Web technologies have brought financial challenges and a tidal wave of media competitors to traditional news organizations in recent decades. Now a non-profit that has been championing newspapers since 1946 is using technology to bolster demand for high-quality journalism.
The American Press Institute is working with educational technology company Newsela to teach school children how to tell the difference between reliable news accounts and inaccurate, incomplete, or biased stories.
The project dovetails with New York-based Newsela’s core goals—to help young students learn to read by offering them multiple versions of news stories that have been re-written (by Newsela editors and software) so they can be understood at various different reading levels. The stories come under licensing agreements with a range of publications, including the Associated Press, the Dallas Morning News, Tribune News Services, and the Los Angeles Times.
Under the new partnership with the Press Institute, the students will also see questions pop up to help them gauge the value of what they’re reading. In a set of Newsela articles about the current presidential election, the young readers will be asked questions such as, “Who and what are the sources cited, and why should I believe them?”
These are the kinds of questions the Press Institute poses in its ongoing youth news literacy programs for schools and in resources for families. But the Newsela software automatically brings the questions front and center as the child reads online, Press Institute executive director Tom Rosenstiel says.
“It’s sort of a dream of mine of how to use the technology to bring these questions literally to whatever content you’re consuming,” Rosenstiel says.
The question feature can also be used by teachers to prompt classroom discussions about the reliability of sources; the evidence presented to support statements; missing facts; and the differences between straight news, opinion, and advertising.
Anyone can read Newsela stories online. Teachers can formally incorporate the content into their lesson plans; Newsela provides them with a media literacy toolkit. In a related project geared to the presidential campaign, Newsela is holding an online student election that allows kids enrolled in a Newsela class to cast ballots for their preferred candidates.
Rosenstiel sees a double-barreled benefit in the Newsela partnership. School kids may become more savvy as readers and as citizens, but they’ll also become more discriminating as news consumers, he says. The long-term result may be a larger paying audience for quality journalism in an era when print ad revenues have shrunk and digital advertising is too scanty to support many robust news organizations.
Neither Rosenstiel nor the Press Institute is hostile to all the changes that technology has wrought on the media landscape. The organization offers publishers its data analytics software, Metrics for News, to help them track story hits and tailor their coverage to match the key interests of their communities. It also encourages reporting teams to use social media, blogs, listening tours, and other means to draw readers into an ongoing conversation.
But the institute’s core mission is also to preserve certain longstanding principles associated with professional journalism. In brief, these standards hold that a journalist serves the interests of the public and not of others, such as advertisers, political parties, activist groups, or other organizations. As defined by the Press Institute, a journalist uses professional methods to verify the facts they present, and to root out bias so that readers can make informed decisions as they participate in society.
Rosenstiel has been at the heart of the discussion about news standards and media evolution for years, as a former media writer for the Los Angeles Times, founder and longtime director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
Rosenstiel sees an urgent need for news literacy programs for children because they now have such an enormous flood of media content to wade through and assess.
Compare that to past decades, when news flowed through a limited number of television networks and news publications that served as gatekeepers, filtering out unsubstantiated reports, Rosenstiel says. There was little need for a news literacy curriculum in schools, because people had to adapt themselves to the way news was presented in newspapers and TV or radio broadcasts.
“If you wanted to understand it, you had to learn how to read it,” Rosenstiel says.
Since the 1970’s, media technology has been offering people an escalating number of options to absorb news—or to ignore it in favor of entertainment. The expansion began with cable TV and video recorders, well before digital media and the Internet transformed communications even further, he says.
That’s why Rosenstiel wants to influence students while they’re “educable and in a controlled environment” at school.
“They’re the generation who have grown up with a command of their media consumption to a much greater degree,” Rosenstiel says. By encouraging students to think critically about election coverage, the Newsela partnership could help raise the level of public discussion about politics—and improve journalism to boot, he says.
“The most important way to influence the quality of discourse is to elevate the demand side for news,” Rosenstiel says. “If members of the community can discern what news is reliable and when it’s not, and filter out unsubstantiated statements, then you’re going to get better journalism.”
Literate readers will notice if they can’t find the sources relied on by the writer of an article. This will put pressure on media of all kinds, but it’s a problem technology can help solve, Rosenstiel says. Cheap Web-based data storage makes it possible for media organizations to publish pages of footnotes, giving the sources behind each story, he says.
Rosenstiel is optimistic that young digital natives can appreciate quality news coverage and think critically about it. While the rise of social media initially led to worries that Millennials had little appetite for news, Rosenstiel says young adults are absorbing significant amounts of news—much of it filtered through social media channels.
The “fretters” were also wrong when they predicted that attentions spans were dropping, Rosenstiel says. While young adults are now reading on the small screens of smartphones instead of on laptops or PC’s, he says, they’re reading long-form journalism stories on their mobile devices. Rosenstiel wants to build on these trends for the next generation.
“I think they can become discriminating consumers of news if there is a curriculum,” Rosenstiel says.