George Lucas Educational Foundation

News Literacy: How to Teach Students to Search Smart

Students learn how to find the truth in a sea of factoids.
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.
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Credit: Quickhoney

The word simple can rarely be used when it comes to describing online searches for news and information. Type a noun and a refining adjective into a search engine, and you're presented with an indefinite number of links (hence, perhaps, the word Google). The information can seem equally useful at first glance but will inevitably vary wildly in accuracy, from a New York Times article to a deadpan spoof in the Onion to a biased political blog filled with misinformation. Students learn how to find the truth in a sea of factoids. Separating fact from falsehood can be a challenge for anyone, but it's especially tough for students, who may be less skeptical and more trusting than adults.

Alan C. Miller, a former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, decided to address the challenge. He founded the News Literacy Project in 2008 with the goal of training middle and high school students in the fine art of navigating the Internet minefield. To help students glean the good stuff and jettison the junk, the project brings seasoned journalists into secondary school English, social studies, and history classrooms as guides. The program is now in seven schools in Bethesda, Maryland; New York City; and Chicago, with plans to extend to Los Angeles next year.

Visiting journalists pose four questions to students: Why does news matter? How can students know what to believe? What challenges and opportunities do the Internet and digital media create? Why is the First Amendment protection of free speech so vital to American democracy?

In response, students in the program create projects that answer these questions. For example, they devised a Monopoly-like board game called Speechopoly, in which players land on and purchase spaces that represent First Amendment cases, and they orchestrated a mock television show that cautions viewers not to accept as fact everything that they read on Wikipedia.

Though it's a remarkable resource, the sheer abundance of online information has its downsides. Daniel Russell, a research scientist at Google, in Mountain View, California, estimates that students could conceivably access roughly a million times more content through Internet searches than previous generations could find at a university library.

Everyone has to learn to think like a journalist, Miller says, but "most students today don't have the tools to navigate through the forest of sources available of widely varying purpose, accountability, and reliability." The News Literacy Project provides the following tips for your students to use while evaluating information.

Ask Yourself, "What Am I Looking At?"

Is it news, opinion, a personal blog, gossip? Advertising? Propaganda? How can you tell the difference?

Think Critically about News and Information

Who created the reports and editorials? For what purpose? Is the information verified? If so, how? What is the documentation? Is it presented in a way that is fair?

Learn to Spot Bias

Watch for loaded or inflammatory words. Does the author have an agenda? Is more than one side of a story presented? Did the subject respond?

Beware of Information Found on Wikipedia

Entries can be changed by anyone at any time. This calls into question the accuracy of the information at any given moment. That said, the primary sources linked in the entries are often a rich trove of reliable information.

Don't Allow Yourself to be Fooled

Nobody likes to be duped. If something sounds incredible, it probably is. Good places to check urban myths are the Annenberg Public Policy Center's and

Malaika Costello-Dougherty is a Senior Editor at Edutopia.

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Huckerblue's picture
Physics, K-8 Math Specialist

I've used the Flat Earth Society ( in the past with middle school students. The society's arguments are logical, and their language formal, but students already believe quite firmly that the world is round, making it a good topic for them to investigate. The assignment I've used for students is to use the internet to find evidence that the world is round and construct an argument (a letter, mock trial etc). offers good examples of arguments as well. I've used this site to counter the "Lunar Landing Hoax" after it aired on television.

Mikey McKillip's picture
Mikey McKillip
International Educator/ICT Coordinator

Each week I assign two students to choose an article to present from newspapers, magazines and Internet sites. Students read the article and then use our Current Events Note Taking Form to answer Who, What, When, Where and Why questions. Students include their opinion about the article and then present their information to the rest of the class.

We continue to discuss and differentiate between fact/opinion. Having students include their own personal opinion with Current Events has helped reinforce this idea. We often look up information using Wikipedia however we also discuss information validity and using multiple sources for information.

Prof. Dean Miller's picture
Prof. Dean Miller
Director, Center for News Literacy, Stony Brook University

