It’s pretty much an axiom among history teachers: Don’t put your thumb on the scale when discussing political current events with K-12 students. Make sure all students feel safe voicing their opinions. Give students a range of perspectives and allow them to analyze their strengths and weaknesses.
But a new study shows that these best practices are easier said than done—especially when it comes to selecting high-quality sources of news for students to engage with.
Secondary social studies teachers differ in which specific news sources they tend to find credible—and even how they define the concept of news credibility, according to the study, recently published in the journal Educational Researcher. And there’s evidence that both of those things are in part 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 present even 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 in how you look at sources,” said Christopher H. Clark, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., and one of the co-authors on the study.
Teachers identifying as the most liberal, for example, gave high marks for credibility to NPR and the BBC, but eschewed Fox News, while highly conservative teachers favored Fox News and were very doubtful about CNN.
To an extent, these findings shouldn’t be a surprise. Teachers, like everyone else, are human. They have thoughts and opinions about current events and politics, and about the news sources they consume. (So please, my illustrious Colleagues Who Cover Education, no shrieking headlines about how biased teachers are!)
But the findings do add a new wrinkle to the topic of media literacy and how these perceptions filter down to the classroom. Potentially, two teachers in the same school could be offering conflicting examples in their classrooms of what a credible news source looks like.
“This is kind of uncharted territory for social studies teachers. In the last three to four years, even the idea of bringing in a New York Times article might be seen as an ideological signal,” noted Mardi Schmeichel, an associate professor in the department of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia, Athens. “It’s just made the job of social studies teachers even more difficult.”
‘Static’ vs. ‘Dynamic’ Credibility
The study, by Clark, Schmeichel, and H. James Garrett, also of 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 across six politically diverse states: Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, and Texas.)
The final sample isn’t nationally representative—it contains fewer teachers of color than the national pool, for instance—but it does reflect a wide range of teacher political identities.
Each teacher was asked to rate themselves on a 1-to-7 scale, with 1 being very conservative and 7 being very liberal. Then they were asked to rate a collection of news sources on a 0-to-3 scale, with zero being not credible and 3 being very credible. When the researchers parsed this data they found clear patterns in how teachers perceived various news outlets.
- Fox News had the largest gap in how credible it was perceived, with more than a point separating average liberal and conservative responses. Right behind it was The New York Times, followed by CNN.
- Like Americans in general, conservative teachers distrusted the credibility of most news services, while liberals tended to find most sources at least somewhat credible. Notably, liberal teachers also found MSNBC less credible than all other sources except Fox News—the inverse was not true for conservatives.
- What, you ask, were the sources that both liberal and conservative sides gave higher credibility marks? That would be The Wall Street Journal, followed by the BBC.
Second, the researchers found that teachers held differing ideas about definition of a credible news source. About two-thirds of respondents said that it had to do with “presenting just the facts,” or giving “all sides,” or being “neutral.” This group tended to see credibility as a fixed, innate quality: Either a news source had it or it didn’t.
A smaller number of teachers, about a third, identified credibility as dynamic, a function of journalistic process. That is, they noted the separation of news and opinion sections, the process of fact-checking, and the importance of reporters’ using first-hand accounts.
And when the researchers looked at the relationship between those definitions and teachers’ ideology, they found an interesting correlation: Those teachers who saw credibility as dynamic tended to rely less on their own politics to determine whether a news outlet was credible than those who saw it as fixed.
Implications for Social Studies Teaching
The findings suggest a few different things. First, teaching programs probably need to help teachers recognize that they come into their classrooms with particular ideological perspectives, and that they need to reflect on that as they design learning experiences.
And second, the notion of credibility as a function of news-gathering practices holds promise in countering knee-jerk ideas about which sources are trustworthy.
“If introducing preservice teachers to the idea of journalism as a process is helpful in moderating the influence of ideology, clearly it’s something we can pick up right now in what we’re talking about in social studies teacher education,” Schmeichel said.
And that goes for programs that are directly aimed at teaching students media-literacy skills, too. In fact, having students study what journalists do to verify facts and information, and training them to use those techniques, is an emerging practice in media literacy.
A project at the Stanford History Education Group, for example, has emphasized the importance of how professional fact checkers work.
Skilled consumers of information cross-check it against several different sources, rather than relying on superficial markers of quality, like flashy websites or the fact that the information came from a nonprofit, that organizaton has noted. And students trained in some of these techniques do improve in their ability to critically assess what they read.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.