SAN FRANCISCO — Thursday morning, like any other at the San Francisco Chronicle, the newspaper’s editors gathered around to discuss the news of the day, what they’ll cover and where it will run in Friday’s edition.
But unlike most days, the editors held their meeting not in a conference room but on a stage before 55 teachers and librarians. They heard which stories performed well yesterday—there’s been a lot of interest in the San Francisco Giants’ new manager, for instance—as well as what news might resonate tomorrow. How much attention should they give to the long-stalled proposal for another bridge over the Bay?
The educators were there not for a sneak peek at the next day’s headlines, but to learn about the business of news—how it’s produced, and how decisions are made. More importantly, they sought ways to bring those lessons back to their classroom, along with ideas on how to talk to students about making sense of the world.
The Chronicle was the latest participant of a series of events nationwide organized by the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that helps educators teach students how to examine news and information with a more critical eye in the age of memes, Photoshop and “deepfakes.”
Also listen to our podcast interview with Peter Adams, senior vice president for education at the News Literacy Project.
The news literacy camps, or NewsLitCamps, brought together reporters, columnists and editors to educate the educators on how they determine what’s newsworthy to report on, and how they gather information. Staffers with the News Literacy Project also showed off ways to spot manufactured images and videos, and how to verify online information for accuracy.
“Helping people understand what we do in journalism and newspapers is critical, especially in this environment where people question the news more than ever and what is trustworthy in the media landscape,” says Jill Tucker, the Chronicle’s K-12 education reporter who has been there for over 13 years, in a follow-up interview.
She lives the generational gap that many educators may experience in their classroom: Her own 18-year-old son doesn’t read newspapers and instead relies on YouTube for news, she says.
The Chronicle hosts visits for local teachers and students on a regular basis. This event was also just as much an opportunity for the newspaper as for the educators—Tucker solicited invitations to sit in on classrooms and observe classes. Chronicle opinions editor John Diaz asked educators to suggest students to submit articles for the newspaper, as a way to give them professional writing experience. And editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper told the educators the newspaper is always in search of new readers.
Audrey Cooper, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, speaks to teachers at a session on news media bias. (Photo credit: Wade Tyler Millward)
The nonprofit News Literacy Project was launched in 2008 by an investigative reporter at The Los Angeles Times, and has since received financial support from a long list of individuals, companies, foundations and news outlets.
It wasn’t until April 2017 that it began hosting these workshops in newsrooms. The idea came from a Chicago Public Schools official who thought it would be a neat professional development opportunity for teachers, according to John Silva, director of education at the News Literacy Project. Silva’s team contacted The Chicago Sun-Times newspaper and made it happen.
Since then, the organization has held 17 NewsLitCamps—this one in San Francisco being the latest.
“We always try to partner with a specific newsroom and a specific school district, and we try, whenever possible, to do it in the newsroom,” says Silva. “We want to get teachers out of the classroom environment.” His team tapped the San Francisco Unified School District and Berkeley Unified School District to invite their teachers, and also help spread the word to other districts. Several teachers said the event counted as credit for their professional development.
The day’s program included a session on how reporters write about race, injustice and inequality. Another covered digital forensics and telltale signs of fabricated images. (Reverse Google image searches are handy.) Throughout the day, teachers learned about ways to detect common forms of misinformation, such as pictures of high-profile people juxtaposed with quotes they never said.
Alison Schmidt, a history teacher in the West Contra Costa Unified School District about 20 miles northeast of San Francisco, says a Chronicle columnist gave her tips on talking to students about news events involving racial relations. She also realized she should search sites other than National Public Radio for when looking for articles to use in class.
Her colleague, Pedro Uriostegue, says the event offered helpful ways to show his students that not everything they see online is trustworthy. “Kids are on their phones all day and looking at memes,” says Uriostegue, who’s taught for about five years. “They think some of that is factual. They have to verify everything.”
Persuading newsrooms to host NewsLitCamps has gotten easier over time, according to Silva. “Editorial boards are realizing that they need to do more to make sure the public understands how journalism happens.” Sometimes they even chip in—The Chronicle paid for the day’s food and refreshments.
One challenge that has emerged for the Project’s work is how different parts of the country respond to different media brands, which sometimes shape the conversations that happen at these camps. For example, while Fox News is considered anathema to many people in the liberal-leaning Bay Area, it is viewed as a fair and balanced source in many other parts of the country.
“Some teachers are nervous about approaching the idea of news literacy because there's so much of the phenomenon today where, ‘I only get my news from X and I will not get my news from Y.’ And X and Y are different in different parts of the country,” says Silva.
Educators should dissuade students from evaluating the quality of information based on how it aligns with their beliefs, Silva says. Instead of using a phrase like “fake news,” educators should explicitly show how to spot misinformation.
Still, “there’s also a sort of political pressure within the administration in the school district, and sometimes that comes from the parents,” he adds. “So news literacy can be a very tricky thing for teachers and advocates.”