Years before presidential tweet storms or Macedonian internet rumor mongers, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alan Miller saw a need to help kids navigate the tsunami of information on their computer screens. His News Literacy Project helps young people across the country and around the world distinguish truth from fiction. “We were the antidote to fake news long before anybody coined that term,” he says.
As teachers gathered in Washington, D.C., last December, just over three weeks after Donald Trump won the presidential election, “fake news” was on their minds. A month earlier, BuzzFeed had broken a story that teens in Macedonia were earning thousands of dollars a month in ad revenue by filling the internet with false pro-Trump stories that spread like an oil spill across social media.
As companies like Facebook and Google grappled with how to respond, the viral lies kept coming. On Sunday, Dec. 4, the closing day for these educators at the National Council for the Social Studies annual convention, fake news made real news again. Five miles from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, a North Carolina man fired a gun inside Comet Ping Pong in Upper Northwest D.C., claiming he was “self-investigating” a rumor that the pizzeria was at the center of a bizarre child sex trafficking ring tied to Democratic Party leaders.
At the conference, Bethesda resident Alan Miller could tell that educators were focused on fake news like never before. In 2008, he established the News Literacy Project (NLP), a nonprofit dedicated to teaching middle and high school students to separate truth from fiction in what they saw and read. “Fake news” hadn’t entered the American lexicon. For the past few years, the organization had set up a booth at the conference, and while Miller had seen interest grow, he’d never seen this kind of enthusiasm.
“We had a lot of educators coming up to us and saying, ‘This is the most important thing we could be teaching right now,’ ” Miller recalls. By the end of the conference, NLP staffers had collected 108 business cards from teachers wanting to be on the mailing list—far more than
they’d ever collected in previous years.
“We’ve gone from being a voice in the wilderness to an answer to a prayer for many educators,” Miller says. “We were the antidote to fake news long before anybody coined that term. I do wish this problem was a little less urgent and that I looked a little less prescient, but we are where we are.”
Launched from Miller’s Bethesda basement, the News Literacy Project started as a live, in-classroom program in Montgomery County and a handful of other locations. It has grown to include a digital platform called “checkology”
that has allowed it to reach more classrooms than it could have using live instructors. Since checkology’s launch last year, NLP has registered more than 6,300 educators teaching more than 950,000 students in all 50 states and 53 other countries. From public schools where most students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches to elite private schools, the virtual classroom program is taking off. NLP has a staff of eight, split among the Washington region, New York and Chicago, and an annual budget of $1.7 million. NLP also will be targeting adults through a campaign in partnership with Facebook later this year.
Miller, 63, a native New Yorker, grew up in suburban Ridgewood, N.J., where he worked on his sixth-grade newspaper, launched a newspaper in his junior high and edited his high school paper. He worked as a state and county political reporter at the Times Union of Albany, N.Y., and as a political and state investigative reporter at The Record in Hackensack, N.J., before signing on with the Los Angeles Times. He was an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, where he spent 21 of his 29 years as a journalist. He and colleague Kevin Sack won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for their investigation of a military aircraft nicknamed “The Widow Maker,” which had been linked to the deaths of 45 pilots.
It was a challenging time for journalism. The internet was hacking away at newspapers’ profits. Newsroom budgets were shrinking. Reporting staffs were dwindling. Meanwhile, Miller saw a “tsunami of information” pouring out of the web. He had watched his young daughter try to figure out what she should believe. Some of it was reliable. Some wasn’t.
Miller’s daughter was a sixth-grader at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in 2006 when he was invited to speak in front of 175 of her schoolmates about what he did for a living. The children seemed engaged, and Miller was moved. This is a long way from investigative reporting, he thought as he left the school, but if a lot of journalists came and brought their experiences to bear, it could be meaningful.
That evening, his daughter brought home 175 handwritten thank-you notes from her schoolmates. “I could see what had resonated and what had connected,” he says. Some students had seen a History Channel piece on his Pulitzer-winning investigation. Some said his presentation motivated them to read the newspaper. (“Allof the newspaper,” one wrote, “not just the comics.”) Some said it inspired them to be writers. “I might even want to become a journalist,” one note read.
Maybe, Miller thought, it’s time for a career change.
Two weeks later he was speaking in front of an audience again. This time it was at his alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. It was Miller’s 30-year class reunion and he was on a panel about the future of journalism. The moderator was another Wesleyan grad, Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a prominent funder of journalism education. After the panel session, Ibargüen emailed Miller to thank him, and Miller shot back a reply. He wanted to bounce an idea off him. Could a program aimed at teaching young people about the news be successful?
That idea would put Miller in touch with Eric Newton, who was the foundation’s vice president for journalism at the time. The foundation had already started a program at Stony Brook University on Long Island to teach college students something it was calling “news literacy.” Over the next year and a half, Miller worked with Newton to craft a program to teach the same concepts to middle and high school students. When it was ready, Knight offered a $250,000 founding grant for Miller to start his new nonprofit.
In February 2008, Miller took a leave of absence from the Times. A new owner, the Tribune Co., had bought the newspaper and set about slashing the budget. Fearing his days as an investigative reporter might be ending, he soon put in for a buyout instead. By July, the Times started cutting 150 newsroom jobs, and Miller was off on what he had come to see as a new journalistic mission.
“It felt like a second calling to me,” he says. “Everything since has only reinforced that sense.”
