Journalist and author Sarah Wildman searches archives, history books and European capitals for her grandfather's "true love" -- a young doctor he left behind when he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.
We’re flooded with information from a range of sources, and the lines between news and opinion are blurring. Young people in particular navigate everything from viral emails to Internet rumors, and often have trouble sorting fact from fiction. We speak with an organization that aims to give middle and high school students the tools to become more critical news consumers.
- Scott Menscher Teacher, Edward R. Murrow High School, Brooklyn, NY
- Matea Gold Reporter, L.A. Times
- Alan Miller President and CEO, News Literacy Project
How To Know What To Believe
“Check It Out,” the yardstick by which students in the News Literacy Project learn to measure news and information.
A video by the News Literacy Project showcases the program’s impact in schools in New York City, Chicago and Bethesda, Md.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Amid the flood of information we get daily from television, radio, print and the Internet, we pick and we chose trusting some sources, dismissing others, double checking those we're not sure about.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMost of us have built up this sophisticated filter over time. But it's a filter many young people not yet have. And so when they encounter viral emails, Facebook rumors and biased reporting they can't always distinguish opinion from fact or rumor from reality. So how do you teach teens to become smarter news consumers and to think critically about where they get their information?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWell, joining us to discuss this is Alan Miller. He is president and CEO of the News Literacy Project. He's a Pulitzer Prize winning former journalist. Alan Miller, thank you for joining us.
MR. ALAN MILLERThank you Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Matea Gold. She covers money and politics for the Washington Bureau of "The Los Angeles Times." Matea Gold, thank you for joining us.
MS. MATEA GOLDMy pleasure, great to be here.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Brooklyn, NY is Scott Menscher. He teaches English and journalism at Edward R. Murrow High School in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. He teaches a mass media class in which the students learn news literacy. Scott Menscher, thank you joining us.
MR. SCOTT MENSCHERIt's a pleasure. Thank you very, very much.
NNAMDIAnd this is a conversation we're encouraging you to join by calling 800-433-8850. Do you know teens who have trouble telling fact from fiction when it comes to information on the Internet? Do you think some adults could be a little more discerning when it comes to what media they trust? 800-433-8850, Matea, I'll start with you. The amount of information we have access to today has been compared to fire hose. What kind of challenge is that for young people in particular?
GOLDWell, when I talked to students in the classroom I tell them I find the challenge they face to be incredibly daunting. They are just besieged with forms of information lots of which not all of us are even adept at using and here they are navigating this world and having to sort out, as you put it, fact from fictions.
GOLDI think that poses both an opportunity and a potential problem for teenagers as they try to navigate this. And what Allen has come up with at the News Literacy Project, I think, is really kind of a new spin on the old critical thinking curriculum that lots of folks used to have in high school. But this is really applied to the media age and it's so needed and that's why I think it's such a brilliant idea.
NNAMDIMore about that later. Alan, what issues do you see in how young people get their news and information?
MILLERWell, I think it is a tremendous challenge for them to discern what's creditable information versus raw information, misinformation, gossip and propaganda and I think this is something that generally is not widely taught in schools. So what we do is use the standards of quality journalism as an aspiration however imperfect they may be in practice to be a yardstick for students against which they should measure all news and information that they get.
MILLERI think one of the things we found is that, you know, the case of some students there's a tendency to believe that all news is created equal. For younger students it may be because they think of everything they see as being true. Certainly if something, somebody puts something on the Internet they must've verified it.
MILLERIn some cases for high school students, they may feel that it's all created equal because it's all equally driven by agenda by bias, which may be a political bias or commercial bias or personal bias.
MILLERAnd what we try to do is give them the tools for them independently to distinguish when information is more credible versus what they should be more skeptical about.
NNAMDIScott, you teach a mass media class for 10th graders in Brooklyn, New York, at the aptly named Edward R. Murrow High School. Where do your students get their news, at least at the beginning of your course?
MENSCHERI think a lot of them do get it from the typical sources like for teenagers, Facebook and YouTube and you got a smattering who do read the newspaper, who do watch it on television. But what Alan said and is true, you know, you got a lot of raw information and they're not really, you know, they're getting information but whether it's credible or not is another issue.
MENSCHERSo that's part of the program where we kind of talk about, you know, what is valid, you know, where they can get, where can they trust their sources and we go through a whole bunch of steps and a whole bunch of lessons in order for them to kind of get where they are at this point.
NNAMDIAlan, tell us about how the News Literacy Program got started and exactly what it is.
MILLERWell, back in 2006 I was an investigative reporter in the Washington Bureau of "The L.A. Times" and I was invited to speak at my daughter's middle school, at Pyle Middle School in Bethesda about what I did as a journalist and why it mattered.
