You’re Not Entitled to Your Own Facts
Air Date: March 26, 2019
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. As we experienced the realities, the hemorrhaging of the digital ecosystem, we’ve covered the misinformation crisis here in our ongoing quest for solutions, and now we presume that all important exchange: what news is real, trustworthy and verifiable. What analysis and opinion are conducive to advancing that trust? To answer today is Alan Miller, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project. Miller was a reporter at the LA Times for 21 years before leaving in March 2008 to establish NLP. He spent nearly 19 years in the Times Washington bureau, the last 14 as a charter member of its high profile investigative team. As Miller points out in a recent Washington Post interview, “Not all information is equal and some actually isn’t information. It’s not seeking to inform.” The News Literacy project is a national education nonprofit working with educators and journalists to equip students and middle school and high school with the tools to discern fact from fiction in the digital age.
Welcome Alan. A pleasure to meet you.
MILLER: It’s good to be here.
HEFFNER: In a nutshell, what is the most active, the most robust part of your project now, because this is such a fast moving issue of dis and misinformation, what are you trying to get in the hearts and minds of these students as immediately as possible?
MILLER: Well, the heart of our program is our Checkology Virtual Classroom, which is now being used in every state in the US and and educator in over a hundred countries around the world have registered to use it. It’s an engaging online platform that provides real world, authentic lessons for students teaching them how to know what to believe in a digital age and giving them the tools to be informed and engaged participants in a democracy. As you said, we’d give them an understanding that all information is not created equal and an appreciation of the role of a free press and the First Amendment.
HEFFNER: So what does that appreciation look like today? What are you insisting that they understand… that an account on Twitter can be verified or a Facebook page can be verified and yet it can be disinformation, it can be propaganda, it can be wrong, is that part of it?
MILLER: Well, we live in the most fraught information landscape in human history. Students today have more good and valuable information available literally at their fingertips than at any time. But it’s competing for their attention with far more information that is intending to persuade them, to sell to them, to mislead them, and to exploit them. We want them to have the ability to ask themselves, is this something that I should trust? Should I share this? Should I act on it, with anything that they encounter and have the tools really to become upstanders for fact.
HEFFNER: We experienced during the course of this 2016 campaign, 2018 campaign, our politics now is infested with media that sometimes they have a checkmark. They have a verification. But that doesn’t mean that the reporters or that publication has done its due diligence and that it’s motivated by what you and I would say is the fundamental, original, ethical and moral standard for journalistic endeavor.
MILLER: Yeah. So students are getting news, but they’re getting it primarily through their social media feeds and it’s disaggregated. So the first step is for them to know what it is they’re looking at. Are they looking at news? Are they looking at opinion? Are they looking at entertainment or propaganda or misinformation? And so we teach them, give them the ability to make those judgments, to ask questions about who created this. Can I tell? For what purpose? What are the sources? What is the documentation? Is there bias? What about my own bias that I bring to whatever I’m looking at?
And ultimately to make that judgment, is this credible information?
HEFFNER: And how are you going to judge ultimately whether or not these lessons, these digital tools are working? How are we going to see this? Is it the next generation that’s going to take over Twitter and Facebook and insist on certain norms that we respect? Because there’s no doubt as folks who have testified to here on the program that the folks who’ve been managing social media have been irresponsible and not willing to insist on teaching people, or at least setting up some guideposts.
MILLER: So we see news literacy as a survival skill in information age. It’s really teaching literacy for the 21st century. And as such, we would like to see it embedded in the American educational experience. We know when it’s working, when we’re doing Checkology because we see students who do our lessons, are better able to discern and create credible information.
They’re more knowledgeable about the First Amendment and the role of a free press and they’re more likely to correct mistakes when they find them and vote in elections when old enough to do so. So those are the, that’s the skills and the behavior that we want to see spread throughout the next generation.
HEFFNER: In 2018 the New York Times profiled efforts in France to educate people in the same way you’re striving to, and the French Culture Ministry actually invested millions of dollars in adding to high school courses, responsible stewardship of Internet and media. And that being a mandatory program alongside history and math. How, how much of our current politics, the climate that wants to denigrate information and not legitimize information, how much of that is spurring your efforts, further helping you? How much of that is hurting you in your campaign to provide these tools in every classroom in every state of this country?
