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News Literacy Project gives Elev8 students critical eye

Do video games promote violence? Is Wikipedia a reliable source of information? Can news reporters unintentionally influence the stories they’re covering?

Those were among the questions that Elev8 Chicago students from Reavis Elementary and Perspectives Middle Academy addressed recently in a Reavis classroom as part of their involvement with the News Literacy Project (NLP). The project is a national effort that enlists professional journalists to teach middle- and high-school students how to know what to believe in today’s media landscape.

Photo: Lawrence Bickerstaff

A student displays a cartoon of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, with a rocket aimed at his head.

The Reavis and Perspectives students, who also showcased an audio documentary and an original rap song created as part of their experience with NLP, joined peers from New York City on a teleconference call featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Don Bartletti of the Los Angeles Times.

Reavis students created the audio documentary to address issues around video games and youth. They spoke with youth and parents, read research and interviewed a Columbia College professor of game design. Some of the research they found, such as a recent Kaiser Foundation study that showed heavy video game players were actually more physically active than moderate users, challenged conventional wisdom.

Elev8 students who took part in NLP came away with new insights on where to find reliable information and a new level of interest in journalism. “I used to read Wikipedia,” said Reavis sixth-grader Rashad Thomas-Bland, who used it as his primary resource for research papers. “Now I read newspapers. I use Google to find different sources.” He narrated a large potion of the students’ documentary on video games, and learned new vocabulary words as a result.

“I want to be a writer, write books, maybe do a little journalism,” Thomas-Bland said. He’s interested in writing fiction and, someday, his autobiography. “I’m a writer who keeps on switching.”

Photo: Lawrence Bickerstaff

Students respond to others' presentations as part of the News Literacy Project.

Perspectives eighth-grader Terrell Shaw wrote a rap song explaining NLP’s essential questions and concepts, such as verifying the accuracy of a news source.

“I used to believe that news was something the author just knew,” said Shaw. “I didn’t know they had to go back and verify that everything is accurate. Now I know that I’m not reading or learning about stuff that isn’t true. I used to believe stuff that was on TMZ and Facebook. My history teacher told me that stuff is sometimes true and sometimes not. I can’t use it for research. Now I look for news reports, like Fox News, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times.”

Bartletti told the NLP participants about his work documenting the long, dangerous train rides through Mexico undertaken by Central American children and teens trying to reunite with their parents in the United States. Bartletti and reporter Sonia Nazario won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting, which was published in the Los Angeles Times and later became a book.

“Children from Honduras as young as 12 are trying to find their parents,” he said, via teleconference. “It causes children to go through unspeakably difficult things."

Photo: Lawrence Bickerstaff

Students prepare for their presentations.

Bartletti had a backpack, jacket and carried nuts and dried fruit to stave off hunger. The children he photographed had none of these things.

“I would never drink or eat in front of migrants,’ he said, “because none of them had any food. They’d drink muddy water out of puddles. One boy showed me how they’d filter the water through their T-shirts.”

The boys and young men were frequent targets of robbers and gangsters, as well as the Mexican police, who would raid the trains and send migrants back over the southern border. Many had made the hazardous journey multiple times.

At one point in his work he met a young boy who was sick. Bartletti bought him some painkillers but then stopped following him, because by helping the boy he had changed the story and couldn’t be a neutral witness anymore. Bartletti explained the ethics of photojournalism to the students: “Tell the truth. Don’t pay anybody to do anything or say anything.” And don’t interact with story subjects in ways that change the story.

Asked what he would remember from Bartletti’s presentation, Reavis eighth-grader Devonta Montgomery said: “How he survived. It’s tough.”

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