MILLERAnd I spoke to 175 6th graders, I realized this was a long way from investigative reporting but I got a 175 very specific thank you notes that showed what it resonated and I left thinking, you know, if a lot of journalists brought their expertise and experience to bear this could be really meaningful.
MILLERAnd at the time I was also concerned about how my own 12 year old daughter was accessing and evaluating this tsunami of information from such varying sources and also concerned about what was happening to the news business and the notion of, you know, future demand for quality journalism. So that really was the genesis of the project.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, Alan Miller is president and CEO of the News Literacy Project. He's a Pulitzer Prize winning former journalist. Matea Gold covers money and politics for the Washington Bureau of "The Los Angeles Times" and Scott Menscher teaches English and journalism at Edward R. Murrow High School in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. He teaches a mass media class in which the students learn news literacy. Here is Dorothy in Hamilton, Va. Dorothy, you're on the air, go ahead please.
DOROTHYHi, there. I just have a couple comments. First off, I have an 11-year-old son and a lot of what he finds on the Internet that he thinks is a news source are blogs. And there are lots of credible blogs out there that send the information, but there are a lot of blogs also that are on there just to make money that they'll put a snippet of information on to get a keyword search generated towards them and they're not accurate. So I'll take my comment off the air.
NNAMDII was about to say, well how do you advise your child?
DOROTHYWell, I write a blog so I tell him that the more popup ads and the less cited sources, the less accurate it is.
NNAMDIScott Menscher, care to comment?
MENSCHERYes. Yes, in terms of how I advise my students and how I taught my students, in terms of the idea of where do they get their news from in terms of the standards of the credibility of the blog or whether it's an email. You know, is there an author attached to this? Is there someone that has high quality sources? Is there more than one point of view and is there documented facts? Is there a neutral tone?
MENSCHERI also, you know, tell my students about, you know, the idea of verifying. Once you see it as information, can it be verifiable? Who's produced this information and then from that they kind of start to see whether its trust, you know, trustworthy or not.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding you also sometimes ask them to find out who's paying for the news source?
MENSCHERAbsolutely. The other day we were talking, one of the more reliable places that they do get their information, like, we did the other day Barack Obama was, you know, one of the things that my students believe is, some of them believe Barack Obama was a Muslim and, you know, we went through the whole steps.
MENSCHERWe actually saw an email that was being passed along and we saw infinite websites that supported, YouTube websites that supported. Well, there's a wonderful website called factcheck.org that kind of, you know, helps demystify all these kind of these bits of misinformation.
MENSCHERAnd, you know, after a while they kind of, they students kind of see where they get this, you know, where's this information coming from, how credible it is. And then finally a student asked, you know, how can we trust this website? How do we know that this website?
NNAMDIJust because it's named factcheck.org, right? the name alone doesn't give it credibility, I do understand...
MENSCHERThe name alone, again, doesn't give it credibility but then we go past and we go past to the mission statement and looking at the mission statement and then we kind of see who support, you know, who's paying for this stuff compared to, you know, another I guess a conservative or a liberal news agency.
MENSCHERSo you know, it's just going out beyond and peeling back those layers and kind of understanding it a little further and doing a little investigative research on it. And the students, you know, really kind of like that. They do appreciate that because, you know, they usually take things at just as face value and just kind of see what they see.
MENSCHERBut once you kind of peel back those layers a little bit they kind of understand that, you know, they're more informed about it. They can critically understand, you know, what is in front of them and they can say what is baloney, what is real and so forth and son.
NNAMDIWell, I got to tell you, Scott, when you mentioned that a lot of your students think that President Obama is a Muslim, Alan and Matea exchanged knowing glances about that.
MILLERKojo, if I can jump in. The reason I did so is that Scott just very artfully walked through one of our core lessons that I've seen Matea deliver a number of times at various schools.
GOLDWell, and I'll say one thing that I think is so terrific about the approach that the project uses is that in a very short amount of time we try to give students a tool kit that they can apply to all forms of media. So I do an exercise in classrooms in which I actually hand out copies of one of the Obama is a Muslim viral emails that circulated during the 2008 campaign.
GOLDAnd there were at least five or six versions of these and they were incredibly widespread and I, we talked quickly about some different concepts balance, tone and sourcing and I have the students work through and try to define those and then I have them break up into groups and examine this email to see if they can find balance, tone and sourcing and it is really almost to a fault every single student comes away with the impression, oh my gosh, this must be false because there's no sourcing to this, it clearly has an agenda.
