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Mr G Online
Oct 13

Screenshot from the linked article on http://www.abc.net.au

Opening up my favourite news app, Zite, the other day, one of the top stories was this eye opener from Australia’s national broadcaster’s – the ABC – news website. Titled “The Gatekeepers of  news has lost their keys”, the writer Tim Dunlop highlights a fact of life that confronts us all today, and in particular our vulnerable, naive students.

As an audience, we are no longer dependent on the mainstream media to interpret and explain important events to us.

In a previous era, we had to wait for the six o’clock news in order to see the footage of what had happened in Canberra that day, and even then our understanding was restricted according to the choices made by journalists and editors.

Footage was clipped and shaped. Decisions were made about what was important and what wasn’t, what was left in and what was left out, and the end package was presented to us as definitive.

The next day we read the newspapers and hoped to get a bit more background, a bit more context, some opinion from both sides of the argument, and again, this was all chosen and arranged by professionals who we, by and large, trusted to present events to us in a balanced and nuanced way.

If we wanted to participate…., we were pretty much limited to a letter to the editor of a newspaper or maybe the telephone queue of a talkback radio station…….our ability to participate was curtailed by the often-opaque rules of participation set down by the journalists and news editors…. They could edit our letters or simply bin them. They could decide not to take our call or just cut us off if we started to say something they didn’t like.

The authority of the media – it’s ability to shape and frame events and then present them to us as “the” news – was built upon its privileged access to information and the ability to control distribution.

……. But those days are gone. That model is a relic, though it still dominates the way the mainstream media goes about its business, and provides the template for how journalists think about their role as reporters.

This has to change.

When we can watch events live ourselves without having to wait for the six o’clock news to package them for us, or even watch a YouTube replay in a time of our own choosing, we can also be free to interpret the story in the way that we understand it.

When we can log onto our blog, or fire up Twitter or Facebook, and express our views in real time; start or join online conversations; develop, change or reinforce our views via discussions with friends, “friends” and “followers”; and share footage and stories and images and shape that information in a way that suits us, then we have moved into a world unrecognisable from the previous era of journalism.

This introduction to the article presents quite succinctly, one of the most important challenges we have as Literacy teachers today. Our students are bombarded with unlimited sources of information and opinions on every imaginable subject. Where once we would do an occasional unit on disseminating fact and opinion and identifying bias in selected reading to satisfy the mandates of our English Curriculum,  we now must make it the major focus of our non fiction reading programs. Students today spend hours on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and forums and these sites are often their first source of news. Many adults these day also have moved onto these sources as their first port of call and often fall for the first rumor they see online, treating it as fact and then posting it for others to read or view.

That’s not to say that all news on social networking sites, blogs and forums is not accurate. There are a great number of quality writers with their own blogs on every possible subject who have made it easier to learn for the general public. Today’s journalists have embraced Twitter and Facebook and have joined in on the fun of being first with the latest updates and opinions. The problem is they too are all too easily led to believe what they read online as fact and report too quickly.

And then there is the nature of media bias itself. It is easy to blame all the left or right wing bias on socialist/fascist bloggers or misguided teenagers with a camera and a Youtube account, and sure there is plenty of rubbish posted by these types daily, further infested by thoughtless nonsense from angry, anonymous commenters protected by their cryptic usernames. But they are far from alone. The age of 24/7 news has brought us an unending stream of updates that don’t have the opportunity to be fact checked or vetted by experienced editors. Errors, misrepresentations and blatant untruths and distortions are published, not just on websites, but on TV and radio news and current affairs programs daily. The irony of the ABC article quoted here is that after such a thought provoking opening, it quickly descends into a parody of the very bias it warns against.

It is for this reason we as teachers need to focus heavily on developing critical thinking skills in reading news and other purported fact based writing. While learning about life from the classic novels and researching and learning from history is vitally important, we need to shift our English curriculum more heavily towards sorting fact from fiction and recognising bias. We were sheltered in the past by the limited sources of information. That is something I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Dunlop on. But the world of information in today’s Age of Connectedness means we need to teach our students to read with scepticism. They have to judge every comment, evaluate every apparent fact, compare sources, understand context, investigate the background and beliefs of the authors of what they read, source both sides of arguments and form a balanced opinion. They have to decide who to trust.

As teachers are we doing enough for our students so they can see through the Fox News vs MSNBC (US),Herald Sun vs Age/ABC (Australia),”insert right and left wing media groups of other countries here” wars and form educated opinions? Are we giving them the skills to investigate before accepting every rumour posted on their forum of choice? Are we allowing Facebook, Twitter and the like into our schools so that we can guide them first hand in dealing with how to participate in the connected instant info world they live in? What’s happening in your classroom?

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2 Responses to “Who can we trust? The importance of teaching our students to interpret the news.”

  1. Viv Says:

    This issue is such a bugbear with me. I see so many people just jumping on bandwagons via social media groups they belong too. So often people will accept a version of events unquestioningly because it is a popular point of view with their peers. I admit I am sometimes very reticent to express my own views when they are contrary to those of my friend on facebook for example. For the most part they are quite left wing, and I sometimes disagree but am scared I will be jumped on if I express a contrarian point of view based on my own research or preference.
    The important thing to do is to actively teach critical thinking and get students to do their own research. It is vital to be able to think for yourself and not get carried away by mob opinion.
    I think a good practice is to start by analyzing advertisements, which are obviously not the same as the news, but a great way to encourage students to think about things like purpose, audience, demographic targets and who stands to gain. Also stereotyping and bias is an important thing to look at.
    Critical thinking skills have never been more important. Analyzing the motives of the news writer is very helpful.

    • mgleeson Says:

      I really agree about the peer pressure part, Viv. That’s one of the things we have to work with our students on – forming your own opinions based on fact – not the number of “likes” or comments on a Facebook page. That’s not easy, even for adults but it is because its a new form of communication that we weren’t prepared for either. Old style journalism only publishes a couple of letters to the editor and vetos the offensive – social media exposes you to all the pressure of everyone’s opinions and anger. Thinking as I write, this also becomes a bullying issue that needs addressing through this issue of media change. It’s a big one.

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