Teaching kids to read critically
Journalist Alan Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting, but he’s equally proud of a second award for his second career.
Last month, Miller, 67, won a 2022 AARP Purpose Prize, which celebrates people 50 and older who use their life experience to solve social problems. The prize recognizes his work on the News Literacy Project, which he founded in 2008.
The project aims to teach students how to evaluate what they read, with a view to distinguishing true information from misinformation.
Starting with in-person lessons at a Brooklyn high school, the project has evolved into an online platform with video lessons, a curriculum and materials for teachers.
Now with a staff of almost 30, the News Literacy Project has taught hundreds of thousands of students how to separate fact from fiction.
“To me, journalism had always been more of a calling than a career,” he said in an interview with the Beacon.
After retiring from the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times 12 years ago, Miller said, “I moved into another realm that I believed was so critical — not only for education and for sustaining quality journalism, but also for maintaining a strong democracy and creating informed and engaged citizens.
“What I’ve done with the News Literacy Project is a second kind of calling.”
“The existential threat to democracy from misinformation is so urgent,” Miller added. “Most people don’t want to mislead friends and family, and most people don’t want to contribute to what may be an emerging misinformation dystopia,” he said.
Often, though, they’re not aware that they’re perpetuating fake news — hence the need to teach people how to spot misinformation.
Idea sparked at Bethesda school
Miller got the idea for the News Literacy Project in 2006, when he spoke to 175 of his daughter Julia’s classmates at Pyle Middle School in Bethesda about “what I did as a journalist and why it mattered.”
At that time, he was “already concerned about two things,” he said. “One was how Julia, who was 12, was assessing the value of this tsunami of sources of information of such varying credibility, accountability and transparency. And this was, by the way, just at the advent of the iPhone and Facebook and so on.
“I was also concerned about the wrenching transformation that was underway in the news business amid the collapse of the business model for journalism, and whether there will continue to be an appreciation for the kind of work that I and many others have dedicated ourselves to.”
As he left the school that morning, he said, an idea came to him as he walked across the parking lot: “If a lot of journalists brought their expertise and experience to bear in America’s classrooms, it could be truly meaningful.”
After the speech, he received a hug from his daughter and 175 thank-you notes, which they read aloud together.
From the handwritten comments, he said, “I could see where I had connected and what had resonated with the students. And that was the seed that subsequently grew into the News Literacy Project.”
A lucky encounter with fate
Miller got the project off the ground thanks to a lucky encounter at his 30th college reunion at Wesleyan University. At that event, he spoke on a panel about the future of journalism, and the panel’s moderator worked at the Knight Foundation, which later provided a $250,000 founding grant.
“Essentially, I was launched. There’s a Yiddish term, bashert, which means fate. To me, the synchronicity of these events was really bashert. This second calling was meant to be, and this opportunity sort of found me.”
But Miller, a reporter for 25 years, didn’t know how to start the project. So, he said, “I put my journalism skills to use. I reported the hell out of it. You find the people with the greatest expertise from whom you can learn.”
Miller wasn’t just an average reporter; he was an award-winning journalist with more than a dozen journalism awards. He and a Los Angeles Times colleague won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their four-part series on a flawed military aircraft.
In early 2008, Miller retired from the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, and by September had launched the News Literacy Project’s website.
Its classroom program began in February 2009 in three schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Bethesda (Walt Whitman High School). In the project’s first eight years, journalists taught more than 750 lessons, mostly in person.
“That classroom program really was our laboratory and our showcase,” Miller said.
To reach more students, the News Literacy Project “raised the money to build a cutting edge, highly engaging [online] platform to move to scale,” he said.
Just in time for 2016 election
That new platform, named Checkology.org, launched in May 2016. The timing couldn’t have been better.
“Then the 2016 election happened, and everybody saw [the misinformation that] was happening on the social media platforms really for the first time,” Miller said. (In one case, two Russian-linked Facebook groups organized competing protests in Houston in 2016.)
“There was such a heightened concern then that it felt a little bit like we went from being a voice in the wilderness to an answer to a prayer.
Suddenly, we had educators saying, ‘This is the most important thing I could teach.’ Then the platform really took off.”
Silicon Valley companies began to invest in the News Literacy Project, and the media began to cover its work, too. Soon, educators in 110 countries signed up to use Checkology.
Today, Checkology is being used in 50 U.S. school districts in “red states and blue states and purple states,” Miller said. “We are rigorously nonpartisan.”
To date, 300,000 students have completed one or more lessons on the platform —108,000 in the past year alone.
In our area, the News Literacy Project has partnerships with Arlington Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools, in Virginia, and Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.
They also organize “NewsLitCamps” for teachers — a one-day virtual or in-person visit to a newsroom. “The educators get a chance to really engage with [journalists] and ask questions,” Miller said.
Since April 2017, the project has hosted 30 NewsLitCamps at 33 news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, CNN, NPR and the Wall Street Journal. About 2,500 educators have attended the camps, working with 272 journalists.
New lessons coming
This spring, the project will unveil five new Checkology Virtual Classroom lessons: on editorial cartoons, understanding data, evaluating science-based claims, history of harm and distrust, and recognizing medical misinformation.
“We feel a great sense of responsibility to move as quickly as we can to expand our reach and impact,” Miller said.
The News Literacy Project does more than just educate teachers and students. It has a website for the public, a free newsletter, a monthly podcast, and an app called Informable, which is a game that lets people of all ages test their news literacy skills.
Miller’s daughter now has a daughter of her own, age 7. As a grandfather, Miller said, “I’m trying to give her some basic news literacy skills, but I’m marveling at how much more fraught and challenging that information landscape is now for her than it was at the time that I went to speak to Julia and her classmates 15 years ago.”
“There’s just so much more disinformation out there,” he said, especially during the pandemic.
“The threat is so much more urgent now — to not only our public life, but to our public health.”