Can a Democracy Survive without Reliable Information?

Our culture of news and information has never been richer or more democratic—anyone with an Internet connection can contribute to the public conversation and dig deeply into complex topics.
Citizens with little or no journalism training are now the gatekeepers of public information who readily create, publish and disseminate information. But expanding the concept of “journalism” to include cell-phone videos and social networking sites is a double-edged sword.
Developments that make this digital media reality so full of potential also make it fraught. That’s why news literacy training—as well as increasingly relevant youth media programs—are so vital.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 70% of respondents feel overwhelmed by the amount of news and information from different sources, and 72% think most sources of news are biased.
How do we know what information is trustworthy? How do we distinguish credible information from raw information, misinformation and propaganda? And if all information is viewed as created equal, why would anyone seek out quality journalism—especially if the public thinks it is all driven by commercial, political or personal bias anyway?
Because the focus on standardized testing in schools has tended to push civics or current events courses out of classrooms, schools today frequently do not address these questions. A consensus is developing both across the United States and in Europe that national efforts are needed to create a savvy, digital-age citizenry that is informed and engaged. The nascent news literacy movement has begun to meet this challenge.
The New Literacy Project
The News Literacy Project (NLP)—which has just completed its first full year in seven middle schools and high schools in New York City, Bethesda, MD, and Chicago, IL—is giving students the skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news and information in all its forms.
The project is creating partnerships between current and former journalists and social studies, history and English teachers. Its lessons are built on a foundation of four essential questions:
• Why does news matter?
• Why is the First Amendment protection of free speech so vital to American democracy?
• How can students know what to believe?
• What challenges and opportunities do the Internet and digital media create?
NLP has a growing cadre of more than 150 journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners, broadcast reporters and producers and book authors, who volunteer their time in the classroom. Many have been recruited through the project’s 15 participating news organizations. These include The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, CNN, NPR and ABC and NBC News. More than 75 journalists made classroom presentations in the past school year.
The journalists work with teachers on lesson plans and drop-in units that focus on the project’s major themes and engagement with the students. The material is presented through hands-on exercises, videos and the journalists’ own compelling stories. The curriculum also addresses such new media mainstays as viral e-mail, Google and other search engines, and Wikipedia.
Through NLP, participating teachers can request journalists whose expertise fits their curriculum; for example, a social studies teacher might seek a political reporter for a government class, while a colleague focusing on international issues might request a former foreign correspondent.
The project’s unit culminates with every student doing a project. Students have created their own newspapers (with a hard news story, a feature, an opinion piece and a review), produced video and broadcast reports and done videos, raps and online games about what they learned about news literacy and would like to teach others.
A video highlighting seven student projects at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., can be viewed at
The project aims to give students the critical thinking skills needed to be smarter and more frequent consumers and creators of credible information across all media and platforms. Students are learning how to distinguish verified information from raw messages, spin, gossip and opinion, and are being encouraged to seek news and information that will ultimately make them better-informed citizens and voters.
As Kathy Kiely, a USA Today reporter and one of our journalist fellows, tells students: People who are citizens in an information age have got to learn to think like journalists.
What Students Say
To better understand the impact of News Literacy Project (NLP), we interviewed one of our students, Courtney Griffin, who attends the Reavis School in Chicago, Illinois. Courtney is 14 and just graduated from the eighth grade. She completed the NLP’s unit as part of an extended day program. She and her classmates produced a 6 1/2-minute broadcast piece on peer pressure that Courtney narrated. The piece can be heard at
Courtney’s future plans are to graduate college and major in business. She sees the media as “a very significant thing to learn about at all ages because people should know what is occurring around their national community, moreover, the entire world.”
NLP: What did you think about the news before doing the News Literacy Project?
Courtney Griffin: I always thought the news was important, so I tried to keep up with everything. I watched the news a lot before the project because I knew it was important to know what was happening around me—in the community and also around the country.
NLP: What activities did you do with the News Literacy Project?
