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.