Election 2008: A Lesson on Media Bias

One of the best parts of the new school year is that my principal hired me for an extra month to drive a vision for 21st Century learning in our building’s classrooms.

On Thursday, I taught an after school session on the role that Pageflakes—an RSS Feed Reader—can play in the classroom.  “Showing students how to manage information,” I argued, “Is probably the most important 21st Century skill to teach to our kids because learning in the 21st Century is going to require efficiency.”

After the session, several teachers came up and asked me to create a set of feeds on the upcoming Presidential election here in the United States—which is the perfect topic for introducing RSS to students, simply because there are thousands of sites being updated regularly on the election.

As I assembled my collection of feeds—which you can explore here—I grouped them into categories.

The “flakes” on the left hand side of the screen come from traditional news sources like Fox News, CNN, ABC and the BBC.  The “flakes” in the center of the screen come from the kinds of sites that will motivate middle schoolers.  There are (or will be when I’m finished with this column) feeds to election videos, podcasts, MTV election news and Rock the Vote.

And the flakes on the right hand side of the screen come from political bloggers.  There are teen and student bloggers from sites like Vogue, Rock the Vote and Seventeen magazine, as well as adult bloggers from Fox and CNN.

Then, I decided that one of the most important lessons that students can learn in today’s digital news marketplace is that there is often downright overt hidden bias in reporting.  Learning to judge the validity of online sources couldn’t be any more important to promoting democracy, right?

So I put together a handout designed to introduce students to the idea that news sources may just be trying to influence readers to lean in one political direction or another.  You can download it here:

Download Handout_Election_2008.doc

What I figure I’ll have students do is pick an article from two or three different news sources that cover the same event or topic—candidate performance in a debate, candidate position towards the war in Iraq or the current fiscal crisis, candidate gaffes or public miscues, McCain’s age or Obama’s inexperience—and evaluate the ways that each news source covers the topic.

By doing so, students will learn to identify the kinds of strategies that authors use to influence readers.  They’ll also recognize that not all news sources are as fair and balanced as they claim to be!  Finally, they can learn the difference between reporting done by professionals working for traditional news outlets and “reporting” done by bloggers—an increasingly important source of information for today’s citizen.

Whaddya’ think?

I know that some people are going to be disappointed, but this lesson didn’t require a single dollar worth of additional technology investment for my classroom at all.  Instead, it uses a free application and an internet connection to teach the kinds of skills that I believe are important to preparing kids for the future.

Does this sound like a worthy example of 21st Century learning?

22 thoughts on “Election 2008: A Lesson on Media Bias

  1. Howard

    Many bloggers are describing how CNN rejected their postings about Obama’s socialism … even though it was in Obama’s own words. I have experienced similar censorship from CNN, as well as other biased media outlets. If Obama gets elected, and this great country declines into socialism, it will be the corrupt and biased media who will bear much of the responsibility. Free enterprise, opportunity, and the standard of living in the United States, are some of the reasons why people from all over the world risk life and limb to move here. A fair media is paramount to a free society. The media never vetted Obama. Now the momentum of his campaign and fund raising has made it very hard to stop his ‘run away train”. If Americans had known half the stuff we now know about Obama, he would never have gotten this far … and, there is a lot we still don’t know about Obama! For example … are hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions that are helping him get elected, originally from foreign sources? Is his birth certificate authentic? The media’s willful decision to grossly favor one side, and refuse to report the truth, is evil and betrays their responsibility to the American people. In my opinion the media’s actions, and inactions in this situation amount to criminal behavior. Who are the media accountable to?

  2. Bob Heiny

    Yes, you make sense, as usual, when you encourage a new sense of urgency to assessing the quality of information, including from non-traditional media. I also agree with Patricia. Please add me to your list of those interested in more progress reports about your lesson.

  3. Patricia

    Bill, makes perfect sense. Thanks for the clarification, and I really appreciate that you’re willing and able to teach kids about bloggers and blogging along with more traditional media. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in school, and I forgot how teaching can be (though clearly is not necessarily!) such a low tech enterprise.
    I’d love to read updates on how this unit goes over with the kids!

  4. Pat

    I think it is a great lesson! I love the pageflakes list too. Have you ever used jogtheweb.com? I think that would be a great way to display the pages too.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Patricia wrote:
    However, I would request that you not automatically present bloggers as faux-reporters (by contrasting them with the pros and by using quotation marks around “reporting” which implies that it is actually not) who can never compete with the “professional journalists” at mainstream media organizations.
    Hey Patricia…
    First, thanks for stopping by!
    Second, I couldn’t agree with your comment more–and I hate to have left the implications that bloggers are automatically unreliable…
    After all, I am one!
    I think that my writing was particularly targeted for teachers—and to teachers, bloggers are still very much non-traditional news sources. If the lesson I was describing above were designed by most educators, bloggers wouldn’t even appear in the collection of resources!
    Like you, I believe that bloggers are doing terrific work—-In fact, the majority of my professional growth and reading is done through blogs.
    And citizen journalism is really quite an interesting phenomenon that we have to teach kids to embrace.
    Step one, though, is just getting teachers to recognize that blogs are a source of information that students need to be made aware of!
    Does this make sense? Does it explain my language and punctuation at all?

  6. Patricia

    Mr. Ferriter:
    I applaud your attempts to teach media awareness and information management to the kids under your tutelage. I’m not an educator, just someone who is interested in education and education policy, and now a mom (so I guess that means my interest is a little more vested!), and I believe this is one of the most important skills today’s young people need to navigate our increasingly information-saturated society.
    However, I would request that you not automatically present bloggers as faux-reporters (by contrasting them with the pros and by using quotation marks around “reporting” which implies that it is actually not) who can never compete with the “professional journalists” at mainstream media organizations. While I realize that the vast majority of bloggers do not do original reporting, some can and do. See for example, Radley Balko on the Corey Maye story in Mississippi (www.theagitator.com), or Michael Yon in various war zones (www.michaelyon-online.com) or Michael Totten, in various other conflict areas (www.michaeltotten.com). I think the takeaway lesson is that reporting is mostly done by professionals who have the resources to support those efforts, but that it can be done by individuals who care enough about a particular issue to look for information, make phone calls, talk to people. The internet allows anyone with a connection and an email address to be a publisher. While the death of professional journalism is highly exaggerated, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that reporting is no longer left only to the pros, and the kids need to learn to evaluate such “citizen journalists” in the same way they evaluate professional news reports. And it’s a valuable skill to be able to differentiate genuine original reporting from news aggregation or opinion.
    Maybe that’s cutting it too fine for your purposes, by that’s my two cents. Great lesson!

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Bob wrote:
    Sidebar: I wonder why anyone considers evaluating information sources as new for the 21st Century. Such evaluation seems like a new phrase for a traditional endemic purpose of academics.
    Great point, Bob—Evaluating information sources definitely isn’t a new skill at all.
    I think it’s just a far greater challenge—and far more pressing skill—today than it was thirty years ago because of the number—and the kind—of resources available to readers.
    Because the barrier to publishing has been lowered to 0, there are far more questionable sources available to far more people with almost no effort today.
    So—an old skill that needs to be taught with new urgency.
    Does this make sense?

  8. Bob Heiny

    Kudos, Bill, for taking another great step for making classroom learning easier and more efficient.
    Sidebar: I wonder why anyone considers evaluating information sources as new for the 21st Century. Such evaluation seems like a new phrase for a traditional endemic purpose of academics.
    And kudos to Mike for pointing out facts I have not heard anyone mention since I supervised practice teachers in South Chicago years ago.
    Mike’s comments, Bill, it seems to me, enhance one of your reasons for making it easier for teachers and students to assess omissions, biases and spins in media reports.
    I hope others will add more comments summarizing how they handle these assessments in their classes.

