What inspired you to become a journalist?
I always liked writing, and I was also into photography. And I knew that the way I grew up was different from the way I was told I grew up—I wanted to figure out what the difference was. Also, I couldn’t imagine working behind a desk from nine to five each day, wearing a tie.
What if a source lies to you?
Sometimes you’ll hear a great story, right, and you’ll really want to believe it. But you have to check things out—the line in journalism is, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’
What happens if you make a mistake in a story?
One of the hallmarks of a good newspaper is that when they make a mistake, they admit it. A good paper will try to explain not just that they made a mistake, but how they made it. It’s part of our contract with our readers.
David Gonzalez, a metro reporter and columnist for The New York Times , stands in front of a history class at the Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School in Brooklyn. More precisely, he is pacing, energetically, as he responds to questions fired at him, with equal energy, by a roomful of eighth-graders.
Do you ever use anonymous sources?
Where are corrections printed?
How do you find your stories?
Smiling—beaming—in the back of the classroom during the press-conference-in-reverse is Alan Miller, a former Los Angeles Times reporter—he won a 2003 Pulitzer for his series on the defective Marine Corps’ Harrier attack jet—who is also responsible for today’s class. In early 2008, Miller founded the News Literacy Project, a program that mobilizes journalists both practicing and retired to share their profession with young people—to get them excited about journalism, and to help them navigate through the sea of news and sort the good from the bad. “I spoke about journalism to my daughter’s sixth-grade class,” Miller explains, “and was really surprised by what they didn’t know about the basics of journalism.” Positive student feedback from that talk convinced Miller of the need to teach students what standard history and civics classes generally don’t: how to be savvy consumers of news.
Having just completed its pilot phase, the project has brought journalists from The New York Times, Time magazine, USA Today, NPR, 60 Minutes, and other outlets to schools in New York City and Bethesda, Maryland. Miller hopes to expand to classrooms nationwide—he is exploring the prospect of launching a pilot in Chicago this fall, and in Los Angeles in 2010.
One of the members of the project’s board is Howard Schneider, the former editor of Newsday and the founding dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. Schneider, too, saw the need for news-literacy education, as he explained in the Fall 2007 issue of Nieman Reports. “The ultimate check against an inaccurate or irresponsible press,” he realized,
never would be just better-trained journalists, or more press critics and ethical codes. It would be a generation of news consumers who would learn how to distinguish for themselves between news and propaganda, verification and mere assertion, evidence and inference, bias and fairness, and between media bias and audience bias—consumers, who could differentiate between raw, unmediated information coursing through the Internet and independent, verified journalism.
Most journalists, Schneider noted, largely ignore the issue of educating consumers, focusing instead on the supply side of the journalism equation. To combat that, Schneider and his Stony Brook colleagues created a fourteen-week news-literacy course at the university, which addresses such topics as objectivity, fairness, sourcing, and navigating the Web. To date, more than three thousand undergraduates have taken the class—and not just journalism students.
Both the Stony Brook course and the News Literacy Project are getting high marks from students. “Now I get the gossip, and everything else that everyone’s saying about the world,” says Daysha Williams, an eighth-grader at Williamsburg Collegiate who took the NLP pilot course this winter. “It’s like, okay, cool, but do you really know about it, or did you just get that from someone else?” Her teacher, Ryan Miller, sees the change, as well. “Three weeks ago, a lot of my students didn’t know what to look for in a newspaper article, or what Google actually did. Now they do, and I can build on that in class.”
That building-up is crucial. According to David T. Z. Mindich, a journalism professor and the author of Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News, “It appears that if you don’t get into the news habit by your early twenties, you’ve missed the boat.”
‘Reach Them Where They Are’