Is the Truth Liberal?
By: Jamie Gregory
I headed back into the classroom this year as my school’s Journalism Newspaper teacher (in addition to serving as the Upper School librarian), and one of the first tasks I completed was signing up for newsletters from the News Literacy Project (The Sift) and the Center for News Literacy (The Feed). Browsing through the most recent issue of The Feed, I paused after perusing the article titles because I couldn’t help noticing a pattern: the truth appears to be liberal.
Of course that wording is a bit facetious; the truth doesn’t care about political leanings and exists outside of our restrictive bubbles of analysis. But how we discern what’s accurate and factual from what is misleading and not truthful reveals a thing or two about labels.
This is my 16th year working in education as a high school classroom teacher and as a school librarian, and I’ve always taken care not to reveal my own political leanings and personal beliefs on issues. As an AP English Language and Composition teacher, I tried to ensure my students read a variety of opinions on topics.
But that was before the 2016 election and the age of Trump and COVID-19. Now with the 2020 Election at hand as well, those are unavoidable topics in any journalism classroom. Nor should they be avoided. Students must be given the opportunity to encounter contentious topics and learn how to filter all types of information.
I found myself feeling a little apprehensive last week, though, when I realized that all of our misinformation mini-lessons were indeed related to misinformation coming from the White House or right-wing extremist groups. Even the FBI had to step in and release an official statement about the bogus claims linking Antifa and California wildfires. While all the students were in agreement about the existence of the sources of this misinformation, I couldn’t help but feel that old impulse to provide other points of view, and then my line of thinking screeched to a halt: there is no other point of view when the topic is false information.
Now my driving question reveals a bit of an existential crisis: Do I show bias in my classroom if I share the truth?
Consider this NPR article stating that Facebook removed a Trump post falsely claiming the flu is deadlier than COVID-19. It provides a powerful teaching moment, encouraging students to reflect on the power of social media to spread ideas that can impact a person’s health, and whether or not a label of misleading information would suffice rather than outright removal (Twitter’s approach). Think Facebook doesn’t matter? The Digital New Deal project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States found that interaction with false media outlets on Facebook has increased 102 percent since 2016.
Are people of a particular political persuasion more likely to consume false news and believe it? Consider NPR’s 2016 interview of Jestin Coler, a false news creator who shared that there were attempts “to write fake news for liberals — but they just never take the bait.”
Most false news websites tracked to Veles, Macedonia, favored Trump and targeted conservative readers by taking real news stories and sensationalizing them. The bottom line is people would not create false information without a real financial incentive and will only continue creating what makes more money.
Ultimately, I consoled myself with the thought that actually there is no crisis on this topic because, much like how a school librarian provides access to information without judgment or interpretation, a classroom teacher’s job is very similar. It’s not my concern that the truth, in this case the source of dangerously false information, stems from particular political persuasions. I can only concern myself with ensuring students learn how to be critical consumers of information.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.
How about digging into how bias might be shown by headlines, photo choice – and how to ‘spin’ a story? The New York Post and the Washington Examiner come to mind, and perhaps Fox News? I’m sure there are similar ‘lefty’ media sources – those on the fringes – who could provide other examples. The truth can be told in forms that degrade the truth, or that try to divert attention away from it, while still containing “the truth”.
This is an interesting point. I think it indicates the current political leanings of the country. There have been plenty of times in the past where misinformation spread through the left. In my non-scientific personal experience, liberal misinformation tends to center around health issues like treating serious medical conditions with herbs and mistaking the scientific names for salts and vitamins in food labels as dangerous chemicals. But those things don’t get wide spread attention anymore and have been pushed to the fringes.
One thing that’s happened in our country is that the far right has been radicalized and given a visible platform and the traditional right are centrists. So it’s less a matter of bias than it is of pervasiveness. Are you going to highlight high profile and dangerous misinformation that the students have encountered like QAnon and information coming straight from the White House, or are you going to dig deep to find information that obfuscates the fact that monosodium glutamate is just salt?
I appreciate that you brought up this particular point. NPR for example tends to get the label of “liberal.” When in fact their program strives to create content that is factual. A few years ago I came across a great podcast on Radiolab that discussed the 2nd amendment and how it has been interpreted over the course of it’s history. It not only presented facts about how it came to be but how different political groups, on both sides mind you, had an agenda to make it what it is today.
What a unique opportunity and obligation we have as library professionals to help our patrons navigate facts, be able to step back, and let that information help them make their own conclusions.