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Stony Brook University

Alan C. Miller

Remarks by Alan C. Miller, Executive Director of the News Literacy Project

 

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be with such a distinguished group focused on this exciting, emerging field.

Kathy Kiely of USA Today told students participating in our project last week: “People who are citizens in an information age have got to learn how to be journalists.”

I began the News Literacy Project with two primary goals: to light a spark of interest in information that has a public purpose, and to give middle and high school students the tools to separate fact from fiction — enabling them to seek and prize unvarnished truth in whatever medium and on whatever platform they find it.

Our intent is to use the tools of journalism to get students to think more critically about the world around them and to become better-informed citizens.

With the support of the Knight and Ford Foundations, we’ve begun to achieve these goals by creating a new model that brings together journalists with history, government and English teachers to create mini-units in news literacy.

We have now enrolled more than 100 active and retired journalists as volunteer fellows. They include winners of journalism’s highest honors, book authors and network television correspondents. Many work for our initial participating news organizations: The New York Times, ABC News, USA Today, “60 Minutes,” The Washington Post, CNN and now NPR. We’re proud to have the Poynter Institute as our partner and fiscal agent as well.

We’ve developed an innovative curriculum that helps teachers prepare students for the journalists’ visits and the journalists prepare for their presentations.

The curriculum is designed around what we call our four pillars:

  • 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?

We give the teachers our materials in these binders, which we are continually revising and expanding. I invite all of you to take a look.

We start with a detailed set of essential questions, which you see on either side of me. We give each of our partner teachers a set to display in the classroom, as well as definitions of basic journalism terms and copies of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism.

We ask teachers to devote six to 10 classroom sessions to the project — divided between classes used to prepare students for the journalists’ visits and the journalists’ presentations. We tell teachers we can help them meet state and federal standards. And we select journalists for specific classes based on the subject area and students’ needs.

Before the units, we hold orientation and training meetings with teachers and journalists.We then provide the teachers with examples of the journalists’ work to share in advance — so students start consuming quality journalism and are ready to ask questions. We give the journalists our menu of 20 activities and ask them to brainstorm with our local coordinator and consult with the teacher.

We discourage the journalists from just telling war stories or lecturing. We want them to engage with students. We ask them to leave at least 10 minutes for Q&A. And we arrange for some to do multimedia presentations.

A project staffer attends each journalist’s classroom visit to coordinate, monitor and provide feedback. We’re a long way from career day-type appearances.

We find other ways to insinuate ourselves into a school’s DNA. We have copies of The New York Times delivered to a New York school and The Washington Post in Maryland. In one of our schools, journalist advisors will help start the first student newspaper.

We launched our initial pilot in a middle school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just six weeks ago. We’ve also started in a high school on the West Side of Manhattan. And we’ve been in a suburban high school in Bethesda, Md., the past two weeks. During a three-day span, we had 11 top journalists present to 19 sections of AP government classes and more than 250 students there.

We even have our own anthem: A former Los Angeles Times colleague wrote a news literacy song for us based on the journalistic axiom “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” We’ve built it into our curriculum and instructed teachers to ask students to do their own song, rap, video, essay or cartoon reflecting what they learned in the project. Students also receive their own graduation “Check it out” button.In our first weeks, the teachers have embraced the project, the journalists have been superb and the impact has been evident. I’d like to share a few early highlights:

  • The sight of 150 or so middle school students excitedly waving their hands to ask Soledad O’Brien questions during our kickoff event in Brooklyn;
  • High school students in Bethesda gasping when former LA Times foreign correspondent Tyler Marshall held up pieces of the Berlin Wall that he collected when he covered its fall;
  • Teachers and journalists engaging students in our activity on viral e-mail hoaxes about the Holocaust and Barack Obama and turning the students on to such myth-busting websites as Factcheck.org.

After her initial class last week with “60 Minutes” producers, a New York teacher wrote:

“The students were incredibly energized and inspired by the two journalists. The feedback I got was that they really enjoyed not only the presentation but the helpful ideas, suggestions and research tips. What an amazing start to this partnership!”We’re also partnering with Citizen Schools, a national model, in an after-school apprenticeship program in East Harlem. Five New York Times journalists and a former CNN financial editor are teaching middle school students about journalism and news literacy and helping them produce a mini-documentary exploring changes in their neighborhood.

Eventually, we intend to use new media platforms to share our curriculum and classroom experience to achieve wide national reach. And we welcome the prospect of partnering with journalism schools, too — hopefully, including some of you.

The video you’re about to see is an example of how we can reach out. It’s a coast-to-coast collaboration tapping volunteers from The New York Times and “60 Minutes” to shoot and edit, NPR to narrate, the Los Angeles Times for graphics and music, and ABC News for video footage.

In their efforts to hold on to their often-shrinking audiences, news organizations have tended to focus on the supply side. Our focus is on the demand side of the next generation.