GOLDSo what I think is so terrific is in a short amount of time the students themselves can feel very empowered and have tools at their disposal that they can then apply to other forms of media and that's a great feeling to walk out of the classroom and give them that.
MENSCHERI also think that the idea that, you know, they come into the impression in the classroom that most media that they read is false or, you know, the vast majority they don't believe. And we kind of get an understanding through the program is that, you know, the news isn't or the media isn't purposely trying to lie to you.
MENSCHERYes, indeed there are things that there are misconceptions in terms of or misinformation of things that they're getting wrong. But they're not purposely trying to lie to you and here are some of the reasons why they are getting it wrong so, and they're able to kind of understand especially like fast-breaking news why things are a little bit off.
MENSCHERAnd that's been a big topic of conversation in our class this semester, we've had so many huge stories as you know over the last, you know, month or two that, you know, we start to analyze those things and they understand why, you know, why are certain newspapers getting it wrong, why did they get this wrong? So we can kind of take a step back and look at it that way and understand, hey, you know, this is why, you know, such and such, this media outlet got it wrong.
MILLERI was going to make another point, Kojo, which this underscores that we very much view our students not just as prospective consumers of news and information but as creators. You know, whether they're texting or emailing or blogging or posting to YouTube, they're participating in the local and national even international conversation.
MILLERAnd how do they do this in a way that's credible and responsible and empowers their voices? And the beauty of looking at this field is there are teacher moments all the time so whether it's, you know, the election campaign, whether it's the Boston bombing, New Town, you know, we can turn these things into lessons in the classroom immediately, lessons in our curriculum.
MILLERI mean, another great example was the Shirley episode where the agriculture employee was actually pushed out of her job by the White House based on a deliberately, misleadingly, edited piece of video of her speaking. And here was a case where, you know, the highest level of the U.S. government acting on partial information without asking about the context and the fuller picture and we've turned that into a lesson and we'll probably do something, you know, with the Boston bombing as well for next year.
NNAMDIBut you know, on the one hand Scott points out that his students tend to assume that the mainstream media are bias. But on the other hand, one of the things you guys find out is that it's not necessarily that they're skeptics in general. They may be skeptics with the mainstream news media but if it happens to come in the form of a viral email or something sent from their friends or a text message, they are, I guess, remarkably gullible in some situations.
MILLERWell, I think that there are students who actually feel that unmediated information, that may be, you know, raw information on YouTube or a text message or a blog may actually be more reliable than something that appears in the news because it may be driven by commercial bias or ideological bias. I think one of the things that we try to do is first of all, give them the tools to make the -- ask those questions, as Scott was talking about, to make those judgments for themselves about what's most credible.
MILLERBut also to understand what it takes to get a story on the front page of the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal or the nightly news and the difference between that and, you know, a viral email that may be ideologically driven or a blog post where they may not know necessarily what the expertise is and what the sourcing is and what the agenda is of the person who's making that post.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned viral emails because Matea, you do a project about viral emails with students. For those who do not encounter these particular phenomena, tell us about the kinds of emails we're talking about and about the project.
GOLDSure. Well, so a lot of the focus I've had in doing this lesson is on, you know, is Obama a Muslim actually, that we had mentioned. But there are an incredible number of chain emails going around at any given moment around kind of the news of the day. There's some circulating right now about Benghazi. I'm sure we'll have some new ones circulating about the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups.
GOLDAnything in the news is quickly kind of turned into fodder by people who either have an agenda or want to make mischief or just think that they might be authentically spreading information, but they don't have facts. And so a lot of teenagers receive these and I think our job is to get them to kind of look not only with a critical eye but with some specific tools they can use to discern whether they're...
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that at the start of the class all the students said, yes, we do pass viral emails along to our friends. Not so much at the end of class.
GOLDNo. I mean, that's been a lot of fun is to walk in -- I do survey the class, every class I'd be in I'd say, how many of you pass along viral email or actually more commonly text? They almost all communicate by text message. And almost all of them say yes.
NNAMDIGo ahead, Scott.
MENSCHERI'm sorry. It's funny because then I ask -- we do the same lesson and then kind of ask, well are you -- what happens when you're going to see those viral emails again? Will you pass them along? And they say, yeah we'll pass them along but we'll make sure we'll warn them and say, hey there's no -- you know, you just want to be careful about the information that we're passing along.
NNAMDIWe have to take...
