Talking TV: News Literacy Project Targets A Threat To Democracy
National News Literacy Week arrives Jan. 22, and it has never been more urgently needed. Social media channels are flooded with mis- and disinformation. Justified or not, growing swaths of the electorate harbor sweeping distrust of TV news.
The News Literacy Project, which sponsors the week’s events, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to promoting news literacy as a foundational component of a healthy democracy. While much of its work is pivoted to classroom education, it also offers plenty of resources for adults to sharpen their critical media consumption.
In this Talking TV conversation, Peter Adams, the organization’s SVP of research and design, and Hannah Covington, its director of education design, underscore the urgency of news literacy efforts in a critical election year and share ideas that TV newsrooms can incorporate into their daily practice to foster more transparency, amplifying viewer awareness and trust.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: Next week — from Jan. 22nd to 26, specifically — will be the fifth annual National News Literacy Week. It’s organized by the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education organization devoted to advancing news literacy in America, thus making for a better-informed electorate and a stronger democracy.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, our weekly video podcast. Today, I’m with the News Literacy Project’s Peter Adams, SVP of research and design, and Hannah Covington, director of education design. We’ll talk about what the organization is doing pragmatically to promote news literacy with both students and the general news consuming populace. Perhaps even more important to the audience of this podcast, we’ll discuss what every TV news organization can do towards that goal, hopefully rebuilding trust with audiences in the process. We’ll be right back with that conversation.
Welcome Peter Adams and Hannah Covington, to Talking TV.
Hannah Covington: Thank you.
Peter Adams: Thanks, Michael.
It’s great to be with you. Peter, can we quantify how serious and pervasive a problem news literacy is in the U.S. — or illiteracy, as the case may be?
Peter Adams: It’s hard to quantify, but there are a lot of studies that suggest that the broader public doesn’t understand exactly what journalists do, how journalism works. And also, what constitutes credibility and what they should trust. And then, young people also struggle with just foundational skills: distinguishing ads from news, understanding the difference between opinion content and news, understanding the role that standards play at an organization and distinguishing standards-based news from outlets that are dedicated to commentary or might be state-sponsored propaganda outlets and such. So, we really try to move the dial across all of those categories, with all of those audiences, which is quite a big mission.
And media literacy curricula are sort of scattershot at best around the U.S., right?
Peter Adams: Media literacy requirements are scattershot at best. So, the way that states and districts and individual schools approach that work is a bit of a patchwork, right? There have been states like Illinois, where I’m based, that have gone so far as to require media literacy for high school graduation, but Illinois is an outlier in that regard. Other state legislatures have passed resolutions endorsing the importance of media literacy education.
And then there’s the whole question of what counts as media literacy education, whose resources and materials folks are turning to, and that’s something that we’re really trying to make a strong contribution to. We’re developing a clear framework for teaching news literacy so that educators and district officials and so on across the country can turn to our resources for the structure behind that curriculum when they either wish to teach it or a state legislator mandates that they do.
And for those who aren’t familiar with your organization, you’ve spoken a little bit to what you do there. What else do you work on throughout the year?
Peter Adams: So, NLP, year-round, we’re a national education nonprofit organization that’s really focused on just helping people and especially educators distinguish credible information from misinformation, and to help their students do that, to make them better informed, more engaged and more empowered participants in democracy.
So, we have a big focus on the school year since we focus on educators as a special segment of our audience, and a lot of back-to-school kickoff and focus in the fall, we promote our resources. We have a free online e-learning platform called the “checkology virtual classroom” that lives at checkology.org.
So, we work year-round to make sure that checkology is ready, and the most robust sort of collection of relevant news literacy resources for students to get back to school, and then we’re constantly refining that material and looking at our metrics throughout the year to see where we are moving the dial with students around important concepts and questions, and how we can do better.
Then we have a variety of public-facing programs, webinars, trainings, conversations, panel discussions, as well as email newsletters that go out and a podcast called “Is that a fact?” So, we get up to a lot with just about, you know, 50 people.
A lot of stuff. We’re coming up on the fifth annual News Literacy Week, as I said at the top. What are some of the more important or substantive elements of that?
Hannah Covington: Peter explained so many of our great resources, they are all free. You know, we are building a movement to create a more news literate America, and part of that work is just getting the word out about the role of news literacy in a democracy, the role of a free press in a democracy. And we have some great events throughout the week, some especially, I think, of interest to journalists, and you can check out all our events at newslit.org, look at the lineup and yeah, it’s going to be a great week of learning.
