Examining Bias and Representation in the Media | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
High school students in classroom
Lesson

Examining Bias and Representation in the Media

Students understand how biases can manifest in media content before considering the impact of media representation.

Duration

Two 50-min class periods

Language

English — UK

Published

This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

Overview

About This Lesson

This is the second lesson in a unit designed to help teachers have conversations with students about media literacy in a critical, reflective and constructive way. Use these lessons to help students reflect on the changing media and information landscape; understand how this landscape impacts individuals, communities and societies; and consider how they can thoughtfully and responsibly engage with content they encounter online and in print. This learning can also help them become conscientious content creators. Supporting students to develop as critical consumers and creators of information is vital for their well-being, their relationships and our democracy.

This two-part lesson is a means of helping students understand how biases can manifest in media content and consider the impact of media representation. In the first part of the lesson, students consider the difference between fact and opinion, explore how to detect bias in language, and reflect on the power of language. Then, in part two of the lesson, students consider media representation, exploring how stereotypes are used in the media and the consequences of this. They begin by considering how a group to which they belong has been depicted in the media. They then reflect on the impact that stereotypes can have on how people view themselves, and how they view and treat others. Following this, they are informed about the relationship between stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination: prejudice occurs when we form an opinion about an individual or a group based on a negative stereotype. When prejudice leads us to treat an individual or group negatively, discrimination occurs. With this understanding they consider media content examples that contain stereotypes and/or prejudicial attitudes, and consider the impact that such content can have on those who view it. They then reflect on what can be done to challenge stereotypes. 

We recommend that you revisit your classroom contract before teaching this lesson. If you do not have a class contract, you can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.

How can developing our media literacy support our well-being, our relationships and our democracy?

  • What is the difference between fact, opinion and bias? 
  • How can words be used to shape people’s views of a topic?
  • What is the impact of representation in the media?
  • Students will understand the difference between fact and opinion. 
  • Students will analyse how words can be used to trigger emotional responses.
  • Students will understand how media representation can impact how people view themselves and others.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes the following student materials:

  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 3 handouts

In the UK, people spend hours every day consuming some form of mass media: 18- to 24-year-olds, for example, spend over five hours a day online, browsing the Internet, playing games, streaming entertainment services and/or using social media platforms. 1 Additionally, they may also consume media by watching television, listening to music, encountering adverts on the street and reading printed media, like magazines, books and newspapers. These high levels of media consumption are significant: what people view, see and hear in the media has the capacity to shape what they think and their understanding of the world around them.

It is, therefore, important for students to understand how the information they consume can be shaped to trigger emotional responses, and/or persuade them to adopt certain viewpoints. Understanding the difference between fact and opinions is an important step in being a critical consumer of information, as is detecting how bias appears in language and reflecting on the emotional impact that words can have. 

Understanding that media representation often contains stereotypes is also important as it can help counter their effect. Stereotypical portrayals of groups in the media can influence how people view and relate to each other, 2 particularly if people are being exposed to groups they have no interaction with. 3

Stereotypes in the media can also impact how people view themselves. A 2012 study showed that watching television negatively impacted the self-esteem of all girls and black boys, but increased the self-esteem of white boys. These differences related to gender and race portrayals in the content the children were consuming – white male characters were more likely to be in powerful positions, while female characters were more likely to be sexualised and one-dimensional, and black male characters were more likely to be criminalised. 4

This can have real-world implications and lead to something called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the term given to a situation in which an individual feels they are at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong. This anxiety can subsequently impact their performance and/or behaviour, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. 5

Teaching young people to be media literate, to reflect on how and why groups are presented in a certain way, and to recognise and deconstruct stereotypes can also help counter the impacts of media stereotypes on how they view others and themselves. 6

