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Teaching News Bias without Being Biased

This is a guest post by Katelynn Giordano. 

For language arts teachers, the general public’s growing inability to critically analyze media, especially news media, can be disheartening. We are in the business of teaching our students to become critical thinkers, especially when reading and responding to content. Due to the increase in “fake news” and the prevalence of news on social media, we are living in a society where many people seek out ways to confirm their own biases rather than get factual information. As someone who teaches critical literacy, I find it simple to identify news that is biased or unrealistically presented. However, I have been reminded time and again in the past months that this is just not the case for everyone. People must learn, as with everything else, how to look at any piece of writing, any video, any news story and gauge its usefulness, bias, and truthfulness.

It may seem like a no-brainer to start teaching our students how to analyze news sources in our language arts classrooms. This skill falls perfectly within most curricula, as it supports the development of critical literacy and analytical thinking. It aligns with the skill of recognizing credible resources when doing research. However, when considering how I would accomplish teaching students how to recognize news biases, I struggled with how to view them in a productive and objective way. And, knowing how much pushback I would get if any “right” or “left” news sources were identified as such, I found myself shying away from teaching a relevant, important topic.

As a sixth-grade teacher, I have a group of students who are at a pivotal age. They are new to our middle school, they are just starting to become more independent, and many of them are active on different forms of social media. At the same time, these students are still very involved with their families, and many are not at a place where they can approach objective thinking with maturity or full understanding. Even so, I wanted to create an activity that would at least start my students on a consideration of news bias, beginning the cultivation of future citizens who have some background with the concept of analyzing news sources.

My determination has resulted in an activity that allows students to analyze different news sources without identifying them as biased toward the left or the right, instead viewing them as pieces of nonfiction writing. With the recent push from the Common Core State Standards to read and comprehend nonfiction, as well as every educator’s responsibility to help students develop as critical thinkers, this activity meets the needs of my students and allows me to foster a skill that I find to be lacking in our society. It can be modified to fit most classes, and it can be kept current by using up-to-date news resources and events.

First, we have to check our own biases at the door. I know that should go without saying, but sometimes it’s best to state the obvious. As educators, many of us feel strongly about our current political climate, so it’s critical when teaching our students to analyze news stories for bias and truthfulness that we give them the room to think on their own–without our influence.

Choose a current event to have students consider. Using a resource that helps identify which sources are more liberal, which are more conservative, and which are typically unbiased (like this one), choose news articles on the same event that fall within one of the three categories. In other words, choose one resource that is liberal, one that is conservative, and one that is neutral that have all reported on the same current event. You can modify this activity by allowing students to choose their own current event and then choose articles from three sources that you have already divided into unnamed categories. This may increase student autonomy and add a research aspect to the activity.

 For example:

Choose one article on your chosen event from the sources below: Choose one article on your chosen event from the sources below: Choose one article on your chosen event from the sources below:
____ BBC

____ NPR

____ Associated Press

____ The Washington Post

____ The Economist

____ The Wall Street Journal

____ The Hill

____ The Fiscal Times

____ The Atlantic

____ The Huffington Post

____ The New York Times

____ CNN

Give students guidelines for considering current events from multiple sources. Allow them time to read and annotate each of the three sources. Their natural curiosity and the analytical skills that have been fostered in the classroom will begin to take over. When this activity is approached from a critical thinking or close reading perspective, students will naturally employ the skills they have mastered in those areas. Rather than reading to learn about the current event itself (which is only a small part of this!), they will be considering how the information is written, the point of view and purpose of the author, and why the information is presented the way it is. I give students a handout with questions that challenge them to reflect on how reputable the source is. Some questions include: Which source do you feel best presented the facts about the event? Did any source seem as though it was attempting to change the reader’s mind? Did any source share a direct opinion? Were any sources contradicting one another? When reading about current events, do you think it would be helpful to read about the same event from multiple sources as we did today? Why or why not?

Debrief and allow students to respond to or comment on what they noticed. This debrief can be done on the same day directly following the analysis activity, or it can be done the following day. This debrief is where students will be discussing their findings, so it is best to allow plenty of time for these conversations to continue after they’ve had the opportunity to critically analyze the sources provided. This debrief can also be done after students have crafted a written response, depending on your own preference and the time available. Because of my increased focus on writing this year, I will be having my students respond to the reflection questions and then use the final two questions about the consideration of multiple sources as a persuasive writing prompt. The final part of this activity is to give students time to share their reflections or writing with the class. The whole-class discussion is where their ideas can flow and students can begin to have critical conversations about the observations they made in the analysis of several news sources. Allow the discussion to evolve as your students share their thoughts, and give your students room to respond to the thinking of their peers. Coach them on agreeing or disagreeing respectfully and on supporting their rebuttals or verifications with evidence from a source. After all, as language arts teachers, we teach them to use evidence from the text in any response.

The power of this activity, and in building a critically literate society, comes from the conversations. Our students are the future. They are learning each day to become the citizens they will ultimately be. I plan to do everything I can to facilitate these conversations and to help my students analyze and question the world around them. Join me, won’t you?

 Katelynn Giordano is a grade 6 language arts teacher in Illinois. She is a graduate student, book nerd, writer, and coffee enthusiast. Her passion is inspiring others to find a love and appreciation for education.