E.W. Scripps has been a big partner with this, but this issue is every news organization’s problem, and a week is hardly enough to handle the daily work that needs to be done as a kind of bulwark against the misinformation and disinformation that’s circulating now. And of course, all of this is especially consequential in a pivotal election year. So, let’s drill into some of the nuts-and-bolts things that any TV newsroom can do right now to address this. Hannah, let’s talk about some everyday practices that could be realistically adopted that could help.
Hannah Covington: I think the first thing to remember is that most people have never interacted with a journalist. I think Pew Research Center has reported it’s like 8 in 10 Americans have never been interviewed or spoken with a local journalist. So, we have to understand that it’s not a given that people understand how journalism works or how our reporting processes work, and it’s not fair for us to assume that they do.
I think journalists, you know, we’re in the business of sharing information, but we haven’t always done a great job about sharing information about how we do our work and why we should be trusted. I think that’s important to recognize up top, and there are lots of opportunities in everyday coverage to be transparent about your process and about how your newsroom is making decisions.
Tell me more about that transparency. How can they do that pragmatically?
Hannah Covington: Explaining to your audience about your coverage, what stories you’re choosing to cover and why they are newsworthy for that community, explaining to your audience what sources you’ve interviewed and why, and how you verified information that those sources have provided. If you have ever used anonymous sources in coverage, for instance, people don’t know how policies around anonymous sourcing works.
So, anytime you can be transparent and explain those policies and explain kind of the vetting and verification process that a newsroom uses before publishing or broadcasting information, I think that can go a long way for helping people learn what credibility looks like, so that they can recognize it in action.
Let’s take that a step further and a little bit more specifically. On whose shoulders should that fall in the in the space of a of a daily newscast, for instance? Should the anchor have more of a setup to frame out, OK, this is why we’ve chosen … not just to say here’s the headline, but to give you a little bit more context up at the top of a story? Where should the reporters step in and in the context of delivering something, especially on air, incorporate that explanation as a part of it? What would you advise there?
Hannah Covington: I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach here. I think any time it makes sense, and you see an opportunity where there is a gap in understanding between how your audience thinks, your journalism or your process works and how it actually works, that is a great opportunity for either on air, an explanation, in a story online, responding to readers in comments in stories, engaging with readers, making feedback really easy for audiences to give. How easy is it for a viewer to reach your journalist, to reach your newsroom with feedback and with, you know, story ideas?
You make a video series called News Goggles, which is addressed primarily to classrooms, but how does that tackle transparency and for whom?
Hannah Covington: News Goggles is an educational video series that aims to demystify the practice of journalism and humanize the practice of journalism. I think it’s easy for people to forget that journalists are people. We are members of these communities that we’re covering. We go to the grocery store, we go vote, we drop our kids off at school. We are members of this community, and civic information that we’re sharing is also of consequence to us.
So, News Goggles is an effort to kind of pull back the curtain on the reporting process and show people about how the news gets made. I think a lot of those decisions can feel mysterious. They can feel invisible if we don’t make an effort to be transparent about the work we’re doing.
Let’s talk about bad practices — and either of you can take this — but I wonder what practices should TV newsrooms in particular be cutting loose that get in the way of transparency or some bad habits that they probably should be breaking right now?
Peter Adams: I think an awareness of the public’s sensitivity to sensational news. I think it’s tempting to, you know, compete for attention, in this information environment, it’s harder than ever to get people’s attention. It’s harder than ever to hold people’s attention, and I think news organizations have to walk a really fine line between focusing on the news value in a story and maybe sensationalizing something.
I think the public, we know from public opinion polling, is very sensitive to negativity in news, even though a lot of highly newsworthy stories are inherently negative. They’re about things that are problems or threats or dangers, and those are important to cover. But again, I think that’s an opportunity to work in some explanation about the news value behind a story if it might be negative, but also just to keep that in mind and then to also keep representation in mind.
You know, I’m in Chicago, there are lots of conversations here about the way local news organizations cover crime and the way that communities that struggle more with crime might implicitly, you know, be “represented” by that body of story, body of coverage over time. So, it’s easy to lose sight of that. Any one individual story might be about this topic but taken together and really reflecting back on a year’s worth of coverage of a community and looking to see have we really fairly represented life in that community with this coverage as a body of work, I think is really important, too.
What about TV stations and TV news organizations’ relationships with schools? Sometimes they go in and meteorologists often will go and work with groups of kids. Do you have any advice with regards to furthering those relationships, especially in local markets?
Hannah Covington: We actually have a program where journalists can volunteer with us. It’s called the Newsroom to Classroom program, where we have a directory of journalist volunteers. We have a very large and active educator base that uses our resources, and they’re looking to connect with professional journalists, bring them into the classroom so that students can learn about how journalism works and the people behind the news. I would definitely recommend anyone who’s interested in helping advance news literacy among young people, sign up as a volunteer and offer to share your time and expertise with students.
