Newspapers: Are they biased / unbiased?

You may have an answer for that question in the title.  But do you know for sure?  Definitely?  Unequivocally?  How did you research this issue?

The possibilities for bias in text are endless because text is all around us.  Literally and loosely, text is the scenery around us whether it is print or not.  The texts that comprise our daily lives may include a variety of print or non-print sources including electronic emails, blogs, newspapers, magazines and books.  I want to focus on one of those – the writing found in news sources, typically in newspapers and how we can help students examine that question as they continue to build their reading skills for life.

Standards Addressed:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6  –  Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9  –  Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.5  –  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
One event. Three articles. Three different stories.  

How do you know whether the news is being reported or if the news is being shaped by the authors and publishers?  Let’s investigate further!

To begin, we will just look at the pictures from the three stories:

la-afp-getty-obama-meets-with-leaders-of-honduras-20140725

U.S. President Obama disembarks from Air Force One as he arrives at Los Angeles International Airportfox pic

What do you know?  What do you wonder?  

(Questions from What Readers Really Do:  Teaching the Process of Meaning Making by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton)

Hold onto those thoughts as you look at the titles.  (And the titles are NOT listed in the same order as the pictures!)

Titles

“Obama tells Central American leaders most children will go home”

“GOP lawmakers fight plan to bring more illegal immigrant children to military bases”

“White House pursuing plan to expand immigrant rights”

What do you know?  What do you wonder?

What theories are you now ready to begin building?

The sources in alphabetical order are:  Fox News, LA Times, and Reuters

Which sources go with which pictures and article titles?  Are you already considering revising your theory?  That process of continually questioning and researching based on what you know and wonder allows a reader to demonstrate flexible thinking.  Thinking really is one essential by-product of the “act of reading and understanding printed messages.”

What words/phrases do you notice in the opening paragraphs of the article covering the same event – news about immigrant children on this date?  Read and jot notes about those words.

Opening paragraphs in the LA Times:

 “Even as President Obama grapples with the crisis of immigrant children arriving at the Southwest border, White House officials are laying the groundwork for a large-scale expansion of immigrant rights that would come by executive action within weeks.

Officials signaled strongly Friday that Obama’s move would shield from deportation large numbers of immigrants living in the country illegally, as advocacy groups have demanded.” (LA Times, 7/26/14)

 

The same story from Reuters begins this way:

“President Barack Obama urged the leaders of three Central American countries on Friday to work with him to stem the flow of child migrants who have surged across the U.S. border and warned that most of them would not be allowed to stay.

In a White House meeting with the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Obama had a tough-love message: his administration had compassion for the children, but not many would qualify for humanitarian relief or refugee status. Many of the migrants have fled poverty and crime at home.” (Reuters, 7/26/14)

 

And the third story from Fox News begins with:

“Republican lawmakers are challenging the Obama administration over a newly announced plan to expand the use of U.S. military bases to house illegal immigrant children, warning that it will put a strain on troops and threaten military readiness.

The Pentagon confirmed this week that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has approved a request from the Department of Health and Human Services to house an additional 5,000 minors at DOD facilities.”

 

Do you notice any patterns?  What are you wondering about at this time?

There are many ways to continue reading these articles.  The length is conducive to having each student read all three, but a student may only be an “expert” on the actual writing techniques used in one or two of the articles.  Do remember that it is sometimes easier to analyze two articles through simultaneous comparing and contrasting rather than just one article by itself.

 

I was wondering about the “experts” and the sources of quotes within the articles.  Who does each author use?

LA Times:

“Obama said last month that because Congress had failed to act on comprehensive immigration reform, he would take executive action to ‘fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own.'”

“When the decision is announced, it will ‘increase the angry reactions from Republicans,’ Peiffer said.” (White House senior advisor – two other quotes as well)

 

Reuters:

“‘There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is a humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for,’ Obama said after talks with the leaders. ‘But I think it’s important to recognize that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number.'” (plus two more quotes by President Obama

President Juan Orland Hernandez of Honduras,  “’They have rights, and we want them to be respected,’ he said.”

