Election 2008: A lesson on media bias

One of the best parts of the new school year is that my principal hired me for an extra month to drive a vision for 21st Century learning in our building’s classrooms.

On Thursday, I taught an after school session on the role that Pageflakes—an RSS Feed Reader—can play in the classroom.  “Showing students how to manage information,” I argued, “Is probably the most important 21st Century skill to teach to our kids because learning in the 21st Century is going to require efficiency.”

After the session, several teachers came up and asked me to create a set of feeds on the upcoming Presidential election here in the United States—which is the perfect topic for introducing RSS to students, simply because there are thousands of sites being updated regularly on the election.

As I assembled my collection of feeds—which you can explore here—I grouped them into categories.

The “flakes” on the left hand side of the screen come from traditional news sources like Fox News, CNN, ABC and the BBC.  The “flakes” in the center of the screen come from the kinds of sites that will motivate middle schoolers.  There are (or will be when I’m finished with this column) feeds to election videos, podcasts, MTV election news and Rock the Vote.

And the flakes on the right hand side of the screen come from political bloggers.  There are teen and student bloggers from sites like Vogue, Rock the Vote and Seventeen magazine, as well as adult bloggers from Fox and CNN.

Then, I decided that one of the most important lessons that students can learn in today’s digital news marketplace is that there is often hidden bias in reporting.  Learning to judge the validity of online sources couldn’t be any more important to promoting democracy, right?

So I put together a handout designed to introduce students to the idea that news sources may just be trying to influence readers to lean in one political direction or another.  You can download it here:

Download Handout_Election_2008.doc

What I figure I’ll have students do is pick an article from two or three different news sources that cover the same event or topic—candidate performance in a debate, candidate position towards the war in Iraq or the current fiscal crisis, candidate gaffes or public miscues, McCain’s age or Obama’s inexperience—and evaluate the ways that each news source covers the topic.

By doing so, students will learn to identify the kinds of strategies that authors use to influence readers.  They’ll also recognize that not all news sources are as fair and balanced as they claim to be!  Finally, they can learn the difference between reporting done by professionals working for traditional news outlets and “reporting” done by bloggers—an increasingly important source of information for today’s citizen.

Whaddya’ think?

I know that some people are going to be disappointed, but this lesson didn’t require a single dollar worth of additional technology investment for my classroom at all.  Instead, it uses a free application and an internet connection to teach the kinds of skills that I believe are important to preparing kids for the future.

Does this sound like a worthy example of 21st Century learning?