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Illinois Teachers Get Lesson In News Literacy

Man standing in front of a screen with sentences on a Power Point slide.
Courtesy of the Skokie Public Library
Michael Spikes is director of resources for the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in Long Island but he's based in Chicago. Spikes has been training teachers in McLean County to teach news literacy.

News literacy isn’t always taught in schools even though it’s becoming more important in the age of misinformation.

Michael Spikes of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University is spending time in Illinois helping teachers provide lessons so students better understand how to scrutinize messages. Spikes is based in Chicago and directs the center's free resources.

Earlier this month, Spikes visited the LeRoy school system and was excited by teachers' enthusiasm for instructing students about how to become more savvy consumers.

"It really made me encouraged. They were using examples in their classroom from lessons I taught last summer," he said.

It appears news literacy lessons are needed. A recent study by Stanford University showed most kids can't identify fake news. And they can't tell the difference between real news and ads. During one session, Spikes shows what looks like a newspaper story but it is actually sponsored content.

"It makes it difficult to tell the difference," he said.

One of the key lessons Spikes teaches is how to differentiate between journalism and propaganda, advertising, sarcasm and opinion. Spikes using the VIA approach which stresses verifying the information, identifying the source and whether it is independent, and asking whether the source has accountability.

"Is there a name connected to this information? Is there an organization behind that person that's writing it and are they accountable for that information?" he said. Those are questions consumers should ask when vetting content. The Center for News Literacy instructors basically wants everyone to think like a journalist.

Facts matter but Spikes also teaches that in journalism, truth is provisional.

"Meaning that as we gather more evidence, what we believe today could change tomorrow," he said. Spikes uses an example of a Chicago-area police officer honored as a hero for being shot to death in an armed robbery that turned out weeks later to be a suicide. The officer had been embezzling money and wanted his family to get insurance money from his death.

Another important lesson is that with social media, everyone is a publisher and with that comes responsibility to examine the reliability of what someone posts or shares. Spikes warns against the wisdom of the crowd, tallies of likes and retweets which can have some social media users equating popularity with credibility. In other words, just because something is viral doesn't make it true.

There are plenty of real-life examples including videos embedded into the free lessons available for teachers, librarians, and community leaders at the center's website.

You can also listen to GLT's full interview:

GLT's full interview with Spikes.

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Colleen Reynolds was a correspondent at WGLT. She left the station in 2023.