“‘The idea here is that in order to deter them from making that dangerous journey, we’d set up a system in coordination with these host countries to allow those claims to be filed in that country without them having to make that dangerous journey,’ said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.”

 

Fox News:

paraphrased information (no quotes in article)”The Pentagon confirmed that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel . . . request from Dept. of Health and Human Services. . . “

Direct quote – “Donelle Harder, a spokeswoman for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told FoxNews.com.”

“Alabama lawmakers . . . ‘ongoing talks’ . . .  . . . “Alabama GOP Reps. Martha Roby and Mike Rogers ” . . . . ‘The housing, feeding and caring of immigration detainees would severely compromise the critical mission at Maxwell-Gunter,’ they wrote.” (also a second quote)

“Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., said the request poses a very real threat to U.S. military readiness,’ noting the base is the ‘primary artillery training center for troops before deployment.'” (second quote also)

 

What might instruction/inquiry look like at this point?  

I might begin to model comparing specific words and phrases that were used in the articles and also begin to discuss the sources. Which words/phrases seem to be the most simple form of reporting (without opinions/emotions) in comparison to words or phrases that seem to have been chosen for their emotional nuances?  What could those comparisons look like?

Paint chips, a visual way to show the progression of vocabulary words, could be used.  Students in 1:1 districts could simply create these using a chart and add color gradations to the boxes.  Or students could consider how to use “shapes” to show the different layers of word meanings / nuances or  phrases and words that explicitly provide evidence of the biases and or point of view of the reporters/publishers. Words could then be added as text boxes inside each color.

Screenshot 2014-08-03 07.20.46

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For additional discussion or to see an explanation of this vocabulary activity, see Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 Teacher of the Year, at the Teaching Channel here.

 

If you have not yet googled the articles, here is the link to each one where all advertisements have been stripped courtesy of the readability app (with more information here):

Fox News

LA Times 

Reuters

 

So what are some other choices?

If you are a devotee of “Falling in Love with Close Reading” by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts, you may have been thinking of all the connections between the lenses of text evidence, vocabulary and point of view!  That would be another way to conduct a close reading of these articles in order to see how they were “reported differently”.

Or, if you are interested in adding in some writing, you might have partner groups of students “summarize” their article in two or three sentences while asking them to include evidence that will help them “defend” their summary as “The Best Summary”.

OR you might consider this question - Can you predict how additional topics will be “covered/handled” by Fox News, LA Times and Reuters?  After making your prediction (and writing it down), pick a topic, pull up the three different articles and see if your predictions are accurate!

Or consider where your own local newspaper fits within this “range” or reporting!

 

Does every text that you read contain some bias?  What do you think?  What would you need to do to unequivocally answer that?

 

ImageTuesday is the day to share a “Slice of Life” with Two Writing Teachers. Check out the writers, readers and teachers here.  Thanks to Stacey, Anna, Beth, Tara, Dana and Betsey for creating that place for us to work collaboratively.

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17 responses

  1. It’s a rich post, Fran, with much to consider when working with articles. I like the ideas at the end also, those ‘other choices’. I think what one does depends on when it happens. If at the beginning of the year, more direct teaching will be needed, but later, & hopefully, students will take over the questioning, perhaps even bring in their own examples of articles to question. Thanks for the direct examples, and the way you shared how the lesson might go.

    1. Linda,
      I think your comment deals with one of my frustrations with “scripts” because “what one does depends on when it happens.” Student responses are critical. I’m glad you found it helpful! Thanks for replying!

  2. Fran,
    Fascinating work around point of view. I love how you used know and wonder in this work; showing the value of the thinking with informational text. I also love the lens of word choice to show opinion or objectivity. The idea of comparing two texts on the same topic being easier is interesting as well. Hadn’t thought about it but clearly a much better way to study an issue. So often we don’t place similar texts side by side as we should! News articles seem a natural way to approach this work.
    Such an important lesson: all information has bias.