MENSCHERI mean, they're still interested in the drama. They're still interested in the -- what I find they're still interested in but at least they're understanding and analyzing what they're getting. And I think that's a very important part.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break, then we'll come back and rejoin the conversation. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850. Where do your kids get their news and information? What news sources do you trust most? You can also send email to email@example.com. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow. The number again, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the News Literacy Project. We're talking with Matea Gold. She covers money and politics for the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times. Scott Menscher teaches English and journalism at Edward R. Murrow High School in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. And Alan Miller is president and CEO of the News Literacy Project. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning former journalist. Back to the telephones. Here is Ralph in Washington, D.C. Ralph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RALPHThank you, Kojo. You know, it's a great thing that they're trying to teach these kids critical thinking skills because most of them -- you know, most adults absorb the news as if it's God's own truth. And if they read it in print it's even more substantial. I do disagree with the one comment. I don't know his name but he says most people don't deceive -- go out and deceive and lie in the news media.
RALPHI mean, I don't know when was the last time he watched FOX News but, you know, I can tell you that I've never seen so many lies and distortions in my life. And if you look at the media in general, you know, the noise about global warming has pretty much died down. And maybe it has something to do with four large corporations now own about 90 percent of the media. And the wealthiest industry in the world is the oil and gas industry. They have over $26 trillion in reserves in the ground that they want to pump out, whether or not it destroys the earth.
RALPHSo the media is not unbiased. The media is governed by corporations. And corporations spend money for advertising. Thank you.
NNAMDIWait a minute before you go, Ralph. So if in fact you feel that these corporations own the media and therefore ultimately whatever you read in, what some people would call corporate-owned media, is slanted in favor of corporations, how do you demystify the news?
RALPHWell, I'm an investor and that's what I do for a living. And let me tell you, you know an analyst is lying when his lips are moving. And most of the financial media is lying in one way or the other. They put out these five stories in order to manipulate the stock price up and down. And what you have to do, you have to use my deductive skills to see how unbiased the story is and whether it correlates with what you know about a product or a corporation that's got a new product coming out.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have our panelists respond. There is healthy skepticism, Alan Miller, and then there's, well I believe they're lying all the time. How do you deal with that in what you teach kids?
MILLERAnd that in fact is something we want to really distinguish between the healthy skepticism versus cynicism. And I think just, you know, as the caller said, we want to give students the tools to make those judgments themselves. So we do talk about bias and how to look for bias and loaded language and one-sided coverage and questions about elemental fairness in stories. And we want the students to be skeptical and to make those judgments independently.
MILLERBut I think, you know, there really is a question as compared to what. I mean, you need some basic yardstick against which to measure the credibility, the information you're looking at. And I think it makes sense to also look at the reputation of the sources and information. First of all, in a digital world, can you even figure out the source of the information, you know, where it's coming from when we're talking about things like texting and viral emails and so on.
MILLERAnd then I think that those judgments need to be made independently, but those questions need to be asked, first of all, for students to figure out, you know, what it is that they're going to believe, and then what it is they're going to use as a basis for their decisions and their actions.
NNAMDIMatea Gold, I know you want to jump in but I have a question also for you, because you have covered immigration and gangs for the L.A. Times before coming here to Washington D.C. You're now covering money and politics. What do you say to people who believe there is a direct link to the board chairman of the company that owns your newspaper and you?
GOLDYou know, it's so interesting because I've heard the criticism the caller made. I've gotten many an email from readers and I also hear it from students in the classroom. And one thing that I think is important is that we provide kind of an education about how we go about doing our jobs. And I can't speak for all of media but I can speak for my experience as a reporter and what drives me and what doesn't drive me. I'm not getting, obviously, any mandate from our corporate owners.
GOLDAnd so I feel like once I have a conversation with, whether it's a student or a reader and explain how I go about getting information, the standards we use, point out the various different stories I've done on a particular topic that really explore different perspectives, I find that people are really much more open to hearing more about your journals. And then much more willing to view it through kind of an un-cynical lens.
MILLERAnd so that's what's so important is I think this offers a venue to give students a chance to understand how journalists do gather their information. And that it's not just slapping together some facts that we Googled or pulled from Wikipedia. That there's a really very rigorous process that we use to try to ferret out what's going on and present it in a neutral and fair way. And once you provide a bit of an education about that, I think it goes a long way.
NNAMDIOur caller mentioned FOX News, 800-433-8850. Do you think people gravitate toward news sources that they already agree with, 800-433-8580? You mentioned the Boston bombings. There was something of a crash course in the highs and lows of media coverage. What lessons would you say could be drawn from that incredibly intense week of news? I'll start with you, Alan.
MILLERI think there's a number of lessons to be drawn. One, of course, is that news and information is provisional, especially in a, you know, 24/7 news cycle. And that you need to follow the news over time. The first story may not be the best story or even the accurate story. I think you also need to follow a wide range of sources, not a single source. See what's being widely reported. I think also, you know, the fact that reputable news organizations do make mistakes, especially into that kind of competitive pressure. But those that are really credible are accountable and the mistakes are corrected again overtime.
