand on the lessons. For students who usually get their news from TMZ or the New York Post, Ryan Miller said, “it was great to see them opening up and devouring The New York Times." 

Gold and Gonzalez both taught lessons in Ryan Miller’s classroom, and “the kids were fascinated by it,” he said, explaining that many of them had not previously thought of journalism as a viable career. They realized that “journalism can be such an effective measure for making a difference,” he remarked.

He will continue working with the NLP in the upcoming school year and looks forward to the students already having been exposed to the program. This will give him an opportunity to expand on the knowledge they acquired in the first semester of the program.

Even with just one semester of work with the students, there has already been a positive impact from the NLP. Julie Kennedy, principal at the Collegiate Charter School, told Alan Miller she overheard students in the cafeteria discussing newspapers and what they learned in the classroom.

Miller also said that, coincidentally, some of the students involved in the NLP from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. encountered a question about how a US president communicates with the American public in a fractured media environment on their Advanced Placement test.

“They answered the question based on everything they learned in the unit,” he said. "Our goal is to give the students the critical thinking skills to be better students today and better informed citizens tomorrow."