Shari Raduazzo was piecing together some resources on how to spot fake news for the social media and journalism class she created at Seaford (New York) High School on Long Island. But she knew she wanted to create a more complete curriculum to prepare her students “to become smart consumers of news.”
Then she learned about the News Literacy Summer Academy, held in August at the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University in New York. An effort of the school’s Center for News Literacy, the three-day event brought together educators from more than 20 school districts in the state to learn from experts who have been equipping college students with news literacy skills for at least 10 years.
“These professors had spent years developing their curriculum and were so generous and willing to share everything with us,” Raduazzo said in an email. “I have modeled my course after Stony Brook’s with some modifications for high school students. I hope to make students more savvy to the ‘news’ that is out there.”
Long before there were click-bait “articles” with questionable claims and misleading headlines meant to sway voter opinion, the Center for News Literacy was teaching undergraduates how to navigate their way through the increasing array of media messages they encounter every day and judge the credibility of news reports and sources. But Howard Schneider, a former reporter and editor at Newsday, the dean of Stony Brook's School of Journalism and the founder of the center, said the faculty increasingly realized that students need to become news literate long before they enter college.
“We want to inoculate every 11-year-old in the country with some news literacy skills before they leave middle school,” he said in an interview. “To empower citizens to make good decisions for themselves, it’s got to start early. We can’t outsource this to tech and apps.”
For several years, the center offered summer institutes, which mostly attracted university-level educators and occasionally some high school teachers. This year, however, they replaced the institute with the academy. Schneider described the gathering as an effort to work on a deeper level with K-12 teachers and to create an ongoing partnership with schools and districts interested in building news literacy courses — not just integrating lessons into language and social studies classes.
“We needed to try now to attract educators from districts that were really interested in moving forward in a more systemic way,” he said.
More than skills
With false reports now able to reach millions of social media users in a matter of seconds, policymakers and educators have increased efforts to weave news literacy lessons into the curriculum and require such instruction to be integrated into the curriculum. Because of increasing legislative and policy efforts related to news literacy and the growing number of organizations offering professional development on the topic, news and media literacy was last year’s Education Dive: K-12 winner in the Dive Awards’ Obsession of the Year category.
Schneider noted that while New York state already has strong standards for students, addressing those goals as part of other core courses is an insufficient approach to ensuring students can put news literacy principles to use in their daily lives outside of the classroom.
“This is more an issue of how do you get it into schools when everyone is overwhelmed,” he said.
He said there is also a perception that if students learn critical thinking skills, they will apply them to news and information on social media, but he added that even the “smartest students do not transfer those skills.” He noted a 2016 study by researchers at the Stanford History Education Group who concluded despite their social media savviness, students often can’t discern the difference between advertisements, sponsored content and genuine news articles.
“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend,” the researchers wrote. “But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”
The challenge, however, is that a lot of schools can't take advantage of high-quality training programs, such as those provided by the center or the News Literacy Project, based in Chicago, said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, the executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE).
"The general sentiment is that there is a lot of incredible work being done in this space," she said in an interview. "To us, it's just a matter of how do we get these programs to more places. How do we get it to every student?"
She noted new efforts within the past year such as MediaWise, a Google-funded effort at the Florida-based Poynter Institute to train teens how to be fact-checkers. NAMLE, the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Local Media Association are also partners in the project, which will include a classroom curriculum.
She added that it's important for schools to give students opportunities to do media production through journalism and other classes. "That way they really understand the choices that are made in bringing us the news," she said. "When students are the editors and the writers, you’re teaching them vital skills."
Natasha Casey, a communications professor at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, agreed that K-12 teachers are under “extraordinary pressures,” but she suggested in an email that the summer academy “might signal a move away from” teaching news and media literacy as “merely a set of skills or a series of boxes to tick.” She notes, for example, the CRAAP test, which stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose.
“Skills are a good starting point,” she said, “but media/news literacy efforts and programs have to adopt a far broader approach so that students understand it is much more than just evaluating information based on a series of checks.”
'Not an add on'
Before they attended the academy, participants took the center’s GetNewsSmart tutorial, an online course in the center's Digital Resource Center that covers the basics of news literacy. And during the academy, the teachers and school leaders worked in groups based on grade level so they could get a better grasp on how to use the materials with their students.
Odelphia Pierre, principal of John H. Finley PS/MS 129 in Manhattan, said beyond incorporating "kid-friendly" resources, such as Scholastic News, into their lessons, the teachers at her school haven't focused on news literacy. But she attended the academy because she felt it would "be a great way to engage students in making decisions based upon facts, and to have the ability to question and determine the reliability of the sources," she said in an email. Her role as an administrator, she added, is to make sure teachers have the skills to teach students to be more discerning. "I would love to see my students become critical thinkers, question and dig deeper for answers as they become of age where they can participate in the democratic process," she said.
Her plans include forming a news literacy committee, using news literacy skills to strengthen the reporting conducted by the student council and the Radio Club, and to provide one news literacy class per week for 3rd through 8th grade.
Some high schools in New York are also moving well beyond incorporating news literacy into the curriculum by offering Stony Brook’s college-level news literacy course, which allows students to earn college credit as part of the center’s Accelerated College Education program. Additional high schools have also expressed interest, said Jonathan Anzalone, the center’s assistant director and a lecturer in the journalism school.
“That is the model that we’re looking for,” Schneider said, “a school that will not use it as an add on or just a patch, but will embrace it.”