  9. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Hi there. I’m fairly well up on the topic of this particular post. This is, after all, your blog. I’m not trying to turn it toward any particular issue, but merely inviting you to take up another issue in the continuing educational debate. I know you’ve taken of late to focus much more on tech issues, I merely suggest that it might be interesting, for you and those who enjoy the blog, to explore the educational leanings of Senators Obama and McCain. At the moment, however, Senator Obama’s background is a bit more interesting. If not, my apologies for any distress this might have caused and I’ll be pleased to allow this particular sleeping dog to lie.

  10. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    But you seem rather more interested in discoursing on what my classroom demeanor might be than on what may well be the defining, fundamental educational experience and leanings of a candidate for president.
    Actually, Mike, it seems that you’ve missed the point of this post completely.
    This post never set out to inform the public about any one candidate. Instead, it set out to introduce teachers to a potential tool for easily gathering information about the election and a potential handout for teaching about bias in the news.
    You’ve tried to turn it into a debate over individual candidates.

  11. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    The way I am teaching my daughter to understand media bias is simple. We together watch a political event on C-Span. (Recently it was the debate). I meanwhile tivo two different news outlets I know come from different perspectives and have her watch each, reporting to her what she saw unedited on cspan for herself. She gets it.
    You left off your list for the middle schoolers the C-Span programs weekly that show the Close Up Foundation sessions (young people asking newsmakers questions). C-Span also has many features with history on various subjects that are very well done. If you check their website they do a great deal in working with students.

  12. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    This is a site for adult professionals, is it not? And as such, adults can understand satire more completely than kids. My presentation in the classroom is, as you suggest more measured and aimed at several simple points: (1) The mainstream media is, thankfully, not always biased in every story. (2) But when it is, the bias is invariably to the left. I’ve done this unit for years and each year, I ask students (indeed, colleagues) to provide even one example of MSM bias to the right, which I would gladly include in the unit for no reason other than it’s rarity. I’m still waiting. Of course, the primary point is that the job of honest journalists is to present–in news coverage–the unbiased facts, the truth if you will, so that the public can make informed decisions. Bias, to the left or the right, in news reporting is unacceptable and students need to understand what it is, its harms, and how to detect it.
    But my purpose in writing was to point out certain facts, which remain that in Obama’s sole executive position, a position he held for several years, ostensibly for the benefit of poorly served, underperforming Chicago school
    children, despite spending many millions, he accomplished nothing at all for the kids (according to the auditors for and of the NGO who provided the funding). Instead his grants were aimed at left wing political indoctrination of the kids who desperately needed help with their educations. Facts. It is also a fact that the MSM is studiously ignoring this story. Considering that this is Obama’s largest foray into education policy and practice, one might think you’d be interested in looking into it yourself and in stimulating debate on a man who might very well be president and, if his experience in education is any predictor, could well do substantial damage to American education.
    If I’ve presented anything here that’s factually incorrect, by all means, point it out. If you didn’t appreciate the satirical means by which I presented some of those facts, that is, of course, your right. But you seem rather more interested in discoursing on what my classroom demeanor might be than on what may well be the defining, fundamental educational experience and leanings of a candidate for president.

  13. Renee Moore

    Great lesson, Bill–for students and teachers alike! As an old journalism teacher, I always enjoy helping my students learn to be wise consumers of news media of all types. There is no such thing as unbiased or objective news reporting; ethical journalists are those who recognize their won prejudices or leanings and make a concerted, honest effort to compensate for them when covering a story.
    The idea of looking at a single news story from several sources has always been one of my favorites. My students were particularly fascinated by how events in the U.S. are covered by media in other nations. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Jacky Fields

    Bill – I hadn’t thought about it that way before – but its true, 21st Century learning is about skills, not tools. I have been heavily against buying new stuff – and I do mean stuff – for our schools when they already have a great internet connection in every classroom, a lab, and two mobile labs. Enough is enough. Now lets learn to use the tools to promote skills necessary in this new world.
    I really like how you divide your columns of feeds. One of the most important skills is to teach our children how to read and devine all these internet messages.
    Between our library and computer lab, we do a lot of work to help our children understand biases in websites they read. This year we are emphasizing both Internet safety, and web site evaluation among our classes.
    Your election lesson is great! Are you familiar with Commoncraft’s Election video? http://www.commoncraft.com/election
    It may help your students to understand the electoral college.

