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Illinois Is The First State To Have High Schools Teach News Literacy


Between the contentious 2020 presidential election and the pandemic, the past few years have been a perfect storm for misinformation on the internet. Illinois is leading the charge to fight that. It's the first state to require high schools to teach news literacy classes. Peter Medlin of member station WNIJ reports.

PETER MEDLIN, BYLINE: Here's an example of one startling experiment. Researchers showed an anonymous Facebook video to more than 3,000 American high schoolers. The video circulated before the 2016 presidential election and claimed to show people ballot stuffing during that year's primaries. They asked students a simple question. Is this strong evidence of voter fraud in the U.S.?

JOEL BREAKSTONE: Out of those more than 3,000 students, three figured out that, actually, the video came from Russia.

MEDLIN: That's Joel Breakstone, who heads the Stanford History Education Group, which conducted the study.

BREAKSTONE: There's a widespread misconception that because young people are adept at using digital devices, that they are also skilled at making sense of the information that those devices provide.

MEDLIN: Under the new curriculum, Illinois students will analyze news content across platforms. Breakstone's groups spent the last year working with ninth-graders at a suburban Chicago high school, integrating news literacy into subjects like geography and biology. It found that what helped students distinguish misinformation the most is something called lateral reading. That can be as simple as opening a new tab and leaving the post to find more about the source of information. It appears to be effective. Students reportedly got a lot better at spotting questionable sources. But this effort takes time and practice. Students say they often didn't see why, for example, a company writing about climate change receiving funding from the fossil fuel industry could skew the story. Many assume that if a social media influencer has tons of followers, it means they're trustworthy.

Students like this Naperville, Ill., freshman practiced by finding popular social media posts about nutrition and recording themselves fact-checking, like this.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: OK, so I found this post on Instagram. So as you can see right here, it says that she is a dietitian. And there's also another place right here that even shows, like, she has a diploma in clinical nutrition.

MEDLIN: For this to work, teachers also have to be media savvy. Students say they often struggle because the strategies teachers provide for evaluating sources can be outdated. Peter Adams heads the News Literacy Project, which trains teachers, provides lesson plans and sometimes brings them into newsrooms to show the reporting process. Adams says many teachers worry about being perceived as partisan.

PETER ADAMS: We really encourage folks to redirect that into looking at standards and practices and really comparing coverage.

MEDLIN: And teachers have to create a classroom experience where students feel comfortable talking about political issues, all while knowing how and when to push back on baseless conspiracy theories. Teacher Allie Niese has had to fight back on misinformation about the January 6 attack on the Capitol that students brought to her government class in Chicago.

ALLIE NIESE: We are not here to deny them the ability to engage in dialogues and discourse where they disagree, but there's a difference when the issues that we are bringing to the table and talking about are issues, are important.

MEDLIN: Niese likes to give examples of what journalism can do, citing history and the disclosure of things like the Pentagon Papers.

The Illinois law will go into effect with the 2022-'23 school year. And at this point, 14 other states have some media literacy standards already on the books.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Medlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Medlin
Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.