Griffin: We learned about the [News Literacy Project] word wall terms, and watched a video about what makes news interesting to people. We also explored a website about journalists who were executed, and talked about why someone would want to do this. We read some things about propaganda too, and looked at some examples of it.
NLP: What did you learn from them (ideas, words, concepts, etc.)?
Griffin: Besides propaganda, we talked and learned a lot about standards, sources, vetting, and the First Amendment—especially the freedom of the press and how that is needed so that people know what is really going on. We also learned about anonymous sources—that if someone does not want their name to be cited, the journalist will keep it furtive; but anonymous sources are not always trusted by others.
NLP: Which journalists came to speak to your class (include their news organizations) and what did they talk about?
Griffin: Natalie Moore (WBEZ), Lynette Kalsnes (WBEZ), and Irene Tostado (Univision). They taught us how to plan our radio sequences, how to do good interviews, write our narration, choose music, and they showed us examples of the work they do. Natalie played one of her reports about a “food desert” in Englewood, then explained how she did it and that it takes a lot of time to get the most interesting stuff on tape. Irene talked about propaganda and the limits to free speech. She also helped us format our radio piece and write the script for the narration using research we did on the Internet.
NLP: What were the most surprising, important or interesting things you learned from them?
Griffin: What was surprising was all the time it took to make a proper radio piece. Basically everything was interesting, but Natalie’s report really caught my attention. It was about neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores that sell fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables. These places are considered food deserts.
NLP: If you had to write a headline about the News Literacy Project at your school, what would it say?
Griffin: “After News Literacy Project Becomes Operative at Reavis, Students Want to Join” [Interviewer’s note: Griffin said that at the beginning of the after-school program very few students were interested NLP, but now people are interested to join next year. Her headline was to get more attention to the program, which was competing with other programs offered at the same time].
NLP: What kind of project did you do with the News Literacy Project?
Griffin: My group did a [radio] report on peer pressure because we thought that is what affects our students the most at Reavis. I was the narrator, and the job was very difficult because I had to continuously record pieces over and over again until they were right.
NLP: What did you learn from it?
Griffin: I learned that the majority of students who attend Reavis give in to peer pressure. But I also learned that not all peer pressure is bad—there is good peer pressure, too. Peer pressure to do the right things, like study.
NLP: How has your view of news and information changed as a result of the News Literacy Project? If so, how?
Griffin: At first, I thought that it wasn’t difficult to get accurate information about something that has occurred, but my opinions changed. For example, a news reporter has to check and see if there were witnesses when an event happened, and then they have to vet the witness to see if they are telling the truth. Now I have the experience of what news reporters have to go through to put a factual story together.
NLP: Has your news or information habits or practices (how you get news, what you believe, how you search for information on the Internet, or handle email and texting) changed as a result? If so, in what ways?
Griffin: Yes. I don’t forward emails anymore because if it’s false, I don’t want other people to believe it. I also check multiple sources for accurate information and read everything on the page. I learned that everything you receive is not factual—sometimes you have to check your sources instead of just listening to what one report says, unless it i
s from a known news station.
NLP: What do you think is the most important thing you gained from the News Literacy Project?
Griffin: The knowledge and language of journalism—it helps me understand how to handle information and resources.
NLP: What have you learned about news literacy that you think needs to be shared with other students?
Griffin: I learned that it is important to learn certain words and concepts so that [you can] understand what it is you are receiving [in the news].
The interview above with Courtney Griffin showcases the unique blend of news literacy concepts with creating media stories and news, helping her to “handle information and resources.” Investigating a story or topic always requires evaluating information and finding credible facts and sources. Youth media programs who support young people as they create their own stories and media might find the following tips useful to identify bias and fact check.
Tips: Evaluating Information
The following is reprinted from Edutopia magazine with permission from the NLP:
Think critically about news and information: Who created the information? Can you tell? For what purpose? Is the information verified? If so, how? What are the sources? What is the documentation? Is it presented in a way that is fair?
Ask yourself, “What is it that I’m viewing?:” Is it news? Opinion? Gossip? Raw information? Advertising? Propaganda? How can you tell?