MILLERI think we also saw both the value, you know, of crowd sourcing and the dangers of it. That there were lots of photos and names that were being posted and bandied about, including, you know, a major newspaper in New York of people who were supposedly suspects who were absolutely innocent. And so I think it needs -- you know, people need to step back and be mindful of that risk, you know, in this kind of environment.
NNAMDIScott, we heard Alan mention New York where you are. The New York Post ran with a story naming two suspects, only they turned out to be wrong. What did you take from that? Scott, are you there? Oh, we seem to have lost our contact with Scott Menscher. We'll try to get Scott back on the air as soon as possible. In the meantime, let's talk with Patty in Arlington, Va. Patty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATTYHi. I am a community college teacher and I teach literacy all the time at the university. And I certainly applaud their efforts of getting it done in high school, because I think it doesn't take long for students to get very smart and savvy and sophisticated. My comment is -- well, I wanted to echo -- one of the callers was talking about that the media's biased. And I think that it is good to tell people that the media is a business. And just like people run to accidents and things, people want to watch certain types of news.
PATTYAnd so, as we used to say at Channel 9 when I worked there, if it bleeds, it leads, you know, that if you have a really...
NNAMDIUsed to say? Go ahead, please.
PATTY...maybe they still say that. But, you know, people -- I mean, students come to college anyway -- community college not really aware that it is a business. And there's a priority to sensational news one way or the other. And once they get it they get it. You know, they just need to be told about that. But my question is, I do a lot of these exercises in my classes. And I just wanted to say one that you haven't mentioned yet is, I actually have them look at an article like gun control, look at the prominent congressmen, our senators who are on the front page of a major newspaper...
NNAMDIOh, oh, we lost -- she dropped off just when she was about to make her most important point. Please call us back, 800-433-8850. Or if your phone is dropping, maybe you can shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What news sources do you trust most? Scott Menscher, it's my understanding that you're back with us. Thank you for...
MENSCHERI am back, yes.
NNAMDI...thank you for rejoining us. The question I had for you was -- had to do with the Boston Marathon bombings. The New York Post ran with a story naming two suspects who turned out -- and that turned out to be wrong. I was asking, what instruction -- what did you take from that that you could pass on to your students?
MENSCHERWell, in terms of what we did is I let them kind of come up with the idea of, you know, why they -- why do you think they got it wrong? We looked at, you know, different elements of that news coverage and how fast it was coming. And all the news that was, you know, coming in for that day. And I showed them the front page of the New York Post and I explained, you know, they got it wrong. Why do you think they got it wrong?
MENSCHERAnd ultimately they came to the decision here that it was just basically -- you know, it was fast, it was also sloppy reporting on their part. And then we -- and they wanted to know is were they going to apologize for this? Could they get sued for this kind of information? And, you know, what was the -- you know, this was a huge mistake, you know, on the front cover of the New York Post.
MENSCHERSo in terms of what's happening, you know, their understanding as well as, you know, this kind of news is happening fast. It's happening quickly and, you know, these kind of mistakes do happen. And it (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIDid the paper ever apologize?
NNAMDIDid the paper ever apologize?
MENSCHERDid the paper ever apologize? You know, I'm not sure, Kojo. That's something I'm not too sure about if the paper apologized. So, you know, but in terms of -- you know, I don't know. I don't know if the paper apologized.
NNAMDIWell, Matea, you point out that people in general are gravitating towards narrower news sources. What effect does that have?
GOLDWell, it's interesting. I find that I'm having a lot of the similar conversations I have with students in the classroom with just people in my everyday life, because there is obviously this growing cynicism about the media in general. And people are really self selecting their -- and paying kind of channels of news that confirm their own political leanings. And that I find incredibly disturbing. Just as a journalist and as just a remember of the society, I feel like we're increasingly coming up with our own set of facts. And it makes it very hard to have a conversation. And I think it has really contributed to the increased polarization we see.
GOLDSo I really try to kind of gently question the people when they talk about, oh I only get my news from X source because they're the only ones that get it right, and to try to get them to think about why they feel that way. And it is really important to seek out many sources of information in this climate. And I think one of the challenges for teenagers is that you have to be so sophisticated to be a news consumer in this age we're living in. And so they really face a burden that previous generations didn't have.
NNAMDIAnd we've been talking a lot about young people so far, Alan, but what Matea was just really talking about is the way many people, including many adults. Are there similarities in the way that adults consume media to the way young people consume media today?
