Fighting Fake News

How a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is helping students separate truth from fiction in Montgomery County and beyond.

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A graphic adapted from a News Literacy Project lesson.

Launched from Miller’s Bethesda basement, the News Literacy Project started as a live, in-classroom program in Montgomery County and a handful of  other locations. It has grown to include a digital platform called “checkology”

that has allowed it to reach more classrooms than it could have using live instructors. Since checkology’s launch last year, NLP has registered more than 6,300 educators teaching more than 950,000 students in all 50 states and 53 other countries. From public schools where most students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches to elite private schools, the virtual classroom program is taking off. NLP has a staff of eight, split among the Washington region, New York and Chicago, and an annual budget of $1.7 million. NLP also will be targeting adults through a campaign in partnership with Facebook later this year.

Miller, 63, a native New Yorker, grew up in suburban Ridgewood, N.J., where he worked on his sixth-grade newspaper, launched a newspaper in his junior high and edited his high school paper. He worked as a state and county political reporter at the Times Union of Albany, N.Y., and as a political and state investigative reporter at The Record in Hackensack, N.J., before signing on with the Los Angeles Times. He was an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, where he spent 21 of his 29 years as a journalist. He and colleague Kevin Sack won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for their investigation of a military aircraft nicknamed “The Widow Maker,” which had been linked to the deaths of 45 pilots.

It was a challenging time for journalism. The internet was hacking away at newspapers’ profits. Newsroom budgets were shrinking. Reporting staffs were dwindling. Meanwhile, Miller saw a “tsunami of information” pouring out of the web. He had watched his young daughter try to figure out what she should believe. Some of it was reliable. Some wasn’t.

Miller’s daughter was a sixth-grader at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in 2006 when he was invited to speak in front of 175 of her schoolmates about what he did for a living. The children seemed engaged, and Miller was moved. This is a long way from investigative reporting, he thought as he left the school, but if a lot of journalists came and brought their experiences to bear, it could be meaningful.

That evening, his daughter brought home 175 handwritten thank-you notes from her schoolmates. “I could see what had resonated and what had connected,” he says. Some students had seen a History Channel piece on his Pulitzer-winning investigation. Some said his presentation motivated them to read the newspaper. (“All of the newspaper,” one wrote, “not just the comics.”) Some said it inspired them to be writers. “I might even want to become a journalist,” one note read.

Maybe, Miller thought, it’s time for a career change.

Two weeks later he was speaking in front of an audience again. This time it was at his alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. It was Miller’s 30-year class reunion and he was on a panel about the future of journalism. The moderator was another Wesleyan grad, Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a prominent funder of journalism education. After the panel session, Ibargüen emailed Miller to thank him, and Miller shot back a reply. He wanted to bounce an idea off him. Could a program aimed at teaching young people about the news be successful?

That idea would put Miller in touch with Eric Newton, who was the foundation’s vice president for journalism at the time. The foundation had already started a program at Stony Brook University on Long Island to teach college students something it was calling “news literacy.” Over the next year and a half, Miller worked with Newton to craft a program to teach the same concepts to middle and high school students. When it was ready, Knight offered a $250,000 founding grant for Miller to start his new nonprofit.

In February 2008, Miller took a leave of absence from the Times. A new owner, the Tribune Co., had bought the newspaper and set about slashing the budget. Fearing his days as an investigative reporter might be ending, he soon put in for a buyout instead. By July, the Times started cutting 150 newsroom jobs, and Miller was off on what he had come to see as a new journalistic mission.

“It felt like a second calling to me,” he says. “Everything since has only reinforced that sense.”

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