Look for bias in news and information: Watch for loaded or inflammatory words. Does the author clearly have an agenda? Is more than one side of a story or argument presented? Is the subject of the report given a chance to respond?
View high-quality journalism as a benchmark against which to measure other sources of information: This step includes an independent and dispassionate search for reliable, accurate information, verification rather than assertion, a commitment to fairness, transparency about how information was obtained, and accountability when mistakes are made.
Beware of information found on Wikipedia; it can be changed by anyone at any time. This fact makes it uncertain that you are getting accurate information at a given moment. However, the primary sources linked in Wikipedia entries are a rich trove of reliable information.
Act responsibly with information you share and create: Exercise civility, respect, and care in your online communications; remember that information on the Internet lives forever and you have no control over who sees it or what they do with it. Do not expect emails to be private.
Do not allow yourself be fooled: Nobody likes to be taken in. If it sounds too good or too incredible to be true, it probably isn’t true. Good places to check urban myths are the Annenberg Policy Center’s and
Next Steps
As NLP and our colleagues begin to write the opening chapters of the national news literacy movement, youth media can join our efforts to expand within our current locations, to add schools in additional communities and to find ways to raise the profile and expand the reach of news literacy education nationwide.
Working in partnership is beneficial as both arenas increasingly rely on digital media in our programs. Like youth media, NLP hopes to engage students with their peers online, outside of our classrooms and around the country. We hope to provide a forum for students to share their work and become active news literacy watchdogs. (of news literacy.) We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with youth media programs in the field that provide outlets for students to develop their journalism and communication skills across myriad platforms.
NLP is also looking for creative partners in schools and communities nationwide. You can learn more about the project at If you are interested in becoming involved, please send an inquiry to or contact Kate Farrell, the project’s program coordinator.
Alan C. Miller is the founder and executive director of the News Literacy Project. He was an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times for 14 years and worked for the paper for 21 years. He won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2003.

Teaching Journalism and News Literacy

Not all school years are good news years for student journalists, but 1996 was a banner year in Palo Alto. In that year, the Palo Alto High School student newspaper The Campanile published an investigative story that made big local news and resulted in some significant resignations. The story was about a topic that most kids would find boring: a school board meeting.
However, it was anything but boring when the student reporter Ben Hewlett uncovered some shocking facts. Ben, in reviewing the minutes from the meeting, questioned why the board had reopened a closed board meeting at 10:30 pm, kept it open for only three minutes, and passed several resolutions in that three minute time period. All of the resolutions pertained to salary increases for district office administrators.
What was the board discussing in closed session for several hours prior to their reopening of the board meeting at 10:30 pm? Why was it passing financial resolutions with no prior discussion? When Ben looked carefully at the minutes, it looked like the board had been discussing financial issues behind closed doors which is a violation of the California Brown Act which requires public entities to have open meetings when discussing financial issues.
After further investigation, Ben wrote the story. The student newspaper The Campanile published it on page one. Within two days of the publication, the board held an emergency session and retracted the raises. Within two months, after the publication of a follow up investigative story, the superintendent resigned. Within a year, multiple other district officials had also resigned.
The day after the story was first published it was picked up by the the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News as well as on Channels 4 and 5. The local press, the Palo Alto Weekly and the SF Chronicle both wrote supporting editorials.
There are many stories like this from the Palo Alto student press. Six years prior to the 1996 school board story, back in 1990, The Campanile wrote an expose about the ineffectiveness of the counselor program at the school and within a few months it was dismantled and replaced with a “Teacher Adviser”program that still exists today, recognized nationally for its excellence.
In 1991, The Campanile students published a front page story alerting the community to the prevalence of unsafe sexual practices among students. That story became the basis for the formation of a required course teaching safe sex and other important social and health topics for all students in the Palo Alto School District.
