Teaching News Bias Without Being Biased

As a language arts teacher, the 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 they read. Due to the increase in “fake news” that exists 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 believe identifying news that is biased or unrealistically presented is a vital skill. However, in the past months, I’ve noticed time and again that this skill is lacking and underdeveloped in our society. Like anything, students must be taught how to look at any piece of writing, any video, any news story and gauge its usefulness, bias, and truthfulness so they can carry those skills with them into their everyday lives.

We need to start teaching our students how to analyze news sources for credibility in our language arts classrooms, and how to have conversations surrounding the current events our world is facing. This skill falls perfectly within most curriculums, as it supports the development of critical literacy and analytical thinking. It aligns with recognizing credible resources when doing research. When considering how I would accomplish teaching this, I saw no better example than teaching students to recognize news biases and how to view them in a productive and objective way. 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. Amidst all of that, their families are still very involved and many of them are not at a place where they can approach this concept with maturity or full understanding. Still, I found myself frustrated at the lack of critical literacy in our society, and wanting to create an activity that would at least start the consideration of news bias for my students, hopefully beginning the cultivation of future citizens who have some background with the concept of analyzing news sources.

This has resulted in an activity that allows students to analyze different news sources without identifying them as biased toward the left or right, but viewing them as pieces of nonfiction writing. With the recent push to read and comprehend nonfiction in the Common Core, as well as the development of 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 bias at the door. I know that goes without saying, but I had to throw it in for good measure. As educators, many of us feel strongly about our current political climate, and it’s important 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 all three of the categories. In other words, choose one resource that is liberal, on that is conservative, and one that is “neutral” that have all reported on the same current event. There is room here to modify the activity, and allow 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 the autonomy for students and add a research aspect to the activity.

News (1)

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 was presented the way it was. The activity I am developing includes a handout that asks students several questions that challenge them to reflect on how reputable the source is. We have completed a research unit that had a focus on choosing reliable resources, so I will be using their prior knowledge to guide their reflections. 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?

Debrief and allow students to respond or comment on what they noticed. This debrief can be done on the same day as part of a quicker activity or part of a language arts block. It can also be done after students have crafted a written response, depending on your own preference for your classroom and the time available. Due to my increased focus on writing this year, I will be having my students respond to the above reflection questions and then use the last one as a writing prompt. The final part of this activity will be to give students time to share their reflection or writing with the class. This is where their ideas can flow and students can begin to have critical conversations about what 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 into agreeing or disagreeing respectfully, and supporting their rebuttals or verifications with evidence from a source. After all, as language arts teachers, we teach them to use text evidence in any response. 

The power of this activity, and in building a critically literate society, comes from the conversation. 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?

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