News Literacy Project Module 4: How to Know What to Believe

Module Four of the News Literacy Project is How to Know What to Believe, focusing on learning Standards of Journalism, and Determining Credibility and Bias

The fourth module gets to the heart of the mission: knowing good journalism from shoddy journalism, and evaluating information for credibility and bias.  These are skills everyone, not just students, should be learning when taking in information.

Getting the Story: Practicing Quality Journalism

This segment aims to teach students the standards of quality journalism, helping them recognize credible information, and also identify when information is unverified, misleading, incomplete or false. Students role-play the part of a reporter, getting information about what happened at the scene of a crash. They are encouraged to use these seven standards to help them:

  • multiple credible sources
  • verification
  • avoidance of bias
  • balance
  • documentation
  • context
  • fairness

Students investigate the scene, interview sources, confirm information they’ve been given, and choose which final product article they would publish given a choice of two, based on whether the story was accurately and fairly reported using those standards above. Their progress as they work through interviews and following up information is charted with progress bars on each of the standards after each activity.

By the end of segment 1, students have had to make choices at several points about how to present information they were given, such as how to verify a witness’s statement or how to get confirmation of details from independent sources.

Recognizing Bias

In this segment, students learn to be aware of different types of bias such as:

  • political
  • ideological
  • racial
  • gender
  • economic
  • religious
  • national or regional
  • corporate or anticorporate

Students compare headlines from coverage of the grand jury that refused to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, and a series of examples of information on the minimum wage

The segment then went on to introduce the concept of confirmation bias, explaining what it is to students:

The habit of seeking out information that confirms our preexisting beliefs.

The well-known image of a Ferguson protester throwing a gas canister back at police was discussed, and how people initially believed it was a molotov cocktail because of the way the image was reported and published.

Students are asked to list issues they have strong opinions about that might make it difficult to avoid bias, and are introduced to four factors that one can use to examine a piece for bias:
  • news judgment – is it newsworthy, does it reflect bias in being produced over another story
  • tone – is the language neutral
  • balance – are all relevant perspectives included
  • fairness – is it fair to the people, perspectives, and ideas represented, and does it give enough information to the reader or viewer

Students then examine several pieces of information to determine how high or low each item scores on those four factors, first for a series of messages about participation trophies, then for a series of messages on immigration. Sources included:

  • an instagram post
  • a blog post
  • coverage from the Washington Post
  • a car commercial
  • a snippet of audio from Mark Levinson
  • an LA Times piece
  • a Washington Examiner piece
  • a video from Immigration Voter

Checking Credibility: Evaluating Information

In this segment, students walk through the Check Tool to evaluate pieces based on all the factors they’ve been taught. They learn to check the number and quality of sources, their reliability and variety, and other factors such as use of images. Then they locate another article or item on the same topic and compare, determining which one seems more fair and thorough. They also examine them for tone and purpose looking for bias and credibility.


I have to admit, this module gave me the most difficulty; not in completing it, but in evaluating whether what I was seeing and doing in the exercises was affected by my own biases, and by whether I felt there were subtle messages pushed that would be lost on students. I’ll go into more of that in my summation in the final installment of the series, but phrases like ‘all relevant perspectives are included’ come loaded with room for interpretation.

The reporter role-play activity was really well done, and allowed students to make judgment calls based on information as they developed it.  Asking students to think about their own biases was also a good discussion opportunity that can help drive home the idea that we all come with biases.  Again, it seemed that the program was subtly holding traditional news sources up as the highest quality and most believable sources.  My hope is that the skepticism the program tries to teach extends to all media, including traditional media, once students pick up these skills.

Many of the things we need to consider about what constitutes fair coverage are subjective, and there is room for discussion about them.  But in the absence of an ethical commitment to finding the truth, many people simply choose the easy course: seeking out sources that tend to agree with them.  And in the absence of a thoughtful and studied position on a given subject, people often simply adopt the opinions of their friends and cultural influences.

Once those opinions are set, it gets more and more difficult to convince people to change them.  That ought to concern everyone reading this series.  There’s a narrative being crafted and amplified in the younger generation that certain ideas and views and opinions are beyond the pale and unacceptable in society.  If one does not hold the correct set of views on issues ranging from abortion to sexual practices to environmental and health care issues, then it is acceptable, it is encouraged, to shout them down and shut them down.  There is no debate allowed, and no dissension tolerated.  If that mindset takes hold in enough people, it won’t matter how unbiased news sources might be; anything published that does not conform to the narrative will be rejected.