    Julieanne

    1. Thanks, Julieanne! This topic has been so divisive in so many arenas that I couldn’t resist tackling it when I saw the huge differences so clearly. Sometimes the spoken words on the news move too quickly to analyze so replay is needed for video clips.

      I was such a skeptic about bias before – “surely not ALL information was biased, but it seems to be biased by ‘what’ is or is not included”

    1. Thanks for commenting!

  3. AJF (@Anitaferreri) | Reply

    Fran, this is an amazing post! Long ago, a colleague coined the phrase “exposasusation” to refer to the idea that all expository texts have some sort of slant! Your points on word choice and pictures are a great way to help our students look “critically” at all they see and read. Thank you

    1. Thanks, Anita!
      There really is a lot to “see” when one looks “critically” at the texts. And this was a text set that quickly showed me who was and who was not at the center of the article (in spite of content or titles). So interesting to see how the “news” is shaped by the author/editor/publisher!

      Love “exposasusation” as it is so descriptive!

  4. Thank you for another excellent post. You always find such good ways to connect the theory with a powerful example. I will share it with colleagues at school to get the point across what language teaching can look like apart from worksheet work.
    Thank you also for your posts from the TCRWP. Again, informative and inspiring – I instantly wanted to go and participate. Hopefully it will happen one day.

    1. You are welcome, Alex. We can have students reading and writing without worksheets in a very connected meaningful way that is literally what we want them to be doing independently.

      I love sharing my learning, so please share away!!!

  5. Wow, Fran, there is so much here. I enjoyed working my way through this piece and considering your questions. I would love to take this lesson into a classroom, but expect it will give a lot to discuss today with the instructional team here. Can’t wait to share with the secondary history/social science, science and ELA group.

    1. Thanks, Dayna! Bias / point of view is a huge issue. Much of it is shaped by what is deliberately included and what is not included. I find it fascinating that Fox News only talked to the legislators when the event includes the President. Primary Sources = 0; Secondary sources = ?? I’m not sure where I would even include the legislators’ opinions and connections as I am thinking that is only their perspective/point of view!

      Much to think about and consider! And you are right = rich content conversations!

      It will be helpful to students if some of the language is common so the students don’t have to learn new “naming terms” across the curricula! Also, having a plan in mind is always helpful.

  6. This is so great Fran. I wish you taught near me and I could pick your brain all the time. I think the whole idea of bias and what is and is not included is so important for students to notice and ponder. Perhaps if we encouraged this kind of thinking earlier, we would not have such divisiveness in today’s political arena. I love the paint chip idea also…

    1. Lisa,
      We will have to Google Hang Out on a scheduled basis!

      There is so much thinking that i want everyone to engage in – before writing, speaking, reading, etc. What do we “think” we know? What do we really “know”?

      I love that the paint chip idea is on the Teaching Channel. I know that I have used it for over 20 years in a variety of ways to literally show differences to kiddos!

      Thanks so much for commenting! What a great community we are!

  7. Just read a @lesterlaminack quote from TCRWP August Writing institute keynote: “Nonfiction does not have a bias.. When it does.. The lens transforms it to an opinion piece ..” (08.05.14)

    Hmmm. . . so are any of the articles above “nonfiction” or are they all opinion pieces? More food for thought!

  8. Thank you for sharing this great lesson in detail. I do believe that all news reports today are biased in some way, depending on the affiliations of the source. Students need to see this, understand it, and process information accordingly. Your lesson offers them the opportunity to discover it for themselves. Great work!

    1. I believe you are right. I don’t think I had ever considered the “degree of bias” nor the “consistency of bias” from a particular author, editor, publisher before. This “study” allowed me to dig a little deeper.

      And thanks for noticing that the students will be discovering this. I so want this to be about the skills that students can and will use independently. Not just when they are “told” or “required” as a part of “doing school”.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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