MILLERWell, I think the point that you just raised, Kojo, about people looking more for affirmation than information cuts across all ages. You know, Mark Twain rather famously said that everybody's entitled to his own opinion, but not everybody's entitled to his own facts. Actually that was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I should correct myself, who said that.
MILLERAnd, you know, I think when people tend to see the news through prisms as red and blue, they tend to see the world in terms that are more black and white. And it makes it much more difficult to reach any kind of, you know, a consensus or have a rational discussion about public policy issues. And...
NNAMDII think that's the -- oh, please go ahead.
MILLER...and I was just going to say, you know, I think that it sort of gets to what we see as the heart of our mission, which is really to create students who are better informed today as students, but ultimately, you know, more engaged and better informed as citizens.
NNAMDII think that's the issue that Kirk in La Plata, Md. wants to address. Kirk, your turn.
KIRKHello. I just wanted to say, I think it's because a lot of people hate to change their beliefs. Bertrand Russell put it perfectly, most people would rather die than think. Many do.
NNAMDIAnd so you think that's why people tend to go to sources that confirm opinions already held?
KIRKExactly. And as the pace of change speeds up, people get more and more freaked out and want to go back to the old simpler days they could understand more easily.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Matea, one of your goals is to teach students how to distinguish good journalism from, well, bad or not so good journalism. Why is that so important?
GOLDWell, one of the challenges I think we face when coverage such as the mistakes that were made around the Boston bombings occur, is to not let those incidents contribute to a sense that the work that journalists are doing at major publications and major news organizations should be viewed with distrust.
GOLDSo I like the way Alan phrases it, that there's plenty of teachable moments here. And I think if we can use those experiences to allow students to really try to explore why those mistakes were made and judge organizations on how to handle them, then hopefully we'll be contributing to kind of a greater sense of engagement with that media as opposed to disassociation.
GOLDSo that's something we try to talk about a lot. And I just try to encourage them to seek out all forms of information and really use their judgment. But to take special kind of care in thinking about what are some of the real standards that are used by journalists who apply real rigor and strong sourcing requirements to producing the news.
NNAMDIScott Menscher, you teach a mass media course. Tell us about your students and what your course is about.
MENSCHERSure. I teach two mass media classes. In fact, one is happening right now as we speak. They're probably listening upstairs as I'm speaking, but they're just -- they're 15 and 16 year old students. They're mostly middle class, working class kids, and you know, they also, you know, a nice diversity of students as well, and they're extremely enthusiastic about this program. They really came in, you know, not really -- not knowing much about what to expect from the course, but, you know, as we moved along, they're very, very motivated.
MENSCHERAnd I'll tell you a couple of things that really got them excited. Obviously, one of them is talking about things that are so current and it's happening so fast. In fact, certain things we just can't discuss because it just happens, you know, certain times it just happens so quickly, and the next day something else moves on. But for example, just the other day, you know, they were in the middle of presentations and -- they were doing presentations or accuracy and fairness, and after the end of the presentation I was about to go into another lesson, and one of the students mentioned, can we talk about, you know, what happened in Cleveland, the horrific crime that happened in Cleveland.
MENSCHERAnd what Alan mentioned was perfect. You know, we talk about a teachable moment, this is a -- this was just a teachable moment. They all know about what happened in Cleveland, you know, the horrific crime that happened in Cleveland, but from there we kind of, you know, you wanted -- I wanted to know, why was it such a big , big news story. What makes this story so newsworthy and everyone is talking about it?
MENSCHERSo they came up with a bunch of ideas in terms of its unusual, it's extremely emotional, it just doesn't -- as we know, it just doesn't happen very often. So that's I think the beauty of -- one of the beauties of the class is that it's so current. I mean, another thing that -- I don't know if it was mentioned, but the news (unintelligible) with so many outstanding resources that we have, I mean, we've had two journalists come to class and speak to the class via Skype.
MENSCHERWe've had a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer come and --via Skype and speak to the students, and then we had Nancy Yousef who's a foreign correspondent in Beirut come and speak to the class via Skype, and that's something that just is unheard of. I mean, that's something that, you know, after the class the students were just, you know, mesmerized by it, and just love these presentations, and they spoke about, you know, their jobs and the passion that they have, but also the idea of, you know, the media and what to believe and what should you look for and so forth and so on.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, but before we do, I'd like to make a small clarification in response to a caller who indicated that when she used to work for Channel 9 they said if it bleeds it leads, and I said used to. We got a tweet from someone currently associated with Channel 9 indicating that they thought I took a cheap shot at them. Well, let me now be an equally -- equal opportunity critic. I happen to think that all local television stations around the country tend to lead their newscasts with stories about violent crime. That's why I said used to, because it's not Channel 9, it's just about everybody around the country, if there's a violent crime, then that generally is the lead story on the news.
