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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Alan Miller in 2015 at Montgomery Blair High School.
This project wasn’t supposed to be a glorified career day, and Miller knew he’d need more than talented journalists standing in front of classes. He had no staff, no lesson plan and no experience in education when he turned to Alan Goodwin, the principal at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. “[Miller] explained the program, and I thought it was really helpful for students,” Goodwin says. “The emphasis was going to be on how do you know what news sources to trust? Who knew that that would be such a timely topic?”
Miller recalls Goodwin telling him: “Make us your guinea pig.”
The program targeted grades six through 12 and a range of subject areas—social studies, history, government and English. Miller wanted to find out where it would work best—in the classroom, at after-school programs in the inner city, or in suburban schools. “We discovered that we could make it work in all these places,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that it has worked every single time.”
Miller learned along the way, evolving the lessons based on teacher and student feedback. For example, Miller says, “We found that we were not getting the impact we wanted on building appreciation for the watchdog role of journalism in a democracy, so we improved that lesson and moved the dial more on that front.”
Miller enlisted reporters, writers and editors who lived or grew up in the Bethesda area, including NBC News Channel reporter Tracie Potts, Sheryl Stolberg of The New York Times, and then-political analyst and editor at large for Time magazine Mark Halperin (a Whitman graduate).
NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling, a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring and a resident of Chevy Chase who put his kids through county schools, was among the first journalists to participate. An early-morning Whitman class impressed him with probing questions. “Even back then, it was clear to anyone who was interested in facts that there were websites that had lies or distortions or partial facts, and then there were websites that had facts, and it was hard for people to tell them apart,” he says.
Still, the program was only accessible in the Washington area and New York. By 2009, NLP had expanded to Chicago, but if the program was going to get into classrooms across the country, Miller realized he couldn’t rely on bringing in prominent journalists in person. He’d have to use the same technologies he was helping students scrutinize.