Journalism 101 – Weld for Birmingham (blog)

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“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

–Thomas Jefferson

Every year, a number of organizations dedicated to the mission of promoting a free press participate in Newspapers in Education Week, an observance designed to connect students and their schools with their local newspapers. NIEOnline describes it as “a cooperative effort of newspapers working with local schools to encourage the use of the newspaper as a tool for instruction and to promote literacy.”

That brings up a point. There’s “literacy” in the general sense — basically knowing how to read with comprehension — and the newspaper has traditionally been an excellent tool in promoting that. But then there’s “news literacy” (or media literacy), understanding how to read the news with understanding. The latter is becoming more and more important in 2017. This is, of course, an era where “fake news” is easy to find, and, for some, hard to define, thanks to some creatively dishonest repurposing of the term which is now being applied to any news the White House doesn’t like.

The reality of and the original meaning of “fake news” refers to information which is presented as news — it may even resemble news in format — but which isn’t verifiably true, vetted, unbiased, and offered by trustworthy sources.

Newspapers in Education Week seems to be a good time to note that it’s hard to overstate the importance of teachers and other experienced news readers in influencing young people to recognize the comparative value of real news over the fake. Teachers can help students understand how to read the news, from any source, and determine how to properly evaluate it. Many are undertaking to do that.

News organizations have a role to play in that endeavor, too.

For instance, the American Press Institute (API) recommends that young people ask the following six basic questions of any news-like content they consume:

  1. Type: What kind of content is this — news, opinion, advertising or something else?
  2. Source: Who and what are the sources cited, and why should I believe them?
  3. Evidence: What’s the evidence and how was it vetted?
  4. Interpretation: Is the main point of the piece backed up by the evidence?
  5. Completeness: What’s missing?
  6. Knowledge: Is there an issue here that I want to learn more about, and where can I do that?

Besides the work it is doing on its own, API is working with other organizations, including WAN-IFRA — the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers — which offers a website filled with information to help “newspapers, parents and teachers work together to create a literate, civic-minded new generation of readers all over the world.” Check out their “Reality Check on ‘Fake News’” here.

API also works with Newsela, an education technology start-up offering a substantial menu of news-related resources for teachers (newsela.com) to help increase literacy and news literacy among students.

Many other news organizations, likewise, are offering suggestions to help readers of all ages understand what “news” is worthy of trust. For instance, the News Literacy Project and its Checkology.org virtual classroom have published a PDF called “Ten Questions for Fake News Detection.

Newsliteracyproject.org, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan national education nonprofit that works with educators and journalists to teach middle school and high school students how to sort fact from fiction in the digital age,” provides other resources teachers can use to help students understand how to read the news and know it when they see it. The organization was founded by former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner Alan Miller. Miller told PBS Newshour in 2011 that in a “hyperlinked information age” in which “a lie can get all the way around the world and back while truth is still getting out of bed,” (he was paraphrasing Mark Twain) that the onus for determining which parts of the news to believe is shifting to the consumer.

Still, the consumer doesn’t have to do it alone and without help. Another example: FactCheck.org in November provided a series of guidelines, “How to Spot Fake News,” which we shared with readers of Weld’s print edition. The suggestions, which factcheck.org explains in detail, include considering the source, reading beyond the headline, checking the author, determining what actually supports the claims in the story, checking the date and determining whether the item is supposed to be a joke, satire, or spoof.

Many of the organizations mentioned above work together on projects, or provide links to each other, increasing accessibility to content and resources that can help bring the news to students in a meaningful way, literally giving educators the tools to make news understandable.

That’s increasingly important. Kids are bombarded by news and news-like content daily, through Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and an unending series of organizations flinging information onto the internet, sometimes without properly checking that information, other times, deliberately aiming to deceive the public. And the fact is that kids are interested in the news, which puts them as much at risk as any other readers.

If you think it strange, that notion that kids are interested in news, consider just a couple of incidents involving the weekly paper you are reading right now.

A couple of years ago, we discovered that Weld was being read frequently by the teenagers who visit a boys and girls club in west Birmingham for their after-school enrichment programs. More recently a different group of students came from Birmingham’s Central Park community to watch one of our staff meetings and talk to us about writing.

Neither of those things would have been likely without our offering content that appealed to younger readers, and just as important, to the teachers who guided them to it. That also points to the simple fact that for educators to guide young readers to understanding the news, teachers must first want to understand it themselves.

So in a week dedicated to connecting newspapers to education, here’s one lesson for all of us to learn: No matter how fast and relentlessly information is put in front of us, each of us needs to accept the hard job of taking responsibility, not just for consuming what’s presented as news, but for understanding it for what it is.

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