Tom Eblen

Inspired by a former Lexington editor, group will work to fight ‘fake news’

The non-profit, non-partisan News Literacy Project developed the checkology virtual classroom to teach students in grades 8-12 how to evaluate the reliability of information they find on the Internet.
The non-profit, non-partisan News Literacy Project developed the checkology virtual classroom to teach students in grades 8-12 how to evaluate the reliability of information they find on the Internet.

With all of the political propaganda, marketing spin, conspiracy theories and hoaxes on the Internet, how does anyone know what to believe?

And if it is hard for adults, what about kids?

Those concerns led Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, to launch the News Literacy Project in 2008 with help from his former editor, John S. Carroll of Lexington.

Now, with social media “fake” news on everyone’s mind, the non-profit, non-partisan education organization has gone viral.

“We’ve gone from being a voice in the wilderness to an answer to a prayer for many,” Miller said.

Facebook and the News Literacy Project announced a partnership Wednesday to create a public service advertising campaign to reach the social media site’s 1.8 billion users. NLP also has a grant to raise the national profile of its online curriculum for middle and high school students with pilot projects in Lexington and four other cities.

NLP’s goal is to help people, especially young people, develop the critical-thinking skills and knowledge to evaluate information they find on the Internet for accuracy, credibility and bias. It also teaches them First Amendment concepts of free speech and free press.

“Our goal is not to tell students what to trust,” Miller said, “but to give them the tools to make those judgments themselves.”

Miller said NLP is scrupulously non-partisan, and its governing board includes both Republicans and Democrats.

NLP’s work caught the attention of Facebook, which has been under fire for allowing its site to be exploited by purveyors of “fake” news and propaganda. In an effort to improve its own credibility, the company launched The Facebook Journalism Project, led by Campbell Brown, a former television journalist for NBC and CNN.

Part of that effort will involve working with NLP to promote news literacy. In addition to the public service advertising campaign, Miller said the partnership will include financial support and technical assistance in developing an app to help people evaluate the accuracy and credibility of online information.

It is too soon to say how the app might work, Miller said. But the goal would be similar to the “checkology virtual classroom” online platform that NLP has developed along with other programs over the past eight years with help from journalists and educators. It is now being used by more than 2,000 teachers with about 220,000 students in all 50 states.

Checkology has 12 interactive lessons led by journalists for students in grades 8-12. In addition to being taught critical-thinking skills and evaluation techniques, they learn such things as how Internet algorithms and “viral” rumors work. Students can even use the software to compare similar news stories from different sources for such things as documentation and bias, and there are online discussion platforms teachers can use with their classes. Plans call for additional lessons to be developed over time.

Checkology is now available for free to any school teacher, although NLP may in the future charge for “premium” features such as individual student logins, self-pacing and online assessments, Miller said.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in October gave the NLP $225,000 to expand its reach in Lexington and four other cities where the Knight brothers once operated newspapers: Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia and Charlotte.

“Right now our goal in Lexington and nationally is to get this into the hands of as many educators and as many students as quickly as possible,” Miller said. “There is clearly an urgent need for this skill.”

The grant will help NLP promote its curriculum, work with school districts to set up pilot projects and do professional development with teachers about news literacy.

“One of the reasons I chose Lexington,” in the grant application, Miller said, was the help and inspiration he received from Carroll, a founding NLP board member and chairman for four years.

Carroll is a former Herald-Leader editor who moved back to Lexington after serving as the top editor at the Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times. Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2003 while working for Carroll, who died in 2015 at age 73.

“I just felt this was another way to honor John’s memory and commitment to the project and to the field,” Miller said. “I knew it was something he would find really gratifying.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen