Educators on the Frontlines
Before the recent inauguration, then Vice-President Elect Pence accused the news media of being biased. As the media and Washington seem to be careening out of control, our students and their families are becoming more confused about navigating news. In fact, a recent survey report by Teaching Tolerance
states that educators have become “medics on the frontlines.”
For students, the behaviors and mindsets of our fractured factions are not unlike the plot in Veronica Roth's first trilogy book and film, “Divergent.” They are seeing much division amongst and between people. Unfortunately this polarization is not the plot of a dystopic novel, but rather reality. Since our schools are a microcosm of the world, it will require real-life skilled triaging by educators to meet the diverse needs of all students.
Who will need help? When will that help be given? Which students will need the help the most? But most importantly, how will we help our students help themselves?
The Power of the Written Word
The written word via technology is powerful. While guiding students ethically through the information superhighway has become even more difficult these days, the last thing most educators would want is to shut it all down. So teaching students to examine words and information with a keen eye will go a long way to sensitize them to the power of information and help them hone their own bias.
Challenging Biased Assumptions
Without students even having a notion of the meaning of right-wing conservatism or the liberal left, you can guide them through the power of words by having them spend time on the lesson outlined below. I like to think of this as exercising their minds to be able to start identifying words and phrases that could point to bias.
- Introduce the lesson by sharing the definition of bias. Bias means that someone is promoting their information from their point of view. In particular, opposing or supporting a person or thing in an unfair way because of the writer's personal opinions in order to influence others' judgment.
- Share with students headlines from at least six different online publications. Get a variety of samples on various topics. It doesn't hurt the first time around to look for blatant examples of strongly biased headlines. These obvious examples help students to develop their radar for biased information.
- Next create three categories: Neutral, Biased, or Balanced. Have the whole group try categorizing a few together.
For example, a recent headline in an online news source wrote, “Trump in total war with the media, democrats.” Here the words “war” and the adjective "total," demonstrate what most would say is bias. Is it the writer's opinion that there is a “war” going on with media and democrats? Is "total" the writers point of view? Define total. Is there an attempt on the part of the writer to influence the reader? What words in the headlines created emotion? What kinds of feelings do you have when you read the headline? What words create fear, call for action, inflate or deflate an idea or person? Which words are manipulating the reader's judgment? Can certain words be positive or negative?
With a headline like, “United States still committed to NATO, Pence says,” the idea and headline are attributed to Pence, so the headline writer is simply quoting what has been said publicly, making the headline mostly neutral. However, even one word can take a neutral headline and make it not so neutral. In the headline, “Apartment construction shoots to 30-year highs,” the word “shoots” suggests that the rise in construction went up quickly, fast, perhaps explosively, and other descriptions that could be considered subjective.
The difference between neutral and balanced headlines will create great student discussions, since a balanced headline can be hard to find. A headline like, “Is violent crime on the rise or not? Unpacking the data,” is a balanced headline, but it also could predict a balanced pro and con article to come.
- Have students work in groups to divide headlines into each category and discuss and share words or phrases that most influenced their decision.
- Discuss the power of words and how information can influence others. Spend large group time replacing the bias words in the headlines to see if it changes the category or intent.
- Have students do an exit ticket giving one example of how their own bias, personal opinions, and point of views might get in the way of having balanced writing. Who do they want to influence to believe, think, or act as they do?
Barbara Theirl recently retired after teaching information literacy and technology for 27 years. She has served in various educational leadership positions and as an assistant professor and teacher supervisor at two universities. Theirl, a former copresident of the Information Technology Educators of Minnesota was appointed to the Minnesota State Library Advisory Council and served as chair for two terms. She has been a keynote speaker, invited presenter for statewide conferences on information literacy and technology, and has served on advisory councils for several college of education departments. Theirl has traveled to numerous states and Thailand promoting information literacy, technology, and a love of reading. You can contact Barbara by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.