Researching Author Bias in the Library Media Center: The Inquiry

The class of twenty-two sixth graders silently reads the text displayed on the Smart board. The silence grows longer as they continue to examine the web page of two short paragraphs. One boy looks at the ceiling, bites the side of his thumb, then frowns at the text. He is joined by others who look at me, then back at the screen, brows furrowing. Something is wrong here, they say. 

The focus of their unease is a brief biography about Mao Zedong, one of the most powerful leaders in China’s modern history. Students had been learning some background of Mao’s leadership of the Cultural Revolution in their social studies classes.  They had read about the resulting famines the Revolution brought, the propaganda campaigns Mao used to control the masses of China and the ruthless methods he used to eliminate opposition to his policies.  Yet, on this website, only the briefest information is offered about Mao’s long, controversial life, and it’s described in reverent language.

Their burning question is this: Why is so much important information left out of this webpage?

This lesson is part of a sequence that I teach to help students recognize bias. We had already practiced identifying bias by word choice and they could readily pick out the “value words” in the web page in which the author gives away a point of view. The students offer words from the text like, “revered” “great father” “illustrious leader”.

We movedon to explore higher-level thinking strategies that a reader uses to detect bias. Motivation for publishing can be very revealing of an author’s point of view. Why has this author shared this information with the world? 

We start by decoding the URL, also known as the uniform website locator or the website address. From previous lessons in elementary school, students were familiar with the concept of a web domain such as .edu, .gov etc. After deconstructing this URL, they discover an unfamiliar code embedded: .cn.   With some hints at other country codes like .uk It gradually dawns that this website was published in China. What remains to this puzzle is  to research the publisher and piece together why this organization had posted this surprisingly bare bones entry about Mao.

Students lean closer to their computer screens as we continue to unveil the organization. It’s during our investigation into the ‘About us’ area of the page that several hands shoot up. They had found the name of the publisher, they thought.  I kept my expression neutral as students read the organization name aloud: People’s Daily Online. Since their fledgling knowledge of China didn’t yet allow them to detect the possibility of the Chinese government at work behind this media giant, we continued our inquiry. At last, there it is at the top of our search results: the People’s Daily Online is sponsored and controlled by Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Students had a working definition of the term Communism. We return to the original question:  why had they shared this article with the world? 

The energy in the room rises as students realize this biography of Mao is the carefully constructed work of the Communist Party of China whose sole aim is to preserve an image of Mao as a great leader. The brevity of the article highlights another way alert readers can detect bias: omission of informationOur investigation into the authorship of the web page highlights one very important fact: we can’t depend blindly on an official-looking source to provide us with reliable information.

Information has Changed

In this era of instant information, all of us experience a constant barrage of text, images and videos delivered through our computers, phones, devices, TV and radio. In times past, much information that reached us consumers would have been vetted by researchers, editors and by authors themselves with reputations to protect. I call them the gatekeepers. The world has changed.

The rise of the internet and social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram has created a fundamental change in the nature of information.  Information has become gooey – shifting, sliding, able to transform itself minute-by-minute and hard to pin down. Trying to gauge the accuracy of a message you receive online can be – to use a well-worn cliche – a bit like nailing jello to a wall.  The best defense is to develop the stance of a skeptic.

Helping Kids Develop a Skeptical Lens

Helping kids develop a skeptical stance at the middle level takes place through collaborative lessons in which these information literacy skills are embedded in social studies, science and language arts. As students progress through grades 6, 7 and 8 the lessons become more sophisticated. For example, sixth graders in our school will be further developing these author research skills in analyzing media messages next year through a Grade 7 language arts unit.

My sixth graders were applying a web evaluation framework called C.A.R.S that they can apply to any online information source. The focus, as in this lesson comparing bias in different websites about Mao Zedong, is always squarely on the author. 

Who’s Behind this Information and Why Have they Shared this Information with the World?  We question the author’s expertise (or publishing organization), use multiple strategies to unveil bias, and scrutinize the accuracy of the facts compared with other, trusted sources.

What Can I do as a Parent to Help my Kid Practice these Skills “In the Wild”?

School lessons are a great launchpad for information literacy skills like these, but they’re far more powerful with repeated, real-world practice. As your child’s first – and most important – teacher, there is a lot you can do to help your child develop their analytical skills to sort the solid information from the suspect. In fact, your daily barrage of media messages presents you with many opportunities to model the stance of the skeptic and start conversations about how you evaluate the accuracy of information.

Here are some tips to get started:

  • Authorship is King (or Queen) – Determining who wrote or produced an article, a post, a video, a meme, a tweet, etc. is the single most important thing you can do to question  the reliability of information. The more far-fetched or shocking a message is, the more scrutiny the author gets.
  • Put the author’s name in quotes and search Google. No author listed? Take a close look at the publisher like we did with the People’s Daily Online source.
  • Check social media accounts for the author’s name. You can tell a lot about an author from the choice of messages that are posted to an account.
  • Let your child show you what he or she knows about web searching; start the conversation about what makes you believe a source.
  • Determine if the information has been created by an expert.
  • Look for the author’s or organization’s  bias – why has this information been shared with the world?
  • Confirm the information with another, trusted source.
  • Check the currency of the information – some topics, such as health, technology or current events should be explored and confirmed with current sources.
Next Steps

An ongoing and open conversation (such as at the dinner table or in the car) about media, technology and your use of information will help your student continue to develop their skeptical stanceStart a casual conversation about how you received a story through a news feed that sounded implausible.

As kids grow more independent, often the best way to raise their awareness is modelling an open-ended, I’m-wondering-at-the-world approach.  If kids are receptive, you can model your own thinking out loud, using starters like these:

“I got this text today that seemed weird. I almost clicked on it, but then…” Or “I read on Facebook that _________ was going to _______, and it just didn’t sound right. I’m going to research that to see if it’s real.”

Information is transient (think jello) in our online world and accepting information at face value – without questioning the source or credibility – can have real consequences. Laying the groundwork in questioning sources will help students become critical consumers and producers of information.