Darragh Worland is the New York Program Manager and Vice President for Digital Media at the News Literacy Project (NLP). She recently spoke to Student Leadership Council member, Emily Bailin, about NLP’s history, how the organization is staying relevant in an increasingly evolving news and information landscape, and upcoming projects that we’ll want to keep our eyes on.
EB: To start off, can you talk a little bit about what the News Literacy Project is?
DW: The News Literacy Project (NLP) is a non-profit organization founded in 2008 by Alan Miller, a longtime investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times, mainly in their D.C. bureau. NLP’s goal is to teach students how to know what to believe in the digital age.
There’s a wealth of information coming at students in the digital age – much more than there ever was available at our fingertips when we were in high school or middle school. It’s increasingly incumbent on media consumers and news consumers to be able to discern the credibility of information in a variety of media and platforms. NLP aims to help students in middle school and high school gain the skills to be critical consumers and creators of information and news.
News literacy is a branch of the broader media literacy movement. It’s a newer movement, but rapidly gaining momentum. Educators, journalists, and people who care about information are increasingly becoming involved and the News Literacy Project is one of the forerunners of the news literacy movement.
When we say “news and information”, we don’t just mean news coming from legacy news organizations; we mean news and information available anywhere you can imagine: social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – anything on the internet, things that might come up on your newsfeed, a potential hoax, something that’s gone viral. It’s very hard today to distinguish when something is coming to you from a credible news organization or source; if the information is from a credible source but is not affiliated with a news organization; if it’s something deliberately designed to mislead or spread misinformation; or in the worst case, if it is potentially propaganda designed to incite some sort of reaction.
EB: How has NLP approached the rapidly changing landscape of news dissemination from print to digital media?
DW: I would say that the standards of quality journalism should be immutable. Regardless of the medium or platform used, the fundamental principles of good journalism should not change. We teach students to look for and identify the standards by asking questions: Are there multiple sources used? Is there a lack of bias or an attempted lack of bias? Are any conflicts of interest disclosed? Is it the story balanced? Is it fair? They’re the standards that we learn in journalism school and on the job on a routine basis – no matter how imperfect they are in practice. We certainly recognize that these are standards, but they are important critical questions for us all to ask. These principles can be applied to a broad range of media and platforms; so NLP’s never just been about the consumption of print journalism.
By virtue of where NLP staff comes from, we got legacy news organizations on board with us—NBC News, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post—in the very early stages. More recently, we’ve been conscious about expanding these partnerships. Vice and BuzzFeed just joined as participating news organizations. I just did an orientation with about 30 Huffington Post journalists a few weeks ago, who were really eager to get involved with NLP and come to the classroom and speak to students about the news they cover.
Last week, a journalist from the New York Times, who’s always worked on the digital side of The Times, came in to talk about “native advertising,” helping students to think about how to apply the standards of journalism to something like native advertising – what it is, how you spot it. That’s increasingly where lines are becoming blurred. We teach students to first identify the “information zone” of a piece of information. It used to be that you could identify when something was in the news zone versus the advertisement zone. If you open up a newspaper, it’s pretty clear. Advertorials used to have “Advertorial” written at the top of the page and even though it may have looked like the content of the newspaper, it was easy to differentiate. It’s a little trickier with online content.
In the lesson, we looked at three different examples of native advertising on news sites and how to spot it using a couple of techniques. We’re not saying it’s a bad thing; native advertising is a really important part of the business model for online journalism. But the onus is on the news consumer: Are they going to act on the information? Are they going to accept the information out of context? Are they going to understand that this information isn’t necessarily independent because it’s not produced by independent journalists? It’s something else that we teach students to consider: if there’s an advertiser involved, there’s an agenda, and how might that affect a story?
It’s as challenging for us to keep up with the pace of digital innovation as it is for anyone else out there. It’s something we’re constantly talking about and working on.
EB: What does NLP programming in-school and after school look like?
DW: Initially, the programming was designed to be a three-week drop-in unit. We mostly worked with teachers of English, social studies, government, and history. NLP would help teachers to integrate the drop-in unit into the existing curriculum and content. So we’ve had teachers who were doing a unit on genocide with their 10th graders and they might incorporate our core unit into their own unit. We might bring journalists in to talk specifically about how propaganda was used in the Rwandan genocide on the radio to disseminate information and incite the genocide.
Over time, the drop-in unit developed into a core unit of lessons built around 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?
An NLP staff member usually teaches the first lesson to get everyone situated and connect with the students and then the classroom teacher teaches the rest of the unit, in addition to visits from speakers in the industry to talk about their experiences. There are also a bunch of optional lessons teachers can choose from. Students always do a pre-unit and post-unit assessment so we can gauge how much the dial has moved in their knowledge, attitude, and behaviors around news literacy and news in general; a check for understanding; and a final project.
Our after school programming consists of an enhanced version of the in-school core unit, providing young people with more opportunities to engage in journalism projects and hear from various outside speakers in the news industry.
In 2012, we launched a digital unit consisting of five 45-minute lessons to be taught over the course of a week. The program, built in-house, is designed to be a blended learning experience. There are narrated videos hosted by our journalist fellows as “subject matter experts,” who speak directly to the students and take them through the lessons. There are formative assessment questions embedded throughout the unit, designed as a blended learning experience.
EB: What is NLP currently working on?
DW: In the 2013-2014 academic year, we worked with 82 schools, more than 100 teachers and 6,800 students and in the fall of 2014, we reached our 20,000th student since we started in 2008. We are reaching scale more rapidly, thanks to our digital unit. Our goal has been to create something much more robust that can match expectations of the e-learning environment. We’re currently working with two digital media companies to develop a much more comprehensive e-learning platform that will launch next fall. We’re designing stronger student analytics that will help teachers to see students’ progress and we’re incorporating a badging system into the unit, as well.
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NLP expanded to Houston as of this semester and is in talks about expanding to Los Angeles next.
The organization has also recently partnered with Facing History and Ourselves to design multimedia assets about Ferguson for a professional development unit.