  • 1Online Nation, Ofcom, 1 June 2022.
  • 2L. A. Rudman and E. Borgida, ‘The afterglow of construct accessibility: The behavioral consequences of priming men to view women as sexual objects’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31:6 (1995), 493–517. https://doi.org/10.1006/jesp.1995.1022
  • 3Amanda Sharples and Elizabeth Page-Gould, ‘ How to Avoid Picking Up Prejudice from the Media’, Greater Good Magazine, 7 September 2016.
  • 4N. Martins and K. Harrison, ‘Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Panel Study’, Communication Research, 39:3 (2012), 338–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650211401376
  • 5Catherine Good, Joshua Aronson andJayne Ann Harder, ‘Problems in the Pipeline: Stereotype Threat and Women’s Achievement in High-Level Math Courses’, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29:1 (2008), 17–20.
  • 6N. Bernam and A. White, ‘Refusing the stereotype: Decoding negative gender imagery through a school-based digital media literacy program’, Youth Studies Australia [Online], 32:4 (2013), 38–47. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.768985279375128

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

This lesson has two 50-minute parts. Part I helps students understand the difference between fact and opinion, and how to detect biases in language, while Part II encourages students to reflect on the impact of media content that contains stereotypes. While we encourage teachers to teach both parts, if you are pushed for time teaching this unit, then you might wish to set content from Part I for homework and teach Part II during lesson time.

Depending on your students’ prior knowledge, you may need to provide them with the following definitions before or during the lesson. Consider adding the following terms to your Word Wall:

  • Fact (noun): Information that can be proven to be true with evidence. 
  • Opinion (noun): Information that is debatable and connected to a person’s thoughts, beliefs or feelings.
  • Objective (adjective): Based on real facts and not influenced by personal beliefs or feelings. 1
  • Subjective (adjective): Influenced by or based on personal beliefs or feelings, rather than based on facts. 2
  • Bias (noun): The action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgement. 3  
  • Stereotype (noun): A belief about an individual or group based on the real or imagined characteristics of a group to which that individual belongs.
  • Prejudice (noun): A negative opinion of a person or a thing that is not based on actual experience.
  • Discrimination (noun): The practice of unfairly treating another person or group of people differently to other people or groups of people.
  • Stereotype threat (noun): A situation in which an individual feels they are at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong. This anxiety can subsequently impact their performance and/or behaviour.
  • 1 ‘ Objective’, The Cambridge Dictionary (accessed 30 October 2023).
  • 2Subjective’, The Cambridge Dictionary (accessed 30 October 2023).
  • 3Bias’, The Cambridge Dictionary (accessed 30 October 2023).

In Part II of the lesson, students explore media representation, looking at how stereotypes are used and prejudices manifest in the mass media. It is important to review all the content in the lesson and accompanying PowerPoint to decide if it is appropriate to share with your students. You should also consider how students themselves might be impacted by the classroom activities and the content, and base your choices on what you share and how you share it on an awareness of this. We recommend revisiting your classroom contract and asking all students to be sensitive and conscious of the impact their words can have on others in the classroom.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plan

Part I Activities

Begin by informing students that in this lesson they will be considering how people’s views can influence the information that they create. 

In preparation, they will reflect on the differences between fact and opinion. Explain that a fact is information that can be proven to be true with evidence, while an opinion is information that is debatable and connected to a person’s thoughts, beliefs or feelings.

Given that it is so easy to consume and share information, it is really important that students are able to tell the difference between facts and opinions, so that they consume information critically and avoid sharing content that is false or misleading. 

Ask them to independently decide whether the following statements are fact or opinion:

  1. It rains a lot in the UK.
  2. The moon is an average of 238,855 miles away from the earth.
  3. Plants release distress signals when under stress.
  4. Shakespeare was one of the world’s greatest playwrights. 
  5. Cities should be more bike friendly. 
  6. Humans need iron for growth and development. 

