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News Literacy Project Summary: Questions and Recommendations

After examining all four modules of the News Literacy Project, I came away with enhanced skills, but also questions and concerns.

Bias is a tremendously tricky issue. For example, when I introduced on my Facebook page the comparison of tweeted headlines, shown in the bias segment about the grand jury refusing to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, a spirited discussion about bias and the sources involved ensued. Was Fox biased for omitting racial descriptors? Was CNN biased for including them?  Does this culture even perceive bias in the same way we used to, or has its accepted meaning changed?

And when I posed the same question to my daughter and her boyfriend, both high school seniors, they instantly identified the Fox headline as containing less bias, then revised those opinions slightly after discussing it a bit. The kids seemed to think race might be an important factor to give the story context, but they weren’t completely sure. They also had less knowledge of the events in Ferguson. This might have colored their perceptions as well, since the people in my Facebook sphere tend to identify more as news junkies than my daughter.

And it isn’t just bias in headlines, or even in the body of the reporting. What about reporters tweeting their opinions, separate from their work? Does that affect the way you see that reporter’s stories? Should it?

I had that discussion on Facebook when a reporter tweeted THIS about Sarah Palin’s visit to the White House. He works for Buzzfeed, a partner in the NLP I just completed. How responsible is a news organization (whether Buzzfeed is one or not, they hold themselves out as one in this project) for the opinions of its staff?

These are things we haven’t discussed much in earlier times. Walter Cronkite was biased, for example, but many of us weren’t aware of it. We’ve become saturated with more media, and more examples of media bias, making us somewhat more media savvy as a nation. And new media sources help make us more aware of bias from legacy media, such as this example.

Without this Western Journalism video or other new media sources exposing the difference between the full coverage of the sister’s remarks and the CNN snippet, we would never know CNN had changed the meaning of her words. But throughout this curriculum, the lessons seemed to subtly underline the position that the mainstream media were the best, most thorough, most reliable sources.  It likely would never occur to the NLP team to show where one of their partners got it very wrong.  And that is a sad thing.  These issues and examples don’t get discussed much either, and they should.  Side by side comparisons, absent any commentary, are powerful tools to educate people about bias.

It was a good thing to see these segments discuss how news organizations say they try to mitigate bias in reporting, and show students examples that they could easily understand. But here’s part of the disconnect for me. In talking about the different kinds of bias, the presenter in that section said this:

‘Having a variety of people with different backgrounds at a news organization helps provide a system of checks and balances, so that the influence of personal biases can be minimized.’

That’s absolutely a good policy. But my confidence in major news organizations actually carrying this out is extremely low. News organizations do this less and less, if indeed they ever did. Consider this article from Chris Cillizza about the shift in partisan affiliation of reporters.  Part of that might be due to where the media live and how it affects their biases.  Add to that complication the fact that news organizations have spent more time developing their online presences, and have sometimes fallen to the temptation of clickbait and rushing to be first rather than right. That puts us in danger of a press that is increasingly incentivized to cover news differently based on what will increase their traffic and their revenue, not on what we need to know. That’s a kind of bias that wasn’t discussed in this program, but it’s important to the discussion.  There’s no easy fix for that.

Additionally, Facebook is partnering in the NLP with these news organizations.  Given that many people get news from Facebook, it seems logical that Zuckerberg and company would want to be involved in an effort like this.  But the part Facebook is playing is not clear yet.  I mentioned some steps Facebook is taking in the introduction to this series, but it may take time to see how they work with this project.  Other organizations that aren’t affiliated with the NLP are also getting involved in fighting ‘fake news’.  Even You Tube is crafting a course for students in the UK delivered via in-person gatherings at youth clubs. Time will tell if that is a good or bad thing, but at minimum, I’m pleased to see these discussions.  I just don’t want to see them carried out entirely without new media or conservatives’ input.

Overall, I believe this program has some solid information and education around issues of press freedom, sorting types of information, algorithms, and journalistic standards. It’s a good program for learning about how journalism ought to work, and a good refresher for those of us committed to holding the media accountable. That last bit is tremendously important.  If the media isn’t meeting the standards of journalism they are claiming to live by in this curriculum, then it’s vitally important that we are able to expose that.  Just a quick look at the video above illustrates how to do it: ‘Show me in this curriculum where to find the standards that say you can edit the rant of a woman calling for rioting in the suburbs into a call for peace.’

I don’t think there’s a great deal of bias in the way the information is presented in the program, other than to imply that some sources of information are credible and trustworthy because of their names. As new media adds voices to the universe of information we have access to, it’s understandable that legacy media would be a little put out, and attempt to classify traditional outlets as more credible.  But again, many of the new media outlets exist to fill a perceived void the traditional media left wide open.  They created the market for new media just as surely as the technology that enables it has done.

And when it comes to fact-checking, the program made me wonder why no conservative organization has attempted to enter that marketplace held by Snopes, Politifact, and Factcheck.org. I don’t think that if there was a conservative attempt at fact checking that this program would acknowledge it as such or recommend it, but I wonder at least why the attempt hasn’t been made, or if it has, why I don’t know about it. Or whether there’s just a lack of profit in such an endeavor. Just something to think about, since education and information in the future is going to be increasingly focused online. There are search engine ethics issues to tackle another day, but if more content is created and supported and boosted by one side, you know that side has a much better chance of their ideas carrying the day in the long run. I’d wager you can already see it happening, and it’s not good.

Ultimately, I think everyone should take this course; parents, teachers, students, internet warriors, journalists, political junkies, activists – everyone. It would do us all some good to examine these issues, discuss these standards to the point where they become commonplace measurements, and learn how to better evaluate information we encounter. I don’t think the course will indoctrinate students (much, anyway, except maybe to reinforce a bias to old media as I mentioned) and I think junior high and high school students could use this information, since so much of their time is spent online.

But you shouldn’t merely take my word for it. Even with as much information as I shared, there’s much more to it than I’ve been able to express. If your student does take it, try to take it with him. Talk about the lessons. Discuss the examples and explore the issues together.  Expose them to the issues I added above, too, like the CNN video or the reporter’s response to Palin visiting the White House.  I know teachers might say this kind of thing a lot, but I can’t emphasize enough how you should experience this lesson with your student. With you working on it together, it might be one of the most important lessons to prepare them for navigating all the information that comes their way, and help them establish habits that could last.

Finally, if you are wondering whether a news source leans one way or another, check out Sharyl Attkisson’s Media Bias Chart.  It’s a work in progress, but she’s attempting to assist news consumers in determining which way particular organizations tend to report information.  Bias doesn’t automatically make everything a news source puts out wrong, but it should be taken into account when consuming news.  See the chart below, or bookmark it from her site to keep up with it as she edits it.

Note: If you are a teacher, contact the News Literacy Project about adding the program. Your school is supposed to purchase a premium license to use the program in order to obtain student licenses that they can use to navigate the system. Currently the spring pilot program runs through June 30, 2017, and in exchange for providing feedback, the subscription fee for the program is supposed to be waived. This means right now it’s possible to review the program for free by registering, allowing you to review all the materials, including the downloadable items like teachers’ guides and so on.

If you aren’t a teacher and wish to review the material, you could contact the organization and request access, or ask a teacher friend to submit a request to help you review it like I did. But it’s worth doing soon, as there are hours of material to go through and only a couple of months before the pilot ends. I don’t have a problem with them charging for the curriculum – a lot of hours and effort went into it. However, I do wish there was a clear way for individuals and home school families to obtain access. The more eyes on it, the better it could be evaluated and discussed in the public view.