NNAMDISo hopefully that was a cheap shot not at Channel 9, but a cheap shot at all local television. Going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on the News Literacy Project. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the News Literacy Project. We're talking with Alan Miller. He is president and CEO of the News Literacy Project. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning former journalist. Matea Gold covers money and politics for the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, and Scott Menscher teachers English and journalism at Edward R. Murrow High School in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. We've been encouraging your calls at 800-433-8850, but the lines are all tied up.
NNAMDISo if you're trying to get through with a question or comment now, send us an email to Kojo@wamu.org. Alan, you have described news literacy as empowering for students, but you also feel that it's empowering in more ways than just understanding the news for both young people and adults. Can you explain?
MILLERYes. We see this -- the critical thinking skills that we're teaching as being much broader than just looking at the news, and that they're directly applicable for students in terms of their research projects that they're doing, but also as they're beginning to become citizens and making decisions about whether to go into the military, what kind of college they're going to go to, whether to get a particular vaccine. These of very well correlated with the new common core standards that most states have adopted in terms of classrooms, but they were broader as I mentioned.
MILLERAnd ultimately, we really see them as being critical to the health of a robust democracy, which is founded on a bedrock of informed citizenry. And particularly in a digital age, it's vital that people have the skills to be able to discern what information they should believe, but then also they should make decisions based on -- and they should act upon, and ultimately, most importantly, as voters.
GOLDWell, I saw this play out really in a very tangible way in one of the classrooms I visited in Brooklyn when the project first began. We were talking about viral messages and why they can be so dangerous to spread, and at the time the students told me that there was a viral text message that they were all exchanging about some tension between two of the gangs in the neighborhood. And they started talking about how this viral text message was spreading like wildfire through the school and really inflaming tensions, and there was potential violence they were afraid it was going to lead to, and so they all decided as a class that they were no longer going to forward that text message.
GOLDAnd I felt like that was a great concrete example of them applying what we talked about kind of in an abstract way to something really specific in their lives.
NNAMDIScott, you -- I think I heard you about to say something.
MENSCHERWell, I think the students are really understanding what type of information they're getting, the idea of raw information, and understanding that, you know, raw information isn't just, you know, correct information, it's just information, and I think they, you know, critically understand that whatever they're getting, they need to know that they can do a little more, I guess, research and a little -- or take a little step back and understand where is it coming from? Where is this information coming from, how can we validate this information, where are the sources from this information.
MENSCHERSo, you know, that's one of the things that they've taken a lot out of is deciphering, you know, what is good clear information and raw information.
MILLERWe had a case in New York, Kojo, where a student came back two years after taking our unit and told his teacher -- he was in college at the time, that his friends told him about a can't miss investment opportunity, and they were encouraging him to go in with them, and he remembered that a journalist had come in and said trust but verify. And so he did look into this and found out it did look too good to be true. His friends invested their money and they lost it. It turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, and he did not because of a lesson he took from the project.
NNAMDIThere's an assessment at the beginning the unit. Can you talk about that, and why it's important?
MILLERYes. We built an assessment right from the beginning, and we do surveys of our students before they begin the unit where we measure their knowledge, their attitudes and their behavior in a number of ways relating to news and information, and then we do a post-unit assessment after the unit where we go back and look at the same questions and add some additional questions as well. And we find that, you know, we move the needle quite a bit in each of these areas in terms of both what they learn and how their attitudes have evolved and some of their changes in behavior and the way that they consume information, what information they will share with others, and the kind of information that they produce as well.
NNAMDIHere is Jen in Germantown, Md. Jen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENGood morning, or good afternoon. Yes. I was a graduate student about nine years ago, and we had a research project to do, and professor announced that we would not be able to use any internet citations, and as you can imagine there was mass panic amongst the class. He did go on to explain that what he meant was that if it was a good reliable source, we should be able to find it. If it was a Washington Post article. We would not just -- we were not able to use just, you know, go to Google and do a search and cite whatever happened to come up.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. And that was nine years ago. One can imagine that today that will be multiplied at least threefold. We got an email from Marlene who says, "I'm always seeking relatively unbiased information from the left and the right. My problem is that I want to expand my own understanding of political events." I wouldn't say that's a problem. Anyway, Marlene says but she "cannot abide the ranting that accompanies the information. Where and how can we seek out relatively unbiased news?" How would you respond to that Alan Miller?
