There is no cause that is more essential to journalism—and to democracy—than the free flow of facts. In creating the First Amendment, the founding fathers understood that the choices citizens make—who to vote for, which policies to support or oppose—can only be as good as the information on which the decisions are based.
Enter the News Literacy Project (NLP) newslit.org., a national nonprofit dedicated to teaching and promoting news literacy. Its nonpartisan mission—to ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds know how to identify credible news and other information—empowering them to have an equal opportunity to participate in civic life, their communities and the country— is more critical than ever to our lives in the United States. NLP wants to make sure that today’s students are schooled not in what to think, but how to think.
A glimpse of today’s conversations on social media and the mis-and disinformation driving many “news” stories makes this need evident.
Long before the phrase “fake news” entered the lexicon, NLP in 2008 started this mission. Realizing that even kids in good schools often couldn’t distinguish fact from opinion and rumor, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Alan C. Miller founded NLP on a small budget that has received increasing support from a wide range of media, business and academic outlets including Apple, Microsoft, the Knight Foundation, the E.W. Scripps Company and The New York Times, among many others.
This year, NLP’s mission has become a movement, jet-fueled by a new $10 million commitment by Melanie and Richard Lindquist. The Lundquists are co-founders of the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and Melanie is also a member of USC President Carol Folt’s Leadership Council.
NLP, based in Washington, D.C., already collaborates with schools in New York City, Chicago, Dallas, Birmingham, Nashville and Indianapolis. Now the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school district in the nation, has started using NLP’s digital learning platform, called Checkology©, with sixth to 12th graders.
Checkology is a virtual classroom, a free online platform with 19 engaging, authoritative video lessons that focus on subjects such as how to discern news from other kinds of content. It is designed to help students appreciate the role of the First Amendment and a free press, and demystify how journalists do their work, while teaching students how to apply critical-thinking skills to evaluate and seek credible news and other information. Checkology, through online and teacher discussion materials, shows students how to separate fact from fiction and how to know what to trust, share and act on — and what to dismiss and debunk.
The best examples of NLP tools and how they work can be found on its site, newslit.org/about/mission. An effective video shows a teen awakening in the morning, checking her phone, sharing something that looks interesting, something that is wrong and potentially dangerous. Soon, a better-informed friend warns her about sharing bad info and lets her know there’s an easy way to check out whether information found on social media is actually true
In its Viral Rumor Rundown, the newslit.org site keeps updated examples of interest to anyone who comes across stories of suspicious origin. Recent posts took a step-by-step approach to show how anyone could determine which recent stories making the rounds were false. After going through a checklist that scrutinized assumptions, sourcing and images, users can reach their own conclusion: “Viral List of Banned Books in Florida Isn’t Real” and “No, the Simpsons Did Not Predict Monkeypox”
CEO Chuck Salter, a constitutional lawyer, is also a former teacher (“the hardest job I’ve ever had”). With the support of the Lundquist donation and others that will follow, he said, NLP hopes to mirror previous successful public education efforts that targeted common bad behaviors as uncool and unhealthy: smoking, drunken driving and littering.
The goal is to support an educational system schooled in facts and bolster a culture that honors cool-headed rational discourse. Right now, that may feel like a tall order—but it’s required for the healthy, functioning democracy Americans to which Americans continue to aspire.