What we learned teaching news literacy during the infodemic
Editor’s note: The following is the second in a series of guest blog posts from news literacy educator and journalist Theresa Walsh Giarrusso.
In November 2019, I launched a News and Social Media Literacy Pilot Program in the Montclair School District, a racially and socio-economically diverse district about 12 miles from New York City. The pilot project was funded by the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence.
During the three trials, I worked with about 300 students in grades seven through 10. After eight 45-minute virtual lessons, we took our high school cohort from Ds on the pretest to high Bs — and one class achieved a low-A average on the post-test. The average group improvement was 32%.
You can read a full summary of the project here.
Why was it so successful? The lessons engaged the students because they saw the connection to their lives. They were able to understand and quickly improve their research, digital and critical thinking skills.
But I was surprised by what they didn’t know. I started this project thinking it was mostly about teaching students how news is produced and presented to help them identify misinformation. But where we ended up, and what I’ve come to realize, is the lessons are much broader. The students need to understand their digital footprints, how the internet works, how this technology not only affects their lives but their government and the world around them. These aren’t just academic skills, but life skills to navigate our information landscape and successfully participate in society.
I don’t believe state education standards have caught up to technology and how students need to operate in the real world. States and school systems need to update their curriculum to include these 21st century skills so our students will know how to search the internet for scholarships for college, how to figure out if a medical claim is actually true and if their country’s leaders are telling the truth. They need to understand how media, digital information and power interact so they can become engaged citizens in the future.
What students need to know — but don’t
Below is a breakdown of the common student struggles I saw during the three trials.
Digital footprint: The students did not know how the internet works and how their digital footprint affects what they are served up online. This included how ads follow users based on your searching and where you have visited, and how a company can pay to place its website or product higher on Google’s search results.
Searching for information: Students were unsure how to choose the best search terms, and they aren’t being taught Google Search Operators to help with their search. In fact, they expected their question to pop up literally in a box at the top of the results page. If they don’t get a box, many of them think the question is unsolvable!
Assessing credible sources: The students were using outdated methods to determine a website’s credibility. They used site endings and are going to the “about” page to read about a website. It did not occur to them to get off the site to investigate the author of the story, the publisher, the sources and studies mentioned. They aren’t using lateral reading or SIFT because they aren’t being taught the techniques. Additionally, the students did not always recognize the difference between a regular person publishing something and a news organization that is following standards of quality journalism. They are not being taught how to look for credible sources within a story, documentation being linked to in the story, balance and context.
The political spectrum: Many of the students didn’t have a strong grasp on the political spectrum. It’s important to understand because so many of the problems with news today result from partisanship.
Satire: The middle schoolers had a hard time understanding satire. I showed them a meme where the Count from “Sesame Street” was on a cable news show talking about the Iowa Caucus. They didn’t get it. There is so much context they have to understand about an event or an issue to get the joke. Satire is included in the News Literacy’s Project list as a type of misinformation so it is important for them to understand it as a concept.
It’s not just about what the students know: I came into these classrooms as a subject matter expert. I quickly realized our teachers do not have the current best practices for digital research skills — but they want to know! We need to give teachers the skills and help them incorporate them into the lessons they are already teaching. It’s also a good idea to find the helpers. Our librarians are great allies, however, due to budget cuts, many are not getting valuable time with the students for lessons. They are interested in these new best practices but need time with the students to introduce or reinforce the skills.
Our middle school has strong teachers for digital photography and video editing classes. These classes gave the students a much better grasp on understanding how and why manipulated photos and videos are being made. These digital art creation skills turned out to be important to their digital information literacy.
A year later: How a pilot teacher integrated the lessons
Despite being assigned four new courses to teach and all virtual learning until May, Nicholas Stambuli managed to integrate some of the news literacy lessons from our pilot project into his classes this year at Montclair High School.
The experienced ELA teacher of nine years points out that in New Jersey research writing is not currently a part of most curriculum so that made it challenging. He says, due to testing concerns, narrative, expository, and argumentative writing take priority in his curriculum. However,” I am currently working on revising some of the units (especially 10th grade) and will be trying to insert a research unit into it as more of a priority, especially since it is such an important 21st century skill,” Stambuli says in an email.
But he did find ways to integrate the lessons and skills.
“SIFT and the lateral reading technique were both incorporated throughout the year, sometimes as planned lessons but more often as an impromptu side-note based on class conversation, current events, and the lesson,” he says. “It fit in well with controversial texts and having students research events in the novel. It especially went well in the social justice classes I was teaching.”
Stambuli says he incorporated lateral reading any time students did research. “They were basically forced this year to have multiple tabs open in order to do remote learning, so I just taught them how to do that strategically,” he says.
He also used the other methods we discussed in the pilot program, like reverse image searching and deep/cheap fakes, as they came up naturally during classroom discussion. He points to the pandemic, issues in Montclair with school reopenings and all the other world events ripe with “fake” news.
He says the material resonated with students because it had real-world applications for them. “Everything was best blended in by introducing it in small amounts to the current units and prefacing it as a relevant life skill rather than using it as a unit in and of itself,” he says. The constant reinforcement helps.
Stambuli offers two pieces of advice for teachers looking to incorporate news literacy lessons into their own classrooms.
- Start the unit at the beginning of the year to set a precedent. “If they learn about misinformation in September and how to do lateral reading, then the learning can be much more fluid in continuing throughout the year, which increases retention, as opposed to a single isolated unit,” he explains.
- “The material works really really well with mini-lessons. Short lessons about a key topic at the start of the week or when they arise are easier to implement than a larger unit,” he says. He recommends having prepared handouts and short presentations he can quickly use when necessary.
Theresa Walsh Giarrusso is a journalist of 26 years and former associate journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. She was the parenting blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nine years. She has been an editor and writer for magazines, newspapers, digital media and social media.