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

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?

Wikipedia – what are we afraid of?

WikipediaVia: Open-Site.org

I’m one of the 23% who don’t ban Wikipedia.

I don’t understand the concept of banning an information resource. I get the criticism of Wikipedia. I understand the limitations of Wikipedia. For the life of me, though, I don’t understand banning its use. Why are we in the Educational World so fearful of this Wikipedia thing that 73% of teachers according to this infographic still prevent its use?

We all want our students to be good researchers. Part of this desire, I assume, has led us to develop programs in our classrooms that help to improve our students’ Web Search skills. I mention that because perhaps one of our problems with children and Wikipedia is that 99% of its articles end up on the first page of any Google Search. Are we banning Google Search? No. Well then, instead of banning Wikipedia, let’s look at whether we are educating our students in how to disseminate accurate information from the garbage. Why? – because the other 9 sites sharing the Top 10 Search page are just as likely to be as potentially unreliable as a source of information as the Wikipedia article, sometimes more so. So let’s work out how to support our students in learning good research skills through accessing the tool, instead of avoiding it.

Wikipedia references its sources of information.

Go to any article of useful length on Wikipedia and you will find linked references or quoted text sources. WIkipedia is often a summative recount of all those sources of information. It’s why students go there. It does a lot of the hard work for them. Now, if you want them to do the work, require them to seek out some of those sources and check the accuracy of that information. What is the reliability of the source site? What bias might this source have? What type of website is it? ( you can discuss the merit of .com v .org. v .edu or newspaper articles vs blogs or discussions) If we use textbooks instead of Wikipedia, isn’t this what we would be doing – comparing and cross-referencing for accuracy? Surely it is an easier learning task to check out 10 sources online than trying to flick between 10 different books and random pages within it? Technology isn’t about making it easier so that we don’t have to think. It’s about making it more effective so we do the job more quickly while still learning the same amount or possibly more. If we teach effective use of Wikipedia, this should be the result.

Wikipedia is no more or less biased than any other source of information.

One of the big bugbears with Wikipedia is that it can be contributed to by anyone. This can definitely result in biased, unsubstantiated garbage that needs to be filtered out. Any Obama/Bush/Gillard/Abbott/Lady Gaga/David Beckham/Charlie Sheen (etc, etc) hater can freely post hate speech on a wiki article. Eventually, though, it is found by Wiki editors and removed, but yes, by then it has already spread to the ill informed. But guess what?  This same overheated, one way stream of half truths can be spread by every other form of media from both sides of the political, ideological or religious spectra. We don’t ban our Left wing or Right Wing shock jocks from spouting their diatribes of exaggeration on a daily basis. So why ban Wikipedia? Again, let’s use it along with the extreme views of other media sources to educate our students about fact and opinion, checking out both sides of the debate, fact checking your information. This is of far more educational value than banning a resource that has much to offer, despite its limitations.

Wikipedia is about as accurate as any other resource. Check the stats.

Look at the above infographic. We’re quibbling over 0.94 mistakes per article when comparing Britannica to Wikipedia; 2% accuracy differential when comparing textbooks to Wikipedia. Are those numbers a reason to brand it unreliable and ban it? When any school library would be full of books about the Solar System that still list Pluto as a planet and have atlases without East Timor on the map as a nation? There is no such thing as 100% accuracy. All surveys come with that +/-2% disclaimer. In the 21st Century Curriculum, in which critical thinking is one of the key skills, we should be embracing resources that encourage challenging their reliability and allowing us to edit for accuracy.

Make the students part of the solution, not restricted from the problem

Wikipedia is open source. If we find mistakes, we can fix it. An error in a textbook stays there. A misquote in a news program remains said. If we want to engage our students in truly useful research, then get them involved in editing Wikipedia. Make them check their sources. Get them to be the information creators, not the takers(plagiarisers). That’s real learning. And it’s far more useful than banning.

Throughout history, banning has never worked. Cigarettes and Drugs are still around. Inappropriate websites find ways to be accessed. Hey, Nazis and KKK members are still out there in numbers. Banning the use of Wikipedia is not going to stop us from using it. Just look at the stats above. So let’s get serious in Education and embrace this information provider, using it as a teaching tool for critical thinking. That’s my take. What about you? Does your school ban Wikipedia? Do you agree or disagree? How do you encourage good research in your students? Join in the conversation.