Then, ask students to vote on whether or not they think each sentence is a fact or opinion one by one, as you reveal the answers: 

  1. Opinion: It rains a lot in the UK. This statement doesn’t quantify what ‘a lot’ is. What is ‘a lot’ to one person may not be much to another. Facts about rainfall that can be proven are:
    • It rains more in the UK than in Saudi Arabia. 1
    • In the UK in 2022, there were 151.8 days in which 1 mm or more of rain fell. 2
  2. Fact: The moon is an average of 238,855 miles away from the earth. The moon has an elliptical orbit, so it varies between 252,088 and 225,623 miles. 3
  3. Fact: Plants release distress signals when under stress. The acacia tree, for example, releases ethylene gas when its leaves are being eaten by a herbivore to warn other trees; the trees down wind that detect the gas then put tannins in their leaves, which stops herbivores eating them as it can make them ill. 4 The smell of cut grass is also a distress signal, released to attract parasitic wasps that eat caterpillars that feast on grass (although, this evolutionary trait isn’t that useful when it is humans cutting grass with lawn mowers). The smell also contains hormones that help the grass heal itself. 5
  4. Opinion: Shakespeare was one of the world’s greatest playwrights. The clue here is in the word ‘greatest’ which is a value or judgement word, suggesting a preference or bias. A factually correct statement could be ‘people still study Shakespeare’s plays today’. 6
  5. Opinion: Cities should be more bike friendly. This is an opinion – some people might agree with it and some people might not. A factual statement on this topic would be ‘Amsterdam has more designated cycle lanes than London’ as this is something that can be measured.
  6. Fact: Humans need iron for growth and development. Iron is important in making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. A lack of iron can lead to anaemia. Those who menstruate need 14.8 mg a day; everyone else needs 8.7 mg. 7

After you have shared the answers, lead a short class discussion using the following questions: 

  1. Why are facts important? 
  2. When is it useful to engage with information that is rooted in fact? 
  3. Why are opinions important?
  4. Why is it useful to hear different opinions? 
  5. Why is it important to be able to distinguish between facts and opinions? 

Finally, give students the following definitions, explaining that facts are objective, while opinions are subjective, and that sometimes opinions can contain views that are biased.

  • Objective (adjective): Based on real facts and not influenced by personal beliefs or feelings. 8
  • Subjective (adjective): Influenced by or based on personal beliefs or feelings, rather than based on facts. 9
  • Bias (noun): The action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgement. 10

Explain to students that everyone has biases; having biases does not make someone a bad person. It is, however, important to be aware of how biases manifest so students can be careful in how they express themselves and can be critical of information they encounter. Bias encountered in mass media can be problematic as it can exclude groups of people and/or influence people’s opinions on a big scale. 

Inform students that they will now be analysing different texts to identify bias, while also thinking about whether or not the texts contain any facts and opinions. Divide students into groups and distribute the handout Facts, Opinions and Bias. You might choose to assign students a text choice suitable for their level and ask them to annotate the text in pairs. Or, do the first example collectively and ask students to do the second example in pairs.

Field student responses from the class before leading a short class discussion using the following questions:

  1. How can biased content shape people’s views?
    • What might be the consequences of this? 
  2. Have you ever had your view shaped by content you have encountered? 
    • If so, what was the content?
    • How did it shape your view/understanding of a topic? 
  3. What do you think can be done to counter the impact of consuming biased content?

Inform students that they will now explore what it means to be subjective and biased by expressing some of their own views. Ask them to respond to the following prompts: 

  1. Think about something that you find really boring or don’t like doing.
    • What is it? 
    • Why do you find it boring? 
    • Write a sentence using adjectives and descriptive devices to persuade others to avoid doing this thing. Use the following example to help you:
      • Scrolling on Instagram is the most pointless activity on earth – why waste your life watching scenes of plastic, manicured lives? 
  2. Think about something that you find fascinating or really enjoy doing.
    • What is it?
    • Why do you like it? 
    • Write a sentence using adjectives and descriptive devices to persuade others to engage with it. Use the following example to help you:
      • Gazing up at the sky on a clear night is incredible; you see countless twinkling diamond stars. 

Invite students to share their descriptive sentences in pairs, before asking for some volunteers to share one of their descriptions with the class. 

Then lead a short class discussion, asking students to reflect on the following questions:

  1. How were people's biases evident in the words they used?
  2. What impact did their word choices have on how you viewed the topic?

