Which news sources are credible in conveying media literacy? Even teachers disagree
It’s pretty much an axiom among history teachers: Don’t put your thumb on the scales when discussing current affairs with K-12 students. Make sure that all students feel confident to speak up. Give students a range of perspectives and allow them to analyze their strengths and weaknesses.
However, a new study shows that these best practices are easier said than done – especially when it comes to choosing quality news sources for students.
Secondary social science teachers differ in what specific news sources they believe to be credible – and even how they define the concept of news credibility, according to the study recently published in Educational Researcher. And there are indications that both are partly shaped by the teachers’ own political views, the study concludes.
“Teachers say, ‘I want to be neutral. I don’t want to indoctrinate my students. I want to make fair and fair arguments. ‘ That’s admirable to some extent, but … even if you try, it’s hard – really hard – to be completely and objectively neutral when looking at sources, “said Christopher H. Clark, Assistant Professor of History from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., and a co-author on the study.
Teachers who identified themselves as the most liberal, for example, gave NPR and the BBC high marks for their credibility but avoided Fox News, while highly conservative teachers preferred Fox News and were very skeptical of CNN.
To some extent, these results should come as no surprise. Like everyone else, teachers are human beings. They have thoughts and opinions on current events and politics and the news sources they consume. (So please, my illustrious colleagues on education, not screaming headlines about how biased teachers are!)
But the results add a new fold to the topic of media literacy and how those perceptions penetrate into the classroom. Two teachers from the same school may offer conflicting examples of what a credible news source looks like in their classrooms.
“This is new territory for social studies teachers. For the past three to four years, even the idea of doing an article in the New York Times could be seen as an ideological signal, ”noted Mardi Schmeichel, Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia, Athens. “That only made the work of the social studies teachers more difficult.”
“Static” vs. “dynamic” credibility
The study by Clark, Schmeichel, and H. James Garrett, also from the University of Georgia, is based on a survey of more than 1,000 secondary social studies teachers. (The researchers sent the survey to more than 60,000 such teachers in six politically distinct states: Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, and Texas.)
The final sample is not nationally representative – it contains fewer color teachers than the national pool, for example – but it does reflect a wide range of teachers’ political identities.
See also: What Are Educators’ Political Beliefs? Education Week interviewed her to find out
Each teacher was asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being very conservative and 7 being very liberal. They were then asked to rate a collection of news sources on a scale of 0 to 3, where zero is not believable and 3 is very believable. When the researchers analyzed this data, they found clear patterns in the perception of different news channels by teachers.
- Fox News had the largest gap in perceived credibility, with more than one point between average liberal and conservative responses. Right behind was the New York Times, followed by CNN.
- Like Americans in general, conservative teachers mistrusted the credibility of most intelligence services, while liberals found most sources at least somewhat credible. Notably, liberal teachers also found MSNBC to be less credible than any other source except Fox News – the opposite was not true for conservatives.
- What, you ask, were the sources that both liberal and conservative sides gave higher credibility ratings? That would be the Wall Street Journal, followed by the BBC.
Second, the researchers found that teachers had different ideas about the definition of a credible news source. Around two thirds of those questioned stated that it was a matter of “only presenting the facts”, “showing all sides” or being “neutral”. This group tended to see credibility as a fixed, innate quality: either it had or it didn’t have a news source.
A smaller number of teachers, around a third, described credibility as dynamic, a function of the journalistic process. That is, they noted the separation of the news and opinion pieces, the fact-checking process, and the importance of reporters’ use of first-hand reports.
And when the researchers examined the relationship between these definitions and teachers’ ideology, they found an interesting link: those teachers who viewed credibility as dynamic tended to rely less on their own policies to determine whether a news agency was credible, than those who saw them as solid.
Implications for Social Studies Education
The results suggest several things. First, teaching programs likely need to help teachers recognize that they come into their classrooms with certain ideological perspectives and that they need to reflect this when designing learning experiences.
Second, the notion of credibility as a function of news gathering practices holds great promise for countering knee-jerk ideas about which sources are trustworthy.
“If it is helpful to introduce teachers to the idea of journalism as a process to moderate the influence of ideology, we can obviously now take this up in social studies teacher training,” said Schmeichel.
And that also applies to programs that aim directly at imparting media skills. Indeed, it is an emerging practice of media literacy to have students study what journalists do to verify facts and information and train them to use these techniques.
For example, a Stanford History Education Group project highlighted the importance of how professional fact checkers work.
Seasoned information consumers compare this to various sources rather than relying on superficial quality attributes like suspicious websites or the fact that the information comes from a nonprofit, as that organization has found. And students trained in some of these techniques improve their ability to critically assess what they have read.