MILLER: Well, first of all, as you mentioned, you know, I started NLP in 2008 long before fake news and alternative facts and filter bubbles and Russian disinformation became such a big part of the zeitgeist. But essentially, you know, our mission has remained the same. The landscape around us has changed greatly. One impact of that is that I no longer have to spend a lot of time telling people what is news literacy and why does it matter. There is a greater understanding and there’s a much greater awareness of the need for it among educators, among potential funders, among the general public. So that has actually helped us. We feel like we’re no longer swimming against the educational tide, we’re now swimming with it. It is a challenging environment for teachers who are on the front lines, you know, of democracy in having to teach about truth and facts and journalism, you know, in such a difficult time when there was so much debate about those things. And I would say that our platform, you know, provides them a safe and effective and nonpartisan way, you know, to address those issues.
HEFFNER: Does your platform address this concern? And help students see that you are able to make educated analysis based on facts, but you’re not entitled to erroneous opinions based on things that are not facts. You know, it’s that old Daniel Patrick Moynihan refrain that you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. It seems like that though we may not be able to accept that idea anymore, if opinions that folks are accepting are so misguided or misinformed, how do you deal with that problem?
MILLER: Indeed. You know, when I was a journalist we would often say that facts are stubborn things and we usually say this when a fact got in the way of what would otherwise have been a perfectly good story today. Today it seems that it’s opinions that are stubborn, things that are impervious to facts. People live so much in their filter bubbles; they seek information to confirm their preexisting beliefs rather than to challenge or to inform. That’s one of the key lessons that we teach in the platform is that students need to be conscious of the confirmation bias, that they bring their own biases to what they’re looking at. They need to also get a wide range of sources of information, not just to look for places they’re likely to agree with and to be open to a different set of facts that would then become the basis for debate about, you know, the next steps in terms of, you know, policy or action.
HEFFNER: We often hear that about disparate sources. And I’m with you, I support the idea that you can’t make an authoritative claim until you substantiate it with more than one source. But what about this question of diversity of sources because there are certain sources that might make your justification more credible to people on the basis of their ideological affiliations but not actually be based in truth. In other words, there’s reputable news sources and they’re the non-reputable news sources. So when we talk about more evidence to support our viewpoint or the basis of a, of a journalistic report, what are we talking about? And don’t we have to be clear that we’re talking about a great, a multiplicity of credible sources. You know, diverse sources for the sake of saying the New York Times and Breitbart and the Drudge Report, I mean because if you are taught diverse sources then you might not be taught informed diverse sources and that it’s not the same thing, right?
MILLER: Absolutely. So we do not steer students to any particular source or away from any particular source. Our goal is to give them the tools to determine, you know, what are credible sources, as you said, the key is to find sources that you can trust.
And so, you know, we have them ask basic questions about, you know, where’s the information coming from? Is the source reputable, is the information intended to inform you in a dispassionate way? Do you get a multiple points of view in a given piece of information or given piece of news? Are you provided enough information to make up your own mind about what you’re looking for? Or is the language intended to incite, to inflame, to evoke emotion, to encourage you to take particular action? So we want students to be able to make those judgments about everything that they’re seeing and then find those credible sources.
HEFFNER: How do you take a time machine, if you will, go back to when there were those dispassionate sources underlying our literacy, the Associated Press, Reuters, the wires that were always really just the first line and then became the foundation of our truth. Is there any way for us to see again, what is objective, and credible, as understanding of our knowledge and our reality do come from those who, what, when and where questions and to your mind, do the wires still perform that function better than anyone else?
MILLER: Well, look, I think that there are clearly credible news sources that are available. For us, again, the key is to reach young people when they’re forming the habits of mind and consumption habits that will last a lifetime so that they’re able to seek out and consume those sources.
HEFFNER: How does your platform work when it comes to discretion because it’s one thing to just judge on the basis of literacy? Is this correct? Is this accurate? But another thing that’s come into question in recent months and years, especially since the ‘16 election, is the discretion of journalists and whether they were being motivated by clicks and likes and favorites or whether they’re being motivated by the journalistic creed to inform and educate and even protect our country, which I extend to the journalistic public service, not just informing or educating, but also protecting people. Are you teaching young people to understand the ulterior motives of reporting? The fact that chasing the horse race reporting in a political election season can be quite destructive, especially when you are giving someone like Donald Trump, then a candidate and now President probably a candidate in the future, an open megaphone to spew anything that might be unverified or even bigotry to a hatred. Are you teaching the students about discretion as much as you are about facts?
