The Evolution of Lessons in News Literacy

Teaching news literacy is one of librarians' most important responsibilities, and the instruction has evolved with the changes in where and how students get their news.

This spring, 11th graders at New Canaan (CT) High School are working on an inquiry task that challenges them to find a thread that runs between an event from 1968 event and a comparable occurrence in 2020-2021. For example, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies pulled the “Censored Eleven” cartoons from syndication in 1968 because of their offensive depiction of ethnic stereotypes, just as the Dr. Suess Enterprises is sunsetting six titles for similar reasons.

Partnering with our students’ classroom teachers, my librarian partner and I have been helping students locate news articles and primary sources that document their 1960s event. For some, this has been difficult. Scouring through our historical newspaper database has produced meager results. Typically, a high school junior might decide to “switch topic” under these circumstances, but instead, we have noticed a promising development. Kids who can’t find news articles covering their 1960s subject are shifting their attention to a comparison of legacy journalism to its 21st-century counterpart.

Our students were astounded to find only passing mention of the 1968 decision to stop airing the 11 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. In fact, they were somewhat outraged. The omission seemed unimaginable in contrast to the firestorm that erupted last month over the Seuss decision. For them, it illustrated the “gatekeeper” model of journalism that was prevalent before the Internet. Our students were shown the power of contemporary citizen journalism, which democratizes media, but paradoxically, without news literacy, can also threaten democracy.

This paradox is why teaching news literacy is one of librarians’ most important responsibilities. A decade ago, the Common Core State Standards compelled me to rethink my role. Until then, I had thought myself a conduit between my students and the information they sought. But the Common Core, which stipulated that students needed to master inquiry, close reading, and to publish their work, empowered me to focus my instructional energy on inquiry and close reading. At that time, citizen journalism was (almost) an innocuous novelty, comparatively speaking. Since then, it has transformed the information landscape, lifting the so-called “gates” of a long-gone era in journalism, and inundating our feeds with information, both true and untrue. 

In 2013, I wrote lessons for Rosen Publishing’s Digital Literacy Database, and those evolved into an ambitious instructional program we rolled out at New Canaan High School. One of the lessons challenged students to decide which journalist would be best qualified to provide evidence in answer to a research question about a court decision. Students read Michael Barbaro and Adam Liptak bios on The New York Times’s journalist profiles page, and selected a writer based on his description. At the time, Barbaro—who is now the host of that paper's "The Daily" podcast—was writing a lot of celebrity and politician profiles. The lesson taught students that journalists are not a monolith—there are many kinds of journalists and many kinds of news articles. Knowing the difference is key to understanding how to use news for research.

We used to focus much of our news literacy instruction on newspaper journalism, teaching students to distinguish between editorials, op-ed columns, letters to the editor, and reportage. While much has changed, distinguishing traditional reportage from all other journalism is still a useful skill. Consider the platforms from which students now get their news, and how many other types of information are mixed in with their news feeds, including ad content, click bait, infotainment, and personal messages from friends and strangers alike. Being able to extract an “old fashioned” news article from all that noise is a talent we need to cultivate. It is the first step to finding truth.

Close reading is another important skill. In 2018,  Jacquelyn Whiting and I wrote a book, News Literacy: The Keys to Combating Fake News (Libraries Unlimited). We pooled the lessons we’d developed independently over the years and framed them with a narrative. We quickly discovered that we had one exercise in common—basically, a Mad Libs activity for close reading. It’s officially called a Cloze exercise, and it used to feature prominently on Connecticut’s standardized tests. Cloze exercises are effective in teaching students how to analyze language to infer author purpose. Consider the variation in meaning between the following versions of the same paragraph in which we replaced four words.

The medical professionals treating these patients are ______, caring for the patients while at the same time _______ the coronavirus. They are making extremely ______ determinations that no one else has ______ before.


The medical professionals treating these patients are monsters, caring for the patients while at the same time spreading the coronavirus. They are making extremely dangerous determinations that no one else has initiated before.


The medical professionals treating these patients are doctors, caring for the patients while at the same time tracking the coronavirus. They are making extremely vague determinations that no one else has known before.


The medical professionals treating these patients are heroes, caring for the patients while at the same time studying the coronavirus. They are making extremely useful determinations that no one else has made before.

We struggle to get our student researchers to look past the top five Google results. They seldom accept that there is anything of value “below the fold.” As a result, students investigating British imperialism in Egypt will happily use a 500-word reference article found on theclassroom.com, written by a person with an undergraduate degree in history who once traveled to Egypt as a tourist. While this isn’t a news literacy problem, it is one that can be solved if students have news literacy training. Teaching students to read up on the authors of their sources, to consult “About” pages, and to carefully examine language for purpose helps them develop a critical reading mindset. There is a symbiosis between news literacy and inquiry literacy.

Op-eds create educational opportunities (ed-op?). Teaching students to read and write opinion pieces forces them to carefully examine author craft and identify stylistic distinctions between op-eds and other kinds of journalism. Satirical pieces extend that learning for high achievers, but using op-ed content for instructional purposes is effective with students across grade levels and abilities. We’ve adapted our exercises for many authors, articles, and subjects over the years.

Simple inquiry activities can hone news literacy skills. Ask students to formulate a research question or thesis statement for a podcast episode. Teach lateral reading when asking students to fact check their articles. Have students analyze the word choice in phone notifications from different news agencies.

News literacy skills are essential to effective citizenship. As we move into the third decade of this century, the information landscape is likely to become more, not less, rife with disinformation. Somehow, we will need to inculcate in our students the desire to question what they hear, see, and read; to fact check, triangulate, and cross-reference without being prompted to do so. It must start early, and happen often, and librarians should play an important role in cultivating that mindset in their learners.

Michelle Luhtala is a high school librarian in Connecticut and the coauthor of News Literacy: The Keys to Combating Fake News.

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