  15. Bill Ferriter

    @Rob: Thanks for the kind words on the handout. I think it’s going to work well for upper middle schoolers.
    And you’re right: More and more of our news is coming from alternative sources—navigating this minefield is an essential literacy for today.
    @Jabiz: Good point on third party candidates. I’m not sure how to go about fitting them in to this project only because that might be too much information for my kids to manage!
    @Laura: What’s even more interesting about my lesson is that it doesn’t require thousands of new dollars of technology investment!
    Just a free application and an internet connection.
    21st Century learning is about skills—not tools.

  16. Bill Ferriter

    Jabiz wrote:
    Don’t want to turn this into a political back and forth, this is not the place.
    You made me laugh, Jabiz! I didn’t get a dime either. We must be the only two kids in America who missed out.
    But seriously, Mike—-Your comment here is an example of the kinds of language that I’d want my kids to be able to identify as heavily biased.
    In fact, I might even use it as an example when I teach my lesson!
    And while bias is never bad—we are all biased on every topic—recognizing that bias as real and using it to temper the actions that you take and the faith that you put in someone’s statements is the first step towards navigating today’s media landscape.
    I hope you present a somewhat more measured front in your classroom. Otherwise, you fit into the stereotype of a teacher who is pushing his own agenda—rather than allowing kids to identify their own values and providing them with the skills to act.
    And that’s a stereotype that’s usually reserved for the left!

  17. Jabiz

    Don’t want to turn this into a political back and forth, this is not the place, but I am upset that,
    “they gave millions to 60’s leftist, communist radicals for projects to turn children into left wing radical activists who would rail against oppression, America, all the usual liberal bugaboos.”
    and I didn’t get a dime!

  18. Mike

    One of my yearly projects is an “Understanding The Media” unit that covers the various ways the mainstream media misbehaves. One issue we’re following this year is Obama and education policy. This is an issue you might want to follow, Bill.
    I refer specifically to Obama’s years as the head of the Chicago Annenberg challenge, a position given him by unrepentant terrorist and education prof. Bill Ayers. Together, they dispensed tens and tens of millions, ostensibley to improve education for children in Chicago. Even the Annenberg Foundation’s own auditors discovered that Obama did absolutely nothing to improve the lives and performance of Chicago school children. What did they spend all that money on? Instead of helping kids to read or improving schools, they gave millions to 60’s leftist, communist radicals for projects to turn children into left wing radical activists who would rail against oppression, America, all the usual liberal bugaboos. Here we have a man who is running for president who has no executive experience. Ooops! No, he does have executive experience. He ran the Chicago Annenberg Challenge!
    How does the media fit into this? They’re doing everything they can to not only avoid reporting on it, but to bury it. Imagine if a Republican candidate had a similar background. Front page of the New York Times every day from now until November 2?

  19. Laura Sofen

    We have been immersed in media literacy since the beginning of the school year. I titled the unit “Question Authority,” and the kids really get it. They were appalled to learn some of the tricks that advertisers use to grab their attentions. Your election idea is the kind of useful, valuable knowledge kids need to navigate the world of information. Without the opportunity to question and analyze the information they are presented, our students will be uninspired little sheep, slaves to their baser instincts and stuck in the biased world of other people’s opinions.

  20. Jabiz

    This all looks great, have you thought about introducing some feeds on 3rd party candidates and their role, or non-role, in the process.

  21. Rob Jacobs

    As news and information steadily leave the “mainstream” sources and become provided by an increased number of websites, blogs, etc. the understanding of the digital news marketplace is truly becoming a 21st Century literacy issue. Your handout is an excellent resource.

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