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Alan Miller

Founder and CEO, News Literacy Project

“Find ways to draw people to the mission who share your vision and commitment to the issue so that you can build a team. Once you’ve found your north star, let yourself be guided by it.”

I founded the News Literacy Project (NLP) in 2008, with the belief that knowing how to identify credible news is an essential life skill in an information age — and that this was not being widely taught in schools. We are a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that creates tools and resources to help educators teach and the public learn how to determine what news and other information to trust, and to have the ability to be informed and engaged participants in the civic life of the country.

The problem I’m trying to solve

We are living in the most complex information ecosystem in history. News and credible information are competing for people’s attention with far more content that is designed to persuade, sell, mislead and misinform. Students and many in the general public lack the ability to discern what they should trust, share and act on.

In a 2018 survey of 5,035 adults, researchers from the Pew Research Center presented participants with 10 statements they might see in the news and asked them to identify which ones were factual statements and which ones were opinions. Only 35 percent of the participants correctly identified all the opinion statements, while a mere 26 percent identified all the factual statements. Misinformation represents one of the greatest challenges of our time. It is undermining our public health, as well as our public life, and threatens our democracy. NLP’s mission has never been more urgent.

The moment that sparked my passion

In 2006, when my daughter’s middle-school teachers learned that I had won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, they invited me to speak to 175 sixth graders at the middle school about what I did as a journalist and why it mattered. After the talk, my daughter brought home 175 handwritten thank-you notes that we read aloud. I could see what had resonated with the students and had sparked an interest in news and journalism. I realized that if a lot of journalists brought their expertise and experience into America’s classrooms, this could have a meaningful impact. That was the seed that eventually took root as the News Literacy Project.

What I wish other people knew

We realized last year that misinformation is such an existential threat to democracy that we could not limit ourselves to reaching just the next generation. We are racing against a toxic tide of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories that is undermining our trust in institutions. As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath, the country is deeply divided along partisan and tribal lines that are driven by the news and information people trust and act on. We must find a way to bridge this divide by creating a shared narrative around verified, agreed-upon facts. 

Why my approach is unique

One of the things that distinguishes NLP is our focus on news literacy, which is a subset of media literacy. Our diverse, talented and committed staff of 29 creates resources that empower educators throughout the country to teach students in grades 6 through 12 how to know what information to trust, share and act on. We also instill an appreciation of the First Amendment and the role of a free press in our society.

We use the standards of quality journalism as an aspirational yardstick against which to measure all news and information, and we use journalists to help give people the skills to think like journalists — because today everyone is his or her own editor and can be his or her own publisher.

We don’t teach people what to think; we teach people how to think. We help them develop critical thinking skills to make judgments about whatever they encounter in the information landscape. Looking ahead, we aspire to turn our mission into a national movement to engage and educate the public and to change the way people evaluate and share the content they encounter.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Start with something for which you have a passion and a sense of purpose. For me, journalism was always a calling, not just a career. In NLP, I feel blessed to have found a second professional calling. My advice is to find a problem in search of a solution, somewhere you can actually make a difference. You need to have a great deal of determination and persistence and not let doubters deter you. Find ways to draw people to the mission who share your vision and commitment to the issue so that you can build a team. Once you’ve found your north star, let yourself be guided by it.