Almost every year for the past 25 years, students have written one story per academic year that has had a profound impact on the community. The impact doesn’t stop with graduation. Many of these students have gone on to careers in the professional press. Just to name a few, Gady Epstein is head of the Forbes bureau in China; Ben Elgin is a lead reporter for Business Week; Rachel Metz writes for Associated Press: Tim Dickenson writes for Rolling Stone, among others. Several students have started magazines at Berkeley, UCLA, and other universities.
Students with non-journalistic careers have kept their journalist experiences with them. The overarching idea is to empower students through giving them the writing skills and tools to express their views and the platform to be heard so they can pursue any career they choose.
These stories show the positive power that the student press can have on students and the community when teachers and administrators respect students’ First Amendment Rights.
The philosophy behind the Palo Alto High School journalism program is that students learn by doing, not by watching. Like in youth media programs focused on print, journalism, radio, and web, students get passionate about journalism and writing when they are given the freedom to write about issues of importance to them. In the process, they learn how to write well and become more interested in the world around them and at the state, national and international level.

Today we have more than 500 students enrolled in journalism courses such as magazine journalism, newspaper journalism, broadcast journalism, web journalism and video production and beginning journalism. All the courses are computer-based and the publications are available online at and in print, recognized by National Scholastic Press and Columbia Scholastic Press.
I am a strong advocate of making programs like the Palo Alto student journalism program available to all students. Today we have a nation of citizen journalists who are blogging, posting, and commenting on sites all over the web. Students are posting to Facebook and Twitter, but in time they will be posting to other sites and writing blogs or contributing to citizen news sites.
From a teacher’s perspective, news literacy is helping students become more aware of current events and developing strong technical, writing and collaboration skills—essential for success in today’s world. But teachers must also be trained to incorporate news literacy teaching. Traditionally, education schools focus on the teaching of fiction and five paragraph essays and poetry, neglecting the teaching of non-fiction or journalistic writing styles. This issue needs to be addressed from many angles, but in college education programs specifically.
Ideally, news literacy should be a required course for all students in the U.S.—a course in which students not only learn how to write for a publication online or in hard copy, but also learn how to be critical readers of web-based materials. We don’t need anymore studies of how the schools are failing; we need resources to get students engaged in their learning and excited about the world around them. From a high school teacher’s perspective, journalism and youth media are doing just that.
Esther Wojcicki was awarded a Knight Foundation grant to coordinate the writing of a Web-News Literacy program that will be called 21st Century Literacy. The program will have a variety of modules that teachers can use either in an English class or a social studies class. The units can be used individually or as the core of a semester class. Some of the units will be novel based; others will be article based and some will be project based.

Access, Platforms & Partnerships: The Media Arts Collaborative Charter School

The Media Arts Collaborative Charter School (MACCS) in New Mexico provides an interesting case study for some of the perennial issues facing the youth media field today. Our school is built entirely around young people’s access to media and technology—we offer electives only in media arts. New Mexico high school students of diverse means, ethnicities, histories, cultures and perspectives travel to MACCS by choice, as a public school offering a unique educational experience.
At MACCS, students have at their disposal high-tech tools such as high-definition cameras, latest-version software for audio, film, television, web design, photography, and animation. Industry-experienced and highly qualified teachers work with Web 2.0 resources to bring about the accessibility for all students to become active learners, engaged in a rigorous and rich media arts education that wraps around all content curricula.
With a unique curricular focus, students are choosing a small learning environment over the traditional larger populated high school. Educating in the 21st Century with advanced technological resources, MACCS is striving to promote critical thinking and engage students’ voice in an academic, personal, and socially meaningful platform via student presentations and exhibitions of learning within media venues.
However, within this external, technologically gratifying, educational environment lies the challenge of students to become active media change agents for their causes, the community and for society at large, rather than simply invigorating their academics. Despite the good intentions of MACCS in providing media access in rural communities, balancing process and product is challenged with the variables that come with a school—the necessity of grades and the difficulty in cultivating in-school learning for a just cause or project.
MACCS & Challenges
Founded by industry professionals and creative dreamers, MACCS exists to promote authentic and intellectual student creativity within a college readiness environment offering Advance Placement and Dual Credit courses. MACCS’ goal is for graduates to be competitive hires for the film and media industries, or attend a post-secondary school based on the strength of their high school education in youth media.
