Alba Mendiola was at the top of her career about seven years ago. As an investigative journalist for Telemundo in Chicago, she had won seven Emmys in 16 years.
It was at that pinnacle that Mendiola decided to leave journalism for another dream — she wanted to be a teacher.
Now the former broadcaster has reached a new milestone as the recipient of the News Literacy Project’s Alan C. Miller Educator of the Year award.
The nonprofit recognized Mendiola for her work at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, where she created a bilingual broadcast journalism class with a strong focus on news literacy and media ethics. All of the school’s students are bilingual in English and Spanish, and they come from families with limited financial resources.
EdSurge caught up with Mendiola via phone while she was visiting family in Mexico during summer break. She talked about making the leap from journalism to education and why the most tech-savvy generation of students still needs a guiding hand to navigate the media landscape.
EdSurge: You had a lot of success as a broadcast journalist, and you were leading Telemundo Chicago’s consumer investigations unit before you became a teacher. Why did you want a change?
Alba Mendiola: My students, they always ask me, “Why did you leave?”
It’s like, “Why not?” [Laughs.]
I always said that the only thing I regret is not leaving sooner. I really enjoy being a teacher. I always used this analogy: It’s like going up a mountain. I decided to quit when I was at the top of my career and start a new project and new mountain.
And I’m happy doing what I’m doing, teaching students, helping them develop their critical thinking skills. By doing this job, it’s just like, I’m in heaven.
In this job, you can combine your love of journalism with teaching. Where did you get your love of teaching? Is that something that came from your family?
I was a television reporter in Mexico, then I quit to follow my [American] boyfriend — now my husband — to the U.S.
When I came to the U.S., I did a volunteer program through the Archdiocese [of Chicago] where I was teaching adults in a job readiness program. Most of the people in my class were women who were victims of domestic violence, or low-income.
Just being in a classroom and knowing that you’re changing somebody’s life, it’s very moving. But then I had this journalism bug in me. I went back [to journalism] and worked at Telemundo for 16 years. So teaching, it’s not new to me.
You pitched this broadcast journalism class to your school. When you were developing the class, what was your vision?
I wrote an op-ed in La Raza called “La alfabetización mediática es un derecho civil” — media literacy is a human right. And that’s where I express my idea for the class, saying that the students in this generation, they are born in the digital era and it’s almost embedded. They know how to open these apps, and a lot of their information comes from their news feeds. But the reality is that they really don’t know how it works and what it takes to do it.
These kids, they just barely remember what a landline is. They don’t watch television the way that we watch television. Everything is changing, and it’s not their fault. It’s how the world is evolving, and they need to understand the ethics of creating information.
Because one of the questions I ask them in my first class is, “Do you wanna be informed or do you wanna be influenced?” Because they’re all the time on their TikTok or their Instagram looking at those feeds. You are watching commercials. They’re trying to make you buy something or make you do something and not necessarily informing you. So you need to be a little bit skeptical. Sometimes [students] don’t know what the difference is from a commercial to a news story.
So we go over those lessons, and my goal for this class is to try to develop their critical thinking skills. They have to understand how the media works. Once they understand how that works and get engaged and participate in the democratic process and are making their own decisions, maybe in the future they can be leaders, as well. Especially knowing the differences between facts and misleading news. Recently it has been a huge problem in the United States.
Why do you think it’s important for this type of class to be bilingual?
We could be from different countries — Venezuelans and Mexicans and Colombians and Cubans — but at the end of the day, what keeps us together is the language. Many [immigrants] come here and they learn English, but they still wanna know what is happening in their country.
I can tell you right now — and media literacy in general, this is not just for students, it’s for adults, too — they sometimes don’t know how to recognize facts from fiction.
Now with AI, it’s so difficult to recognize. To give you an example, my mom lives here in Mexico. She’s 82, but let me tell you, this woman has her iPhone, she shops online, she’s very tech savvy.
But she gets this where you see Biden, you can hear his voice in a press conference, and he says something like, “Yeah, the UFOs have landed. Yeah, we know this is happening.”
And my mom was like, “What is this?” And then I’m like, “No, mom, that is fake. That’s not real.”
If you go onto the News Literacy Project, in the lessons, there’s a bunch of information there about immigration, also — how immigration has been written about in different newspapers and through pictures that have been posted online. For example, a kid who is in a cage. The way they write that story, it could be misleading. So we learn all about how they can manipulate pictures, how they can manipulate information to get your attention.
Do the students get hands-on experience reporting a story?
We create podcasts, we create visuals, we create videos. They get excited when I say, “OK, let’s work on a video project.”
And once you make them do it, then they realize how hard it is. I would say, “Back in the day, journalists who were trained in ethics worked on a story and gave it to you. It’s already curated for you. And now anybody with a cellphone can call themselves a journalist. If you have a phone, you can live stream from anywhere in the world and nobody’s gonna be checking if you are correct or if your facts are correct or not.”
Once they start doing what it takes to record the video and write a story and or write a podcast, that’s when they realize, “Oh boy. This takes time and effort to really get it done right.”
I think the part that strikes them the most, and it gets the “aha” moment when we go over bias. We all have it, and it’s OK. Now we just need to be conscious about it. I love to see that because this is one of the very first units that we do. And then at the end, they have to create something and they realize, “I cannot give my opinion on this.” No, you have to try to write a story in a way that you just present all the facts, and your readers or your listeners or your viewers have to make a decision of if it’s right or wrong, if it’s good or bad.
What else do you want people to know about your class?
I’m so honored that the News Literacy Project nominated me for this award. This is big for our Latino communities because this organization is not just recognizing me. They are recognizing the need for bilingual education in media literacy.
And one more thing: I remember another reporter asked me, so why is media literacy important? Normally, school districts attach the news literacy unit or this topic to the English class. But I have a different opinion about that, and I wrote that in my op-ed, that you don’t have to be a mathematician to study math. That doesn’t mean that you’re gonna become a mathematician. You study science, that doesn’t mean you’re gonna be a scientist.
What I try to say is that for example, in math class, you can have the students learning how ratings work, and that is part of what news literacy is about. In science class, how the technology measures tornadoes for the weather segment. Or in history class, you can analyze old newspapers and see how certain events in history were written about. And then my favorite is what I do in language classes. You can analyze news in Spanish, in Portuguese, in German, in Polish, any other language.
Everybody needs to know how news works. So that is my little contribution, and I invite teachers to consider this, especially because the News Literacy Project already has lessons for you, so it will be easier for you to plan your day.