Students Learn to Distinguish Fact from Opinion in News Know-how News Literacy Project


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In an extension of their role in promoting intellectual freedom and fostering democracy, libraries are playing a key part in making sure today's youth will be the informed citizens of tomorrow.

High school students are gaining valuable lessons in distinguishing fact from opinion, as they examine news coverage of a wide range of important issues through the News Know-how news literacy project.

Funded by the Open Society Foundations and administered by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), the 2012 News Know-how initiative trained students, grades 10-12, in 10 public libraries in basic news literacy skills. The skills enable them to analyze the factual content of media outlets and blogs, as well as to understand how corrections are made when a story is inaccurately reported.

Results have already been seen in such areas as Oak Park in suburban Chicago, where students used the Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library as their “newsroom,” 

Oak Park-River Forest High School student Nia Smith, one of the students in the Oak Park library newsroom, said News Know-how provided a chance “be more analytical when it comes to consuming news…I want to know how it gets regurgitated and why it gets reported,” she told the Oak Park-River Forest Patch.

Smith was one of nine teens involved. Their work began during a kickoff event, with News Literacy Project director Peter Adams presenting them with a hypothetical news story about a truck spilling an “unidentified green goo” into the sewer system. He asked them how they would gauge the value of statements from the chemical and hauling companies, eyewitness accounts, Twitter posts and YouTube videos.

Rebecca Teasdale, assistant director for public services and programs for the library, in video coverage of the kickoff by the Oak Park Wednesday Journal underlined the project’s significance, saying, “Teens, specifically, they are our future leaders, decision makers, and so we really want to position them well to be critical consumers and contributors.”

During the ensuing months, the students honed their skills by working in teams and tackling specific issues like politics and gun control and directly questioning information sources, often confronting them with factual errors.

Brian Pearlman, who focused on political blogs, said one of his team members contacted a Republican blog “where she found a lot of unsubstantiated remarks and comments that … were not facts, were just kind of slanderous.”

By the end of the project, the students reflected on what they had learned in a short video presentation. Lauren Mann, who belonged to a student team charged with the responsibility of contacting political campaigns during the recent election, said she concluded that “the media needs to be less like horserace journalism and more straight up about the issues.”

As a result of their work, team members were able to take a critical look at the coverage. Smith said she felt CNN covered the election in a more centrist way, while Pearlman said he felt that “PBS NewsHour” seemed more objective.

“News Know-how taught me that it’s a scientific process almost. You can break it down into these different criteria. I can distinguish things now that I wasn’t able to before,” Pearlman said.

“In today’s mass media environment it is critical that students are taught to analyze news coverage,” said Barbara Jones, director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Through the support of libraries as a trusted information resource, students will be encouraged to practice news literacy by engaging with the media in their communities. During the grant’s second year these students will extend what they learned to engage their entire community in discussing the news environment in the U.S. Libraries remain the key community location for this to take place.”

The News Know-how initiative recently selected three sites for 2013:

  • San Antonio Public Library System
  • San Jose Public Library
  • Iowa Library Services/State Library of Iowa

Each library will receive more than $50,000 in training and support.

For more information, contact Barbara M. Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, 50 E. Huron St., Chicago, Illinois 60611. She can also be reached by phone, (312) 280-4222, or by email, at bjones@ala.org.

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