When teaching media literacy, what sources of information are credible? Even the teachers don’t agree

It’s pretty much an axiom among history teachers: Don’t put your thumb on the scales when discussing political news with K-12 students. Make sure all students feel safe to voice their opinions. Give students a range of perspectives and allow them to analyze their strengths and weaknesses.

But new research shows that these best practices are easier said than done, especially when it comes to selecting high-quality sources of information with which students can engage.

According to the study recently published in the journal Educational Researcher, high school social studies teachers differ in the specific sources of information they tend to find credible, and even in how they define the concept of credibility. ‘information. And there is evidence that both of these things are partly shaped by teachers’ political views, the study concludes.

“Teachers say, ‘I want to be neutral. I don’t want to indoctrinate my students. I want to present equal and fair arguments. It’s admirable to some degree, but…even if you try, it’s hard — really hard — to be completely and objectively neutral in how you look at sources,” said Christopher H. Clark, professor history assistant at Northeastern State University. in Tahlequah, Okla., and one of the study’s co-authors.

Teachers identifying as the most liberal, for example, gave high marks for NPR and BBC credibility but avoided Fox News, while very conservative teachers preferred Fox News and were highly skeptical of it. regard to CNN.

To some extent, these results should not come as a surprise. Teachers, like everyone else, are human. They have ideas and opinions about current affairs and politics, as well as the news sources they consume. (So ​​please, my illustrious colleagues who cover education, no screaming headlines about teacher bias!)

But the results add a new dimension to the subject of media literacy and how these perceptions ripple through the classroom. Potentially, two teachers from the same school could offer conflicting examples in their classrooms of what a credible source of information looks like.

“It’s kind of uncharted territory for social science teachers. Over the past three or four years, even the idea of ​​bringing an article from the New York Times could be seen as an ideological signal,” noted Mardi Schmeichel, associate professor in the department of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia at Athens. . “This only makes the work of social science teachers even more difficult.

“Static” or “dynamic” credibility

The study, by Clark, Schmeichel and H. James Garrett, also of the University of Georgia, is based on a survey of more than 1,000 high school social studies teachers. (The researchers sent the survey to more than 60,000 of these teachers in six politically different states: Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New York and Texas.)

The final sample is not nationally representative – it contains fewer teachers of color than the national pool, for example – but it does reflect a wide range of teacher political identities.

See also: What are the political convictions of educators? Education Week polled them to find out

Each teacher was asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being very conservative and 7 being very liberal. Next, they were asked to rate a collection of news sources on a scale of 0 to 3, with zero being not credible and 3 being very credible. When the researchers analyzed this data, they found clear patterns in how teachers perceived various media.

  • Fox News had the largest gap in credibility, with more than a point separating the average liberal and conservative responses. Just behind, the New York Times, followed by CNN.
  • Like Americans in general, conservative teachers were suspicious of the credibility of most news services, while liberals tended to find most sources at least somewhat credible. Notably, liberal teachers also found MSNBC less credible than all other sources except Fox News – the reverse was not true for conservatives.
  • Which, you ask, were the sources that liberal and conservative parties gave higher credibility ratings? That would be the Wall Street Journal, followed by the BBC.

Second, the researchers found that teachers had differing ideas about what constitutes a credible source of information. About two-thirds of those polled said it was to “present the facts only”, give “all sides” or be “neutral”. This group tended to see credibility as a fixed and innate quality: Either a news source had it or it didn’t.

A smaller number of teachers, about a third, identified credibility as a dynamic, function of the journalistic process. That is, they noted the separation of news and opinion sections, the fact-checking process, and the importance for journalists to use first-hand accounts.

And when researchers examined the relationship between these definitions and teachers’ ideology, they found an interesting correlation: teachers who viewed credibility as dynamic tended to rely less on their own politics to determine whether a medium was believable than those who had seen it. as fixed.

Implications for teaching social studies

The results suggest a few different things. First, curricula probably need to help teachers recognize that they come to their classrooms with particular ideological perspectives and that they need to reflect on them when designing learning experiences.

And second, the notion of credibility as a function of information-gathering practices holds promise for countering instinctive ideas about trustworthy sources.

“If introducing future teachers to the idea of ​​journalism as a process is helpful in moderating the influence of ideology, it’s clearly something we can pick up right now in what we talk about in training. social science teachers,” Schmeichel said.

And that goes for programs that directly aim to teach students media literacy skills as well. In fact, having students study what journalists do to verify facts and information, and training them to use these techniques, is an emerging practice in media education.

A Stanford History Education Group project, for example, highlighted the importance of the work of professional fact-checkers.

Qualified consumers of information cross-check it with several different sources, rather than relying on superficial markers of quality, like flashy websites or the fact that the information comes from a non-profit organization, the report noted. organization. And students trained in some of these techniques improve their ability to critically evaluate what they read.

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