Saturday, February 13, 2016

Resource Review: Student News Daily, An Ironic Study in Media Bias

As an educator, I love free quality resources my students can easily access, but I've learned--sometimes the hard way, to be much more discerning of what it is I'm curating for them.  

Recently, I came across a site that came highly recommended as a news aggregator geared specifically toward high school students. Upon first look, it seemed promising as one of many choices I could offer students for exploring current events. It even had resources for spotting bias in media, which made me think the site's creators had a purpose similar to my own; challenging students to think critically while consuming the news.  That's what compelled me to want to know more and to look deeper, and that's why the results were so disappointing.    

Student News Daily purports to deliver to its young readers "fair and unbiased" news. It has all kinds of resources teachers love to work into their daily activities, including weekly features on political cartoons, quizzes, and vocabulary.


Sounds full o' awesome, right?  I thought so, too, so as with any news source, I checked the "About" page and couldn't find any humans or organizations attached to it. Here's what I did find on the Media Bias page:

Media Bias

Since citizens cannot cast informed votes or make knowledgeable decisions on matters of public policy if the information on which they depend is distorted, it is vital to American democracy that television news and other media be fair and unbiased.
In a recent Gallup Poll, the majority of Americans believe that the mass media slant reports in favor of the liberal position on current issues.
[The bias] is not the result of a vast left-wing conspiracy – [there is] an unconscious “groupthink” mentality that taints news coverage and allows only one side of a debate to receive a fair hearing.  When that happens, the truth suffers.
As a Language Arts educator, I teach my students about text structure.  That grey line hugging the text along its indented margin is called a block quote and its purpose is to indicate to the reader that the text is a longer-than-usual direct quote.   In this case, however, the grey line's used incorrectly. It's misleading in that, visually, it suggests the content is being attributed to someone other than the publishers of the site.  But there's no attribution. There was the Gallup link, glaring at me as a link...could it be Gallup? I clicked, and no, it wasn't from Gallup.

First, here's what startled me about the pseudo-quote: It says, in so many words, that a majority of Americans believe mass media to have a liberal slant. True enough, says the Gallup data (in the depths of the link)-- the perception exists.  But it appears Student News Daily would like you to read that as "Yo, left-wing bias is for realz" rather than just the mere perception of it. Embedded in the statement is the assumption that left-leaning bias in the media is a
 foregone conclusion. In fact, as far as Student News Daily is concerned, they know the reason for it and they're happy to explain: Not to worry, they tell their young readers. It's not evil lefty conspirators that are at play here, but rather it's group think on the part of sheep-y liberals.  You are safe from leftist mind control as long as you--the student, use Student News Daily as your news source because we are fair, unbiased, and free of left-leaning zombie herds

One has to see the humor in what follows; "Types of Media Bias," including media spin, which the above fuzzy logic is a marvelous example of!  I could've saved myself a whole lot of speculatin' brain cells by reading the very bottom of the page:



The true irony here is that much of the content on the site can be pointed to as examples for the various "Types of Media Bias" described on that particular page, with special attention to Bias of Selection of Sources.  

Taking a closer look at Student News Daily content: 

  • Political cartoons are presented as challenges for student analysis, yet upon said analysis, the majority are biased against progressive figureheads, policies, and ideas, and good luck finding any item that is critical of conservative ideals. This one's a good example of the general tone and subject matter, collectively. 

  • The Conservative vs. Liberal resource is presented as an innocuous handy-dandy reference guide for students to be able to understand the differences in what each side values, but if you're a progressive and you pay close attention, you'll notice it's rife with cleverly-disguised conservative-leaning nuances:  

  • Liberal-sided descriptions are both overly-generalized and absolute (it's the government's role to make us all happy, equal, and without need) while conservative-sided descriptions are ethos-heavy (if conservatives care about freedom to pursue one's goals, does that mean liberals do not?)

  • The "Wednesday Example of Media Bias" is less veiled if you scroll down the archived list of titles. They're obviously conservative talking points that the publishers of the site feel the left-leaning media is ignoring (you'll be hard-pressed to find anything editors see as unjustly biased toward conservatives, because..well, c'mon, read the Gallup poll.  That doesn't exist).

  • Here's a question from the latest weekly news quiz:



The answer to the above question, according to Student News Daily, is true because it's what the commentary said, not Student News Daily. See what they did there? So clever, they are...whoever they are (there's no way to tell on the site).

I'm not out to vilify conservative thinking, but rather the disingenuous manner in which ideologues cloak their ideas, as if they have no faith in the common sense of people.  This is aimed squarely at our students, though, so as an educator, I feel obligated to share this with my edu-brethren. 

This site is biased. At the very least, it's disingenuous to not acknowledge, from the get-go, the conservative-leaning tendency of the curators to collect or create content that is critical of only one perspective and to squarely ignore anything remotely critical of their own political views.

The real shame is that there are a few good resources on the site, which serves it well in attracting students and teachers.  We want students to be able to identify bias, so why not link this FREE and easily-accessible site to a blended lesson or a curated list of resources for thinking critically as consumers of media?

That's what makes this site unpalatable to me as an educator-- the sheer sneakiness on the part of the site creators in response to their own perceptions of media bias. The claim that it's "fair" takes on a different shade of character if you consider the possible motivations behind the creation of the site.  They don't mean fair as in multiple perspectives, ethical, and objective news reports. They mean fair in the context of a war with a perceived ideological opposite, playing by what is assumed to be the enemy's tactics for lassoing the hearts and minds of impressionable consumers of media.  But the young readership of this site has potentially little to no clue as to that larger context.  That's what makes it insidious, that it's not geared toward adults but rather our youth.

As I turn my sights toward further developing my Humanities program, framing it through the lens of journalistic ethics, I'll be bookmarking sites just like Student News Daily to show students exactly what I mean by deceptive and misleading practices and how to spot the red flags (no transparency, no open discussion on the site- what little there is is highly-filtered, no names or faces attached, etc.). 

Teachers: Don't do your students an injustice by using this site as an unfiltered reference.  Use it to teach about bias cloaked in anti-bias advocacy, because that's exactly what it is.

To the faceless and nameless folks behind Student News Daily (should this ever come your way): Practice what you preach.  You may not be journalists, but you're a curator of news, regardless, and you disingenuously present yourself to young people as being "fair and unbiased," which is false.  

Here's a little reminder of a source your site points students toward in a way that suggests you actually value it (by including it as a tab in your site's drop-down menu...again, using text features to mislead): The last part of The Society of Professional Journalists' "Code of Ethics"...