A Classroom Discussion About the Media, Trust and Knowledge

Encouraging students to think through problems in the contemporary media landscape can help them become more active, open-minded knowledge-seekers.

Editor’s note: This post is part three of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, here. Find part two, a classroom example of teaching about confirmation bias, hereFind part four, a review of how students learn how to know (epistemological development) here. Find part five, a discussion of skepticism and bias, here. Find part six, an argument for teaching about diverse ideologies and perspectives, here.

In my eighth-grade Global Thinking class, we talk often about the importance of keeping up with the news. I encourage students to consume a variety of news sources, and they regularly bring in articles, videos and links to share. Many become avid followers of the news, echoing the statement of one focus-group participant highlighted in the Knight Foundation’s report “How Youth Navigate the News Landscape”: 

I just think it’s important to be a productive member of society and be aware of what’s going on around you. You know, like—it sounds really cheesy and cliché, but we all affect everything around us inadvertently and directly, so it’s like important, at least for like my generation, to know what’s going on in the world.

The Knight Foundation’s report, published in March 2017, is a must-read for educators working with students on how to know, and it can serve as a classroom tool. I shared the focus-group member’s statement with my students, and they agreed that they have a responsibility to keep up with what’s happening. We then had a discussion in which we reflected on why it’s become harder now “to know what’s going on in the world.”

Students noted there’s so much news that it can be overwhelming to keep pace and that it’s difficult to find news sources that are accessible to them. They were eager to reflect on the impact of social media. They felt that it can have an isolating effect, which led us to discuss the concept of “echo chambers,” the idea that we increasingly live online—and perhaps in real life—in closed systems of political consensus and like-minded thinking. They also understood that social media creates an environment in which clicks matter more than precision and depth; one particularly savvy student even lamented the “profit-driven” media seeking advertising revenue at the expense of clarity and accuracy. And, of course, they were well aware of related concerns about fake news, which they saw as a problem uniquely suited to social media.

With a bit of facilitating, most of the conversation ended up focusing on the challenges of trust and credibility. I shared a trove of data with them from Gallup, among other sources, to give them a broader picture of Americans’ sense of mistrust in the media. We probed further in our discussion, with students able to see how political polarization can play a major role in reducing trust. They were shocked by data from the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media showing that voters across the political spectrum consume media from vastly different sources, which is consistent with existing trends in partisan media habits. They were also surprised to find out that, while fake news receives a lot of attention, its actual impact (including on the 2016 election) is thought to be rather minimal.  

At this point, I reminded students about confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, the cognitive habits that explain how we tend to overvalue our own logic to more readily believe arguments that support our worldview, and how we struggle to accept evidence that contradicts our own assumptions. We then looked at data from the Pew Research Center showing that “[a] majority of U.S. adults (59%) reject the idea of adding interpretation, saying that the news media should present the facts alone” when reporting the news.

One student, with gears turning, saw an issue emerging. I’m paraphrasing, but she asked something like, “Isn’t it a problem that people are getting news from sources they trust and that they trust those sources only because they reinforce what they already think?” Another student picked up the thread, thinking in particular about the Pew findings on interpretation and facts: “What one person considers ‘interpretation’ another might just consider ‘factual,’ right? If you like the argument, you’ll accept it as fact. If you don’t, you’ll say it’s biased and ignore it.” 

There was a silence in the classroom as students began sensing the profundity of the issue before us. I asked them what kinds of things we’ve done in class to learn how to know well. They immediately brought up a key through-line of our class, Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the “danger of a single story,” a mental construct for avoiding one-sided stories, questioning established narratives and scrutinizing our assumptions. They talked about using a variety of sources and letting evidence guide their thinking.

As class finished up, we read Steve Inskeep’s “A Finder’s Guide to Facts,” in which the NPR host offers up tips for savvy news consumers to operate in what he calls the “post-trust” era (instead of the more popular—and more problematic—“post-truth” era). My students were inspired by his suggestions, especially the practice of reflecting on the emotional response to an article and the importance of consuming news from across the political spectrum.

It was the last class before our spring break. I asked students, as always, to follow the news during our two weeks off with a particular emphasis on reading a variety of sources and finding articles that contradict their viewpoints. They agreed to step up to this challenge, eager to apply what they were learning about the ways our cognitive habits and the knowledge landscape make it harder to know now. 

As I reflect on these and other lessons, it’s become clear how vital it is for teachers to wade into the complexities of teaching students how to know. They certainly want to learn; we certainly need them to.

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.

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