MILLER: So we use the standards of quality journalism, however imperfect they may be in practice, as an aspirational yardstick against which to measure all news and information. And we certainly teach students that journalism is imperfect by its nature. There’s a reason it’s called the first rough draft of history, but there are standards that journalists that quality journalism seeks to maintain and when it fails short of that in terms of making mistakes, there are mechanisms to address that, to run corrections. When journalists actually fabricate things, there tend to be serious consequences including loss of job or career. And we encourage students when they see journalism that doesn’t meet those standards to weigh in, to speak up, to contact the creator of the information or the news organization if they see mistakes, if they see bias, if they feel things are not being covered in their schools or their communities. To really practice news literacy and become engaged.
HEFFNER: The problem that I’m attempting to identify is that we had this old school conception of fiction and nonfiction and you’re addressing problems within the nonfiction, right? You want the nonfiction to remain the truth, what we’re experiencing accurately. But the problem is you have sources in the news now who are so persistently pervasively, more than maybe ever before, what they are saying is fictional. So you’re dealing with these wars of fiction within the nonfiction. I’m just wondering, how do you, how are you addressing that? I mean you clearly had two decades of experience with journalism and sourcing. Is my characterization right that, that the truthful world is being overtaken by mistruths and untruths?
MILLER: Well, look, I think that that for every credible source of information, every reputable source, there is exponentially more sources that are not credible and that are not trustworthy. And that’s part of the fraught landscape that today’s students are growing up in so it becomes just imperative that they have the tools to be able to make those judgments and ask themselves what they’re looking at and then ask questions about the sourcing. And we teach them, by the way, to look for expert sources and official sources. And we, use anonymous sources are a red flag. And so they need to make those judgments. The fact is within even the most reputable news outlets, if you look at a homepage, you look at a newspaper, there’s going to be a mix. There’s going to be news, there’s going to be opinion. There’s going to be analysis, there’s going to be advertising. And again, so much of this, they’re getting, you know, through social media, which dis-aggregated. So they need to be able to make those judgments. And within news it will be imperfect. So it may be that bias creeps in or that errors creep in. And that’s what we want students to be able to make those judgments individually about whatever they’re encountering, wherever they encounter it.
HEFFNER: And are you teaching them that the first page of results on Google is not by any means verified. When, what the first three lines are indexed in a Google search, that means nothing.
That doesn’t mean it has any credibility necessarily. And from the outset of Google, I was taught if you’re going to Google, you want to only see educational websites, so you search your term and you write site colon.edu so that what populates are only educational or organizational websites, nonprofit websites. Is that part of your curriculum too, to ensure that Google searches are not translating into sources?
MILLER: Yes. You know, for many students, you know, if you ask what their primary source is, they would tell you either Google or Wikipedia. So obviously we want to give them the ability to ask those questions when they’re doing search. We also teach them that the first news story they encounter may not be the best story, that it may not be accurate. They may need to follow news over time. Truth is provisional. It takes time to emerge.
MILLER: So, you know, we want them to be more mindful about what they’re encountering and how they evaluate it and then what they do with it.
HEFFNER: That’s the other quote I like too, I’m so glad you said that when new views become true views, I’ll adopt them, which is a Lincoln quote and it reflects the protean nature of reality, the fact that there are changing circumstances on the ground, right? So I’m heartened that you made that observation. As we just think about the challenge within that system of, you know, the truth versus fiction. You know, we had libraries once upon a time in this country and bookstores that made those differentiations of what is true, what is not. And I wonder if you’re just encountering any resistance to your work on news literacy, on First Amendment grounds, meaning, people can write what they damn please, whether it’s their fact or their opinion, ultimately it’s in their jurisdiction of what to them, connotes fact and opinion. Because I hear that, I do hear that and I hear it from people who are educated, sometimes highly educated or had formal education. And I’m concerned that a kind of a purist understanding of the First Amendment is now becoming, you know, that there are so many versions of the truth that we just have to accept everyone’s First Amendment right to tell their truth.
