News Literacy Project teaches kids to sort media fact from fiction

July 28, 2013

Before he retired and moved back to Lexington, John Carroll spent five years as the top editor of the Los Angeles Times, leading a newsroom staff that won 13 Pulitzer prizes.

Websites, blogs, niche cable TV networks and talk radio shows were beginning to become significant players on the media landscape then, and Carroll noticed a phenomenon he hadn’t seen before in his long journalism career.

“We would get 1,000 emails, ‘Why didn’t you cover this? You’re covering up!'” he said. “I was just shocked at the misinformation that people were calling us with and emailing us with, and it was obviously coming out in mass form, because you would get 20 or 50 or 10,000 queries about certain things that were not true.”

The proliferation of new digital media and the changing nature of traditional media have resulted in many more sources for news, information and commentary. But some of what is masquerading as journalism is really propaganda, marketing, entertainment or simply nonsense.

How do you know what to trust? It is hard enough for adults; what about kids? One of Carroll’s Pulitzer-winning reporters decided to take on that issue.

Alan Miller, who had been an investigative reporter in the Times’ Washington bureau, left the newspaper in 2008 and started the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit educational organization. Carroll now serves as chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

nlpThe project developed a media literacy curriculum now used by teachers in middle and high schools in the New York, Washington and Chicago areas.

“We’re teaching critical thinking skills, so if you find out something online … it gives you critical tools for deciding whether this is a good source of information and whether something is true or not true,” Carroll said. “The way we teach it is fun. It has a lot of practical exercises.”

The News Literacy Project also has enlisted dozens of journalist volunteers — including big names such as Gwen Ifill of PBS, James Grimaldi of the Wall Street Journal and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times — to speak in schools.

The curriculum was designed with help from trained educators to be compatible with the new Common Core standards, said Miller, the project’s president and CEO. Independent assessments have measured student learning and helped refine the program’s effectiveness.

So far, nearly 10,000 students have taken the courses in those three metropolitan areas. The long-term goal is to reach every student in every American school, and a digital version of the curriculum is being developed and tested.

Miller said some videos and other resources, such as a “teachable moments” blog reacting to current events, will be made available free to schools everywhere in October on a redesigned version of the project’s website,

Plans call for a full, free digital curriculum to be offered online beginning in the fall of 2014. Teachers can use the lessons as a separate social studies unit, or integrate them into their other curricula.

So far, the project has been funded mostly with grants from media companies and major foundations. Plans call for additional revenue to come from supplementary services to schools in major metropolitan markets, Miller said.

The curriculum teaches students to think critically and question the sources, accuracy, fairness and truthfulness of information they encounter in all forms of media. They also are encouraged to get their news from a variety of sources.

Miller and Carroll said the courses have been popular with both teachers and students, and assessments show they have increased students’ interests in news and public affairs. The project has received little criticism from partisan or ideological groups, which frequently claim media bias left and right.

“We are rigorously nonpartisan,” Miller said.

Even more than that, Carroll said, “We encourage (students) to pay attention to media they disagree with, because another characteristic of the modern era of media is that people have created gated communities for themselves; they listen to only the things they want to hear. Sometimes the people they don’t want to hear have something significant to say.”

The project’s goal is to create not just more savvy media consumers, but more well-informed and engaged Americans.

“It’s important for this next generation to know how to make good use of the media and not to be used by the media,” Carroll said. “Our fondest hope is to reach every young person in America, and that as a result of that they will become more sophisticated citizens and voters and discourse about public issues will be improved.”

Follow the first Lexington mayor forum tonight

February 24, 2010

The four candidates for Lexington mayor will answer questions from a panel of journalists and community bloggers tonight from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the first major forum of the campaign.

