A Biased Approach to Teaching Media Literacy

There has never been a more pressing need to teach young people media literacy. Every day, an ocean of new content inundates their developing brains, and a comprehensive set of skills is required if they hope to deftly sift through the roar. A key to being media literate is having a deep understanding of bias: what it is, how it affects us, and why we should care about it.

In response to the torrent of confusing and confounding digital information, last year the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a paper titled, “Media Education in English Language Arts,” wherein the council acknowledged the prescient need for “educators at all levels [to] help learners develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed for life in an increasingly digital and mediated world.”

One such skill is the ability to identify bias and understand the role it plays in the media students consume. Erik Bean, an educational technology professional, author, researcher, and administrator, recently published a handbook for inspecting social media and news stories titled, Bias is All Around You.

“Bias,” says Erik, “is your opinion. But, is your opinion based on good information or bad information?” The question here points to the nuanced nature of bias and why it’s crucial to grasp the concept if students hope to parse out facts from fiction.

For the majority of students, bias likely has a negative connotation, and understandably so. Bias indicates subjectivity — when it comes to the facts, objectivity is the gold standard. After all, if something is objective, it means it is purely factual and uncontaminated by opinion.

But as humans, we are incapable of being purely objective as that would require us to remove ourselves from ourselves — our perceptions, our senses, our experiences. As we are inherently subjective beings who rely on inductive reasoning to make sense of our individual experiences, we are prone to develop explicit and implicit biases.

Bias can arguably be a good thing when it comes to being passionate. A journalist’s pursuit of a story (which can often last years) is usually fueled by their passion for their beat. That passion could be seen as a bias toward how important the story is, which is part of what compels them to share it with others. In this scenario, bias shouldn’t be condemned but commended.

So we’re all humans. We all have opinions and passions, and we’re all biased in our respective ways. But, like Erik queried, how can we help students ensure that their opinions are based on good information?

In his book, Bias is All Around You, Erik offers several simple guides for vetting digital and textual information. But before diving into fallacies, rhetoric, or literary styles, Erik suggests identifying the sources of bias as the first step for helping young people decipher good from bad information.

Through his research, Erik identified seven types of partiality, or sources of bias that give students a framework not only for identifying bias but also for categorizing it, allowing for a more thorough analysis of the information’s overall quality. The sources include Academic, Hidden Agenda, For-Profit, Non-Profit, Watchdog Groups, Government, and Individuals.

“The first step in assessing any piece of information is to determine how it was distributed and by whom,” Erik writes in his book, “for these answers are often tied to an entity and almost every entity has bias because of the values, products, or services it represents.”

In today’s digital world, it’s no longer sufficient for students to only be able to recognize bias. If we want students to be media literate and critically analyze the content they consume — the information with which they formulate their opinions — they need to be able to identify what type of bias is at play. From there, they can calibrate the extent to which that bias affected the author’s accuracy, and weigh whether or not they’re interacting with good-quality information.

As Erik explains, “Once we look at the inherent partiality of any piece of information, then we can drill down deeper.”

We had Erik on our How to Have Kids Love Learning podcast this week and did a deep dive into bias, media literacy, and how digital information affects our mental health. You can listen to it here. If you’d like to learn more about his book, Bias is All Around You, you can check it out here.

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