MILLER: Well, you know, we are solely focused on the demand side. So where we are not at all, I’m talking about the supply side in terms of what anybody can create or anybody’s speech. I mean, the fact is there’s no barrier to entry to those who would create things, you know, whether for profit or ideology or to create mischief or to inform. And we fully recognize that there will continue to be that diversity of voices.
HEFFNER: So you don’t really hear the idea that news literacy is code for listening to the New York Times and NPR or if you’re on PBS and not listening to other voices that ought to be just as a relevant from an equivalency standpoint. I mean from my perspective, you judge each source source on its merit. But there is this idea that literacy is a front for some sort of agenda that is maybe the agenda of liberal democracy. Some people are opposed to liberal democracy now. So, I know that folks who solicit your services are, like you say, in need of them because they don’t know how to teach young people about what is true or false. But I’m just wondering in this climate where people resent the fact that there are certain truths and they reside in certain places, how do you deal with that? I mean more broadly beyond your project.
MILLER: You know, as a journalist for 29 years, I always regarded Democrats and Republicans is sort of equal opportunity targets. And I brought that philosophy of, of nonpartisanship into NLP, myself and the board and our staff and it’s really baked into our DNA, and into our curriculum. And so, you know, we are proud of the fact that our Virtual Classroom Checkology is now being used in every state in the country, urban and rural areas, you know, red states and blue. And we take very seriously the fact that it is a nonpartisan resource. And so we have not encountered to answer your question that kind of resistance generally. It has not been our experience. And if in fact we had anyone who felt that what we were doing was agenda driven in some way or was partisan in some way, you know, we would take that very seriously.
HEFFNER: And I wasn’t suggesting the News Literacy Project harbors any of that. And by the way, if you do believe that democratic norms have value and they are virtuous and of themselves or to perpetuate civil society, then we ought to say it. And I say that on this program often. Own up to the fact that we live in a culture now where people are insisting on free speech, but they’re not insisting on a free society.
They’re not demanding that the vocabulary, the rhetoric, the behavior we live by is upholding civil rights, civil liberties, civil discourse. And then doesn’t that not negate the whole idea of free speech? Because in order to believe in free speech, you have to believe that the majority of your citizens believe in your freedom, believe in your enfranchisement believe in your rights as a human being and as an American. And so I’m just as much resistance to that resistance, that there is some kind of code here for literacy. But I know that as soon as you start talking about literacy, the next thing you hear is censorship. The idea that to close out certain voices would mean you are eliminating the possibility of political diversity.
MILLER: We do feel that our mission is central to a healthy democracy, which is based upon a foundation of informed and engaged participants. So in that sense, that certainly is part of our agenda. And we think that giving students those tools is not a partisan matter.
HEFFNER: And what matters. Lastly, Allen, in the seconds we have left, what advice do you think is most crucial for those teachers who are struggling with this? Who are having students come in and say, this is true, but yet it’s verifiably false or having to manage the relationships with students when truth is not truth anymore in some quarters. What’s the best advice you think you could give the teachers out here, educators listening to this?
MILLER: Well, you know, I think that incorporating news literacy, you know, into their curriculum is an excellent way for them to engage students around these issues. And if students are coming in and having that kind of debate or they’re challenging, teachers are challenging others, those are teachable moments. I mean, that’s an opportunity to have that discussion and to ask students where they’re getting their information, how do they know it’s true, how are they verifying it, and then to explore, you know, how to do that in a way that will make their voices credible and empower them.
HEFFNER: And do you hope that school districts and states and the federal government here in this country eventually not just adopt standards for news literacy but fund it?
MILLER: Well of course the system in the United States is decentralized so…
MILLER: It’s, it states who have their own standards and our hope is yes, that we will continue and we’re making headway in seeing a whole districts or whole states adopt Checkology as part of their curriculum. And as you said, also changed their standards to embed news literacy or media literacy, you know, as part of what is part of the system.
HEFFNER: Alan, thank you for your time today. Thank you for sharing with our viewers your work at News Literacy.
MILLER: Thank you. Alexander was a pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.