I'm writing to ask you if you'll forward this any teacher friends of yours interested in a free News Literacy summer workshop.
In July, 20 teachers from around the U.S. will travel to the north shore of Long Island to learn how to teach News Literacy in their junior high, high school and community college classrooms. The course, now in its third year, qualifies for professional development credits, plus each teacher heads home with robust lesson plans and a syllabus ready for implementation.
All meals, lodging and materials are provided, plus each teacher is paid a modest stipend to defray the cost of getting here. As a newcomer to Long Island from scenic Idaho, I think my assertion that Stony Brook is a surprisingly beautiful part of the world can be evaluated as "authoritative" and "independent" by successful News Literacy students...
Teachers from out of state often tack on extra days before or after the course to visit New York City, which is a short commuter train ride from campus.
Disregard the now-past deadline on the website. I'm excited by the lessons you're already using and would love to include some of you in our work. If you apply, send me an email explaining where you heard about the workshop.
For those unfamiliar with the News Literacy movement, here's a little background. Developed at Stony Brook University by former Newsday Editor Howard Schneider, News Literacy teaches students to apply critical thinking skills to the citizen's search for reliable information. Schneider began teaching the course in 2006 as a response to the growing concern over the lack of civic knowledge among young Americans and the apparent ease with which false or misleading information becomes "fact" in the Digital Age. To build and export the course, the Ford, McCormick and Knight Foundations have invested more than $2 million at Stony Brook's Center for News Literacy.
Please send this to teachers or even organizations of teachers that you think would find the course valuable. We will extend the deadline for qualified applicants.

Dean Miller, Director
The Center for News Literacy
Here's a link to more information about the Summer Institute for High School Teachers.

Tweets may provide teachers with useful examples and ideas:

Ditto the CenterforNewsLiteracy Facebook page, which offers a few more resources:

News Literacy blog

If I've really made you curious, Here is a streaming video connection to a recent lecture on Deconstructing the News...You'll want to select "High Speed" and then on the left side, skip down to slide 30 to pass over all the housekeeping and warm-up.
What you should see and hear is small video of me lecturing and to the right, the PowerPoint slideshow that accompanies the lecture.
Here is the same thing, for the lecture on Truth & Verification

Mark Moran's picture
Mark Moran
Founder, SweetSearch

I would consider any advocacy site to be biased propaganda. At findingDulcinea, we try to find the best, well-reasoned, objective point of view on both sides of an issue, and I've all but banned these sites, because their primary purpose is to inflame the reader and make him write a check. What I'd suggest is that you find two such sites with opposite views. For example, contrast how the NRA and Handgun Control characterize issues about guns (perhaps not the best example for kids, but you get the idea).

j. campbell's picture

I found a link with some great information fluency tools. It really is a whole new topic in education Carl Heine is an elearning architect and the sites he uses for information fluency are thought provoking.

Nanette Dougherty's picture

Political speeches are readily available in video format that you can show students. How about having students view and listen carefully for information? They can view a video of a political speech and then you can have them take notes? Though they are not "reading" they are still viewing and writing, and then you could also have them discuss? These are important English language Arts Standards, and you can still have incorporate critical thinking and evaluating information in lessons.
The Curious Librarian

Nanette Dougherty's picture

This message is for Ayn Fulton:

It is difficult to teach sixth graders about bias and propoganda, but these are critical literacy skills and such important work that you are doing. Students need to be able to read "critically between the lines,"

I have an idea on how to give your students access to political speeches that are beyond their reading comprehension. You might want to consider having students view video clips of speeches rather than trying to read them. Listening will give them access, and also will have body language and other clues to help them to get at meaning if they are watching. You should be able to easily find clips on youtube. com (or try you have filters that prevent access to in your school.) Have students view, take notes (you might want to use graphic organizers to help scaffold for them). They can learn skills that you want them to, such as figuring out speaker's point of view, etc.

Good luck and keep up the good work!

Mike Treanor's picture
Mike Treanor
High School Science Teacher

One thing I do for my students and seems to work very well is tell them to pick 3 key search terms and then do a google IMAGE search (with safesearch on, of course). I find the students can much more quickly determine whether their search terms are focused enough without having to sift through a lot of documents.

For instance, if you search for using the term , you get a lot of illegal drug information. If you search for , well could a mixture of guitars, ball games, and DNA.

Adding a term to make the search drastically changes the results to something definitely focused on science education, and most likely much closer to the intended information. Adding another term, such as pH may improve it even more. Or it may restrict the search too much.

The single most common problem I've seen my students have is that they try to type in a WHOLE QUESTION from their homework. This restricts the search so severely that most of their results are pages of similar uneducated students asking and answering each other in a vague pool of ignorance. (Yahoo Answers is the most common trap to fall in, where most commonly the people answering the questions know less than the person asking)

The point is that by using IMAGE search, students can super quickly tell at a glance when a search is too broad or too focused. It develops good habits without the time and confusion of analyzing text from possibly unreliable sources.

This is only a first step, but it has been a revelation to them. Next comes selecting reputable sources and analyzing, but getting to that point shouldn't be so difficult!

Mohammad Noor Uddin's picture
Mohammad Noor Uddin
Multi-Languages Teaching

By virtue of having a good command of multi-languages, I always feel contentment because I am able to speak with most of the nations of the word. That's why, I want all human beings find this contentment to learn multi-languages by online.

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