When it comes to news these days, what we choose to consider trustworthy has more to do with our own worldview than what kinds of news practices are trustworthy.
Many people are looking for news that matches their politics. But there’s just one problem with that: we’re not always good judges of what constitutes trustworthy information and news.
That’s why it’s so important to learn about news and information literacy. An information literacy course I teach at the University of Windsor, Information Searching and Analysis, attempts to show students that the same phenomenon that makes us bad judges can also be reversed to make us better more critical consumers of news and information.
The process I use in this Information Literacy course does not encourage “trust” in mainstream or mainstream news media per se. Instead, students learn to evaluate news based on the characteristics of a news story: multiple and conflicting sources, use of statistics and data in which sources are named and can be viewed independently, types of advertisements present and whether they are related to the story.
Lesson One: Check Your Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias suggests that our prior knowledge and experiences often inform our opinions. However, by becoming aware of our tendencies towards confirmation bias, we can begin to be self-critical about how we process information and learn more about ourselves and how we interpret news and information.
The solution comes in the form of an experiential assignment in which students realize their confirmation bias tendencies. Students are assigned a weekend assignment in which they research and report examples of confirmation bias around them and in media reports. They are told to focus primarily on themselves – how they often engage in confirmation bias.
The mission is a revelation. In their end-of-semester assignments, 80% of students in the Information Research and Analysis course noted that the assignment was an important part of the course. Here are some examples:
“I knew that in some aspects of my life, I may have exhibited confirmation bias towards certain ideas. However, I didn’t think it was as significant until after the mission ended. “
“…as far as my personal life was concerned, that was the most important mission.
“I think it was the most impactful and (it will) stay with me the longest.”
“It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience for me to take my biases out of carpentry, especially for someone like me who considers themselves to be quite impartial when it comes to anything.”
“…extremely valuable was the awareness I developed regarding (how) social media exclusively formed my opinions…I believe it is perhaps the most universal function of the class.”
The course uses a flipped classroom approach. Flipped classrooms use class time for discussion, group activities, and experiential education instead of lectures and passive forms of learning.
The key is self-confrontation. Not every way to engage in confirmation bias can be conveyed by a dry explanation of the concept. The goal is not to preach to them or lecture them about their “flaws”. Rather, it is about making them understand for themselves how confirmation bias can lead to inaccurate learning which can have negative effects.
During the remainder of the semester, students explore an issue of social justice by examining how interest groups, journalists, and academic researchers have dealt with the issue. This gives them a holistic view of the information field and leads to a better understanding of both the issue and the social dynamics that fuel debate about it.
It is also crucial that students understand the nature of sponsored content and other native advertisements that may look like news but incorporate a point of view.
News, information and disinformation play an important role in enhancing and undermining democratic discourse and decision-making. Educators at all levels will need to pay greater attention to news and information literacy to ensure that students know how to critique the news they encounter.
James Wittebols is a professor of political science at the University of Windsor. This article first appearance to The conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.
Free daily newsletter
If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Monday-Friday) email newsletter (mobile friendly).