Peter Adams: And also build trust, I would add too. You know, just that these are not like career day visits, even though a lot of kids will try to take it there, right? “How much do you earn?” Things like that. But, you know, we sort of develop a template for journalists to go in with a news literacy learning objective in mind and to really talk about how journalism works. Talk about credibility, talk about the role that information plays in our lives and in our communities. It has a great benefit to news orgs across the country that participate.
Is this directed to a particular age or grade level, or can it be kind of scaffolded in any direction?
Hannah Covington: Most of our student user base are middle school and high school. That’s kind of our core audience, but we have upper elementary students using our resources. We have college professors who have incorporated our resources into their classrooms, and have invited journalists to come in. So, it’s a pretty wide range.
You guys have thought of everything. It seems like, but I wonder if the scale of this problem is already so bad that one can only hope to put out a small amount of this fire. I mean, do news literacy efforts need to pivot towards younger people who are still more receptive? Or do you have any hope with adults who already have, whether their politics are far left or far right, have a sort of deeply entrenched sense of mistrust and even hostility?
Peter Adams: That’s a great question. Cynicism about information sources and particularly about mainstream news sources is a huge problem. I think the public trust numbers that we see in public opinion polling by Knight and Gallup and Edelman and others are worrisome. But most journalists would agree that they’re not all deserved and earned, right?
There’s a slice of that trust problem that I think news organizations have earned, you know, through various problems, like we talked about, sensationalism and other things. But “the media” is such a convenient target for political rhetoric and punditry, and that’s just ramped up over time, especially with the proliferation of social media and online sources and alternative media, and as the barriers to entry have fallen.
It just underscores the importance of talking about credibility indicators, right? Or to talk about the standards of quality journalism, say words like transparency and accountability in an interest of fairness. “We did this,” right? “This is how we verified this,” and underscore and maybe when others who are pushing dangerous misinformation get it wrong and how that’s kind of exploitative, right? It might feel good to believe in something false. But ultimately. It’s disempowering and kind of redirect someone’s, someone’s civic interest and civic voice. And so, I think just constantly sort of underscoring that for the public is key.
You just mentioned punditry, but of course, the media enables … punditry is coming from the media most of the time, too. So, you know, they’ve created a punditry class in this country, and they continue to perpetuate that.
Peter Adams: Some have, yeah sure. I think there are differences between outlets that are predominantly dedicated to punditry, some cable news organizations. I think those differ very strongly from our local news organizations that have … even if they have opinion content and commentary in their newscasts. I think there’s a big difference between that and the bluster you hear on, say, talk radio, and on some cable stations or certainly on live streams across the internet.
Hannah Covington: I just wanted to underscore the role that journalists have to play here in helping people navigate the news. Newsrooms and journalists have a really important role in helping make audiences more news literate and responding to the crisis of misinformation.
And I would be remiss if we didn’t shout out, there’s a great organization, Trusting News, for newsrooms who are looking for some actionable steps, tool kits. Joy Mayer at Trusting News has these great tool kits that include really practical advice and examples of how other newsrooms are building trust. And there’s actually an upcoming news kit focused specifically on news literacy. So, keep an eye out for that as well.
All right, we’re gonna have to hyperlink the hell out of this transcript to make sure we get all these organizations in there. What are the stakes this year, this moment, this election cycle, for this issue?
Peter Adams: I think they’re enormous. I mean, there are some 40 national elections around the world, and I think in every single instance, mis- and disinformation are a factor. Influence campaigns online are a factor. Generative AI is starting to show itself to be a real factor. It’s going to be challenging, I think for everyone, for voters and anyone just sort of tracking these elections and especially for journalists to respond to all of the misinformation, there’s enough work to cover an election in a careful, responsible way that that serves the audience and gives people what they need to know to make up their minds about candidates and their vote. But it’s all the more challenging when people are actively sort of flooding online spaces with misleading and false content. And the stakes are pretty hard to overstate this year.
Well, there you have it. Peter Adams and Hannah Covington are with the News Literacy Project, which is spearheading next week’s national News Literacy Week as well as ongoing efforts throughout the year. Thanks to both of you for being here.
Peter Adams: Thanks, Michael.
Hannah Covington: Thank you.
Talking TV, which is a steadfast exponent of news literacy, is back most Fridays with a new episode. All of our past episodes are transparently available at TVNewsCheck.com and on our YouTube channel, as well as an audio version that’s available most places you get your podcasts. Thanks for joining me on this one and see you next time.