As students prepare presentations of content knowledge utilizing a media format, such as an audio, televised or film piece, often their motivation of learning lies within the apparatus of technology to finally present their knowledge. They are striving to get a good academic grade, and don’t always take advantage of say, a captive public audience that youth media programs afford.
Although students are fully engaged and motivated in their learning of academic content and media arts classes, their global awareness of the business, monopolization and justice of media might be left to the status quo, with no emphasis or introduction given to media as a platform for access to voice, equity for discrimination, or civic engagement.
Likewise, educators and students alike can fall prey to the machined, automated capacity of the technology our school affords. And so, we developed a partnership with a local youth media and media literacy organization.
Partnering with Youth Media & Media Literacy
These challenges, within a school context, are just cause to promote and mandate media literacy instruction as a pre-requisite toour media-focused students. The New Mexico Media Literacy Project (NMMLP; Albuquerque, NM) provides foundations in learning, specifically related to media awareness and equity, that address many of these issues while staying current with media trends and topics in society at large.
By having access to a foundation in media literacy, students can find their inner strengths and explore the feelings and overall process of an original piece of work, develop critical thinking in order to ask rhetorical questions, and find the self-confidence to be able to talk about their creative processes. Without basic knowledge of media literacy, technology, use of hardware and software, students in rural areas have a disproportionate disadvantage to learning.
MACCS’ partnership with NMMLP will provide curriculum in Media Literacy and Media Arts to promote a higher order of academics, based on critical thinking, media equity and justice, authentic experience, and problem solving.
Through the partnership with NMMLP, students from myriad communities and backgrounds can discuss and analyze media marketing of values. Youth media organizations, such as the NMMLP, are vital advisors and trainers to schools like MACCS, offering key and invaluable insight.
The Local, On-Line Context
In general, teens have few places to go to analyze and critique the media. Social interaction sites such as Facebook and Twitter encourage teens to consume products or gossip rather than engage in critical thinking.
In addition, students in rural areas of NM don’t have access to the internet, much less democratic learning principles that help guide these resources. Their exposure to the internet is often limited and their opportunities for learning are much less than urban cities with technological advancements. Not only are these citizens ill-equipped for learning, they are disenfranchised and marginalized by their lack of access to express and publish their voice in an authentic media format.
In addition, as education is rapidly expanding into cyber-space and virtual worlds, students in rural locations are unfortunately still being left out of the opportunity to attend classes that could advance their awareness and aptitude for learning within cyber platforms, due to lack of broadband in their communities. It is imperative that rural students keep up in the 21st Century learning arena by having access to broadband that will facilitate online learning platforms.
As technology becomes more pervasive, the youth media field finds that many of the barriers they’ve long faced continue to exist—and, in fact, are getting more difficult to overcome, especially in rural areas. Youth media encourages young people to voice social issues, tell stories about overcoming personal experiences, and crafting thoughtful artistic self expression—but the field must toss a much wider net, and schools must join the effort.
Next Steps
As youth media programs have proven, project-based, thematic learning makes instruction authentic and real-world, providing meaningful connections for students. Schools must learn from youth media organizations, so that they steer from disjointed, meaningless instruction, which leads to a lack of motivation for learning overall.
MACCS hopes that students, within the school building or in cyber-space, will ultimately discover and realize the power of their voice, and be able to grow with appreciation of process over product into self-empowered, actualized human beings.
Youth media presents an opportunity to help students find their inner strengths and expose the feelings and overall process of an original piece of work, develop critical thinking in order to ask rhetorical questions, and find the self-confidence to be able to talk about their creative processes. Nurtured in this way, students can truly apply their learning in schools to the greater good, and have the desire to do so, beyond a final grade.
Born in South Korea and raised in New Mexico, Glenna Voigt is committed to activism that promotes intellectual development and global awareness. She is a life-long educator and learner and the principal at the first New Mexico state-chartered school, the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School (since it opened its doors in 2008).