This project wasn’t supposed to be a glorified career day, and Miller knew he’d need more than talented journalists standing in front of classes. He had no staff, no lesson plan and no experience in education when he turned to Alan Goodwin, the principal at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. “[Miller] explained the program, and I thought it was really helpful for students,” Goodwin says. “The emphasis was going to be on how do you know what news sources to trust? Who knew that that would be such a timely topic?”
Miller recalls Goodwin telling him: “Make us your guinea pig.”
The program targeted grades six through 12 and a range of subject areas—social studies, history, government and English. Miller wanted to find out where it would work best—in the classroom, at after-school programs in the inner city, or in suburban schools. “We discovered that we could make it work in all these places,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that it has worked every single time.”
Miller learned along the way, evolving the lessons based on teacher and student feedback. For example, Miller says, “We found that we were not getting the impact we wanted on building appreciation for the watchdog role of journalism in a democracy, so we improved that lesson and moved the dial more on that front.”
Miller enlisted reporters, writers and editors who lived or grew up in the Bethesda area, including NBC News Channel reporter Tracie Potts, Sheryl Stolberg of The New York Times, and then-political analyst and editor at large for Time magazine Mark Halperin (a Whitman graduate).
NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling, a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring and a resident of Chevy Chase who put his kids through county schools, was among the first journalists to participate. An early-morning Whitman class impressed him with probing questions. “Even back then, it was clear to anyone who was interested in facts that there were websites that had lies or distortions or partial facts, and then there were websites that had facts, and it was hard for people to tell them apart,” he says.
Still, the program was only accessible in the Washington area and New York. By 2009, NLP had expanded to Chicago, but if the program was going to get into classrooms across the country, Miller realized he couldn’t rely on bringing in prominent journalists in person. He’d have to use the same technologies he was helping students scrutinize.
In 2012, NLP started a digital platform in Chicago, and then expanded it to New York and the D.C. region. In May 2016, NLP quietly released checkology, a broader digital program that teachers anywhere could use. This virtual classroom platform was in place by the time of the 2016 election, and Miller’s work caught the attention of NPR, which aired a story in December on an Arlington school that was using checkology called “The Classroom Where Fake News Fails.” It went viral—at least among some educators. Teachers started signing on to use checkology in China, Turkey, Mexico, Ukraine and across the United States. An educator in Macedonia is signed up to use the platform, Miller says.
The attention brought unsolicited donations from all corners of the U.S. In the past, most donations came from people NLP staffers had courted. Suddenly, small donations—$20, $50—were pouring in from people NLP never contacted, from areas where it had never been active. One donor contributed $10,000. “Between the election and the end of the year we received over 200 of these donations,” Miller says. “That essentially more than doubled the number of annual donations.”
NLP reached 25,000 students in the program’s first eight years, Miller says. He’d hoped checkology would reach 100,000 students and every U.S. state in its first year. Because checkology is a free program, NLP measures checkology’s potential reach by the number of students that teachers who register for it say they teach. Today that number is about 950,000, including 3,400 in Montgomery County public schools, private schools, a church and other settings.
In the 2016-17 school year, 10 live classroom and after-school programs were in place, in schools including Montgomery Blair and others in D.C., Virginia and New York. As checkology expands, most of these programs are being phased out.
Vickie Adamson, who heads the English department at Montgomery Blair, has incorporated elements of NLP in the curriculum of her journalism classes for several years, used the checkology platform and had working journalists—including Miller—speak to her students.
“When students say, ‘Hey, I can see myself doing that,’ I think that is where they connect,” Adamson says. “These top prizewinning, recognized journalists stand out in their field, and the students can see that right away when they come in. The students are just filled with so much awe and admiration.”
NLP’s core elements haven’t changed much since its early days, Miller says. Instead of live speakers, a dozen working journalists and experts—from BuzzFeed and Bloomberg to The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal—teach the lessons virtually with videos and readings. They lead online lessons about topics such as fact-checking and algorithm-induced “filter bubbles,” and avoid using the phrase “fake news.”
Teachers can lead students through the exercises from start to finish or incorporate pieces of them into lesson plans. Modules cover topics such as filtering news and information, exercising civic freedoms and navigating today’s information landscape. Students take quizzes, share their thoughts and earn badges as they progress.
NLP is about to extend its reach beyond kids. In January, Facebook announced a collaboration with the organization on a public service announcement (PSA) campaign that’s expected to appear this year in the news feeds of 8 million users. Using Facebook’s sophisticated algorithms, the campaign is targeting a very specific audience: adults over 40 who regularly use Facebook to consume and share dubious content. The PSAs will offer tips on distinguishing between fake stories and real journalism, and a quiz to test news literacy skills. In April, NLP joined the News Integrity Initiative, a global consortium spearheaded by Facebook to improve trust in journalism.
“We’re trying to give [news consumers] resources to help them distinguish quality journalism from the spin, speculation and falsehood that are in today’s media ecosystem,” says Elis Estrada, who was the Washington program manager for NLP before leaving in April to work with a PBS NewsHour education program.
When people post to social media, they become creators, Estrada says, and that comes with responsibilities. “Everybody can be their own publisher these days, whether it’s Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook, and students have to be really careful about the information they’re sharing,” she says. “That’s how virtual rumors spread really quickly.”