The forum at Awesome Inc., a business incubator space at 348 East Main Street, will feature Mayor Jim Newberry, former Mayor Teresa Isaac, Vice Mayor Jim Gray and businessman Skip Horine. Seating — and standing room — is very limited, so here are the best ways to follow the action:

  • Watch streaming video at
  • I’m one of the panelists, and I will be sending Twitter updates at (While you’re there, click “follow”.) You can follow everyone’s Twitter feeds on the forum by using the hashtag #lexmayor.  I’ll also post assessments of the forum afterward on this blog.
  • Live blogging at
  • Reporter Andy Mead will write a news story for and Thursday’s Herald-Leader.
  • Read and watch what other panelists have to say about the forum.

Other journalists on the panel are WKYT’s Bill Bryant, Business Lexington’s Erik Carlson and the Kentucky Kernel’s Kenny Colston. Community bloggers are Joe Sonka, Bianca Spriggs and Steve Smith of UK College Republicans.

In addition to presenting the mayoral candidates’ views, the forum is an effort to show the variety of ways voters now get political news, information and commentary. The forum is being organized by Kakie Urch, a veteran journalist and assistant professor of new media at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications. It is sponsored by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at UK.

Media climate made suckers for Sparkman’s ruse

November 24, 2009

In a media environment where the public seems to prefer ideology, opinion, speculation and outrage over fact and reason, Bill Sparkman seemed to think he could find plenty of suckers.

He was right.

Authorities said Tuesday that their investigations had determined the part-time Clay County census worker committed suicide in an elaborate ruse to cash in two life insurance policies worth $600,000.

Sparkman wanted to make it look as if he was murdered by an anti-government zealot, authorities said. So he stripped naked, hanged himself from a tree, taped his Census badge to his head and wrote “FED” across his chest with a black marker.

News reports of Sparkman’s death in September were quickly seized upon by the national media’s talking heads. Not many facts were available, but that didn’t matter.

To left-wing bloggers and talk show hosts, this seemed like the perfect example of what can happen when right-wing bloggers and talk show hosts — not to mention public officials — preach anti-government rhetoric.

Even some reporters, who should have known better, used speculation about Sparkman’s death as an opportunity to exploit other themes and stereotypes. If it wasn’t anti-government crazies who killed Sparkman, maybe it was drug dealers or moonshiners.

The headline of the Sunday Herald in Scotland said: “U.S. Official killed in Kentucky — the land of Meth and Moonshine.” ABC News did a report about drugs in Appalachia that began by saying Sparkman’s death had “put renewed focus” on the subject, even though it cited no facts to support that claim.

It wasn’t just media people who jumped to conclusions.

In an op-ed piece published Oct. 19 in the Herald-Leader, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, John Gage, wrote:

“While the investigation into Sparkman’s death is not yet complete, I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that this occurred after an unprecedented wave of hate speech by public officials, media figures and leaders of extremist organizations, some aimed directly at the census and some targeting President Barack Obama and the government in general.”

Sparkman suckered them all. Police weren’t so easily fooled, but they had to spend a lot of time and taxpayers’ money to make sure the media swirl would be silenced.

These tempests seem to happen frequently now, and it’s easy to see why.

Bloggers and talk show hosts — who aren’t journalists, but advocates and entertainers unencumbered by journalistic ethics — know that the more outrageous their comments, the more attention they’ll get.

Even public officials are getting in on the act, saying things they know aren’t true in the hope of gaining political advantage.

They all do it because the public doesn’t hold them accountable for their words. And they’ll keep doing it until the public does.

Freedom of speech comes with responsibility. Words have consequences, because crazy people will act on them — and have.

One recent example was Jim David Adkisson, who walked into a Unitarian Church in Knoxville last year with a shotgun, killing two and wounding several others. He left behind a handwritten list of grievances that read like a right-wing talk-radio script.

Hateful and irresponsible speech comes from the political left as well as the right.

Until the public rediscovers the difference between news and entertainment, journalism and advocacy, people like Bill Sparkman will continue playing the talking heads for fools.

But the talking heads are not nearly as foolish as the people on both sides of the political spectrum who listen to their shows, read their blogs, buy their books and make them rich.

The American public will get the kind of media it demands. At the moment, that isn’t much.