Learning how to critically analyze the media we see is an essential skill for students to learn and practice. In my grade seven class, we start our study of media literacy by learning how to analyze news media, by evaluating supporting evidence, identifying bias, and investigating how topics are portrayed by different authors. This unit helps foreground our work later in the year, when we turn to evaluating information and misinformation that can be found on social media.
Our first step is to learn how to identify bias in the news. To start, we have a conversation where we define bias. Students should know that everyone has their own biases in terms of how they interpret their world. Journalists are no different, although they also follow journalistic standards of practice, offer evidence, and examine multiple perspectives. Recent discourses have bred distrust of mainstream media, so I stress how these standards of practice help protect the integrity of their articles. It is still important to understand how personal biases can affect the media we read, but the existence of bias does not mean rejecting news outlets.
To understand bias better, we read an article from Issues 21: Power of the Media. The image below is particularly useful in helping us recognize evidence of bias. Bias by omission, with sources, by word choice, and in headlines are particularly recognizable as we start examining news articles.
Putting these concepts into practice, we analyze this article that focuses on a photo radar 'trap'. The topic is fairly straightforward and accessible for grade seven students, while also offering some clear examples of bias. Students consider the following questions:
- What information or sources are left out?
- How does the headline affect our perception of the story? How could it be more neutrally phrased?
- How does word choice affect how we view the situation?
Of course, most articles are more nuanced than this one. I often provide students with articles that discuss an issue. We analyze the supporting evidence found in the article for each side of the issue using a t-chart. If we find omissions, we discuss why they might exist. The news should generally discuss multiple perspectives, but not every perspective always needs to be given equal weight. For instance, there is no reason to interview a climate denialist in an article about climate change. Fringe views or views not based in facts do not require a platform, particularly in other cases where they are actively harmful to marginalized people.
We also spend some time comparing how authors approach topics. For this, we discussed two recent articles related to homelessness in Winnipeg. The first article we read focuses on people experiencing homelessness, but centers the perspective of people who work and go to school downtown. It doesn't feature any first hand accounts by people who are currently affected by homelessness. Students were also quick to point out that the photos in the article work to dehumanize individuals. By contrast, the second article we read interviews experts and a person experiencing homlessness and centers his experiences and the systemic barriers that impact the situation. These articles provide a compelling contrast and emphasize the importance of reading widely in order to understand multiple perspectives.
To end our unit, I ask students to investigate how a particular issue or topic is portrayed in the news. To start, students select an issue that interests them and read some books to get more background information and a stronger preliminary understanding of the topic. We use the Issues 21 series, but other books would work as well. Students must find two articles from different news sources on a similar topic. To facilitate this, I model how to use Google News Search to find current articles using specific keywords. I also offer CBC Kids News as an alternative, which provides articles at an easier reading level.
Using some guiding questions, students summarize each article, and note what might be missing in the coverage. While news articles cannot include every facet of a story, it is still important to consider whose perspectives aren't included. Are these omissions significant? Students are asked to try to determine what the author might think about the issue. Sometimes it isn't possible to determine, but it is still an important question to consider. Finally, I ask students to write a concluding paragraph that compares or contrasts the two articles. I give them some paragraph starters to help them engage in the task:
- Some key differences I noticed were…
- I noticed some bias when…
- Coverage of this issue would be improved by…
- An important idea that was missing was…
- One/both articles demonstrate excellent coverage because...
Being able to assess news articles is an important critical thinking skill. It is essential that students learn to consider bias, how well supported different perspectives are in an article and what might be missing. Learning to navigate the news, to ask questions, and to read widely are all significant first steps to developing citizens who can critically think about the world around them.