MILLERWell, I think first of all, one needs to distinguish -- we have a lesson working at information neighborhoods, and what is it you're looking at. Are you looking at news, are you looking at opinion, are you looking at advertising, are you looking at entertainment? And so, you know, presumably you want to look at news sources that are reputable, that are more dispassionate, that are focused on trying to get to the truth as opposed to persuade, and that are well-sourced, well-documented, presenting the information from multiple points of view, and presenting the information in a way that is intended to let the reader or the listener or the viewer make up his or her own mind.
MILLERAnd I think those are the kind of yardsticks that we look for students to apply, and that I think the general public should apply when they're looking for credible sources.
NNAMDIHere is Steven in Washington DC. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVENHi. This is a really interesting conversation and I've long been struggling to determine right and wrong reportage and everything else I hear in the media. So I have a question -- two closely related questions. First is, what are people supposed to think when they hear that the Koch brothers are trying to buy up a bunch of newspapers? And the second question is what do you think the Koch brothers are actually trying to gain by doing that.
NNAMDIOkay. Let me have Matea Gold respond.
GOLDOh, wow, that's a tough question for me to answer. I -- look there's a rumor out there that the Koch brothers are interested in buying the L.A. Times and other Tribune papers. I have not reported on it myself, so I really -- I can speak to the limit of my information which is pretty much nil. So I think in general there's a lot of interest among folks on all sides of the political spectrum to be engaged in the media, and we're increasingly seeing kind of new news organizations crop up that have very specific and kind of overt political agendas, and that's because a lot of people see an opportunity because there are folks out there who want news organizations that really confirm their political point of view.
GOLDSo I think that just kind of underscores the need to think critically about where you get your information.
NNAMDISteven, thank you very much for your call. Scott Menscher, we got on email from Mike in Silver Spring who says, "I use sources such as the BBC and al-Jazeera to help verify my domestic news. I've found that foreign news services -- news sources can give a unique perspective on American news, not necessarily as a primary source, but a secondary source with an outside, hopefully less bias point of view." What do you think of foreign sources for American news, Scott Menscher?
MENSCHERI think that's a very interesting question because a lot of my students, you know, they are first generational immigrants, and some of them do get their information from foreign sources. And, you know, they base their opinion on that information as well. And using it as another source to get a different perspective is certainly something that you, you know, is certainly something that's important. It's something that we don't really touch on in class that much, but certainly the students, you know, are privy to this, and you get a lot of information from other places, and certainly they get it from, you know, from home where their parents may not speak, you know, English, or English is their second language and they get it -- they get their information that way as well. So I think it's great as long as it's, you know, verifiable, and credible, and so forth.
NNAMDIOne of the fascinating things we've been able to do on this broadcast from time to time is talk with journalists in other countries about how news that we're being -- that we're reading or hearing about here is being reported there, and it is, as I said, a fascinating process. Here is John in Silver Spring, Md. John, your turn.
JOHNYeah. Hey, great. Thanks, Kojo. Yeah, two related things. The bias is the agenda setting that whether that topic is even in the paper or brought up in Congress or brought up anywhere. So who sets the agenda, whether it be corporations or whoever is -- I think that...
NNAMDISo you're saying that reporters may be part of an agenda without realizing it?
JOHNNot the reporters, whoever assigns the story, or whoever owns the paper, whether it be like -- I didn't know much about the worldwide slavery going on until a couple of years ago when the media started to cover it. It didn't just start happening a couple years ago. So stories that are sometimes too difficult, or too...
NNAMDIWell, one -- one of the things you're underscoring, I'm sure that Alan Miller would like to talk about, and that is the under resourcing of news organizations that has taken place as a result of what's going on in the news business makes it difficult to cover everything.
MILLERIt does. It's created a great challenge. I mean, it's always difficult to make judgments about what to cover in -- around the world, but particularly, you know, at a time when everybody's scrambling with fewer resources and foreign reporting, investigative reporting which I used to do or among the most costly and resource intensive. But again, one thing though is that we do have more sources of information that have cropped up, you know, through social media, through other means, and everybody now has access to all of the highest quality sources online, wasn't the case previously, they were more localized.
MILLERAnd so again, I think it put -- puts more focus on the consumer to search for those sources and search for those sources that are reputable to conform themselves.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Alan Miller is president and CEO of the News Literacy Project. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning former journalist. Alan, thank you for joining us.
MILLERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMatea Gold covers money and politics for the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. Matea, thank you for joining us.
GOLDA pleasure. Thanks so much.
NNAMDIAnd Scott Menscher teachers English and journalism at Edward R. Murrow High School in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Scott Menscher, thank you for joining us.
MENSCHERThank you very, very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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