Finally, if there is time, invite students to reflect on the power of language by responding to the following prompt: 

Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, nineteenth-century American novelist

  1. What does Hawthorne’s quotation suggest about the power of language? 
  2. How far do you agree with Hawthorne’s statement? Explain your view.
  3. How is this statement relevant to what you have learnt about bias? 
  4. What, if any, impact will this lesson have on how you use and engage with language in the future?  

Part II Activities

Begin by giving students a few minutes to write in their journals in response to the questions below. Inform them that they will not be required to share their responses with the class.

While students complete the activity, consider thinking about your own example to share. 

  • Think about a piece of media that you have consumed recently which featured an individual with whom you share an identity trait. This could be a video game, a TV show, a film, a radio show, a book, an article, an advert – anything that comes to mind.
    • Which identity trait(s) did you share with the individual?
      You might wish to think about identity categories such as age, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, etc.
    • Did you find the depiction empowering, disempowering or neither? Explain your view. 
    • Was how the individual depicted connected to societal expectations about how someone from this group might behave? 
      • If so, what were they?
  • How, if at all, could this depiction impact someone’s view of people who share that identity trait? 

Next, lead a short class discussion sharing your own response, inviting any individuals who feel comfortable doing so to share their responses, and then discuss the following question:

  • How can the way people are represented in the media impact how others view them and/or how they view themselves?

Next, inform students that they will be reflecting on representation in the media, focusing on how stereotypes in the media can impact people’s views and behaviour.

Introduce the term ‘stereotype’, sharing the following definition with students and explaining that stereotypes are used in mass media to shape an audience’s knowledge, understanding and response to a topic:

Stereotype (noun): A belief about an individual or group based on the real or imagined characteristics of a group to which that individual belongs.

Next, distribute the handout The Impact of Stereotypes in the Media and read it using one of the Read Aloud strategies

Next, divide students into groups to discuss the following connection questions before leading a short class discussion:

  1. How does the media people consume impact them?
  2. How can consuming media that promotes stereotypes impact people and their views of others? 
    • How can it impact their view of themselves? 
  3. What can stereotypes lead to? 
  4. What is ‘stereotype threat’? What causes it? What are its consequences?
  5. What can be done to counter the impact of societal stereotypes? 
  6. How, if at all, has reading this text impacted your view about your media consumption habits? 

Explain to students that exposure to stereotypes can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice occurs when we form an opinion about an individual or a group based on a negative stereotype. When prejudice leads us to treat an individual or group negatively, discrimination occurs.

Share the following definitions with students:

  • Prejudice (noun): A negative opinion of a person or a thing that is not based on actual experience.
  • Discrimination (noun): The practice of unfairly treating another person or group of people differently to other people or groups of people.

Inform students that they will now reflect on representation in the media, reflecting on stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. 

Divide students into groups and distribute the handout Media Representation, giving each group a different type of prejudice and discrimination to focus on. Alternatively, you might show students some of the content from the following articles: 

Then, ask students to review the content they have been given and respond to the following questions in their groups:

  1. How are the individuals presented in the media examples?
  2. How are stereotypes being enforced or challenged? 
  3. How, if at all, is prejudice evident in the examples?
  4. How do you think these examples impact those who view them? 
    • How might they shape their worldview?
    • What emotional responses might they trigger? 
    • How might they impact their treatment of others? 
  5. What do these examples teach you about the power of representation? 

Lead a short class discussion, inviting students to share their reflections. 

To end the lesson, ask student to reflect on the following questions in their journals:

  1. How might stereotypes affect how we think about ourselves?
  2. How can you become more aware of the labels you place on others and the consequences that those labels may have?
  3. How can understanding stereotypes help you become media literate? 
  4. What do you think can be done to counter the impact of the stereotypes you are exposed to? 

Extension Activities

Share uncoloured versions of the speech excerpts used in the activity ‘Finding fact-checkable claims’ from UNESCO’s Journalism, ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation: Handbook for Journalism Education and Training (pp. 94–6) to help students understand how fact-checking works and how to assess whether or not statements they read are factual/can be objectively verified. You might also wish to share the BBC Bitesize video Think Like a Journalist: How to Check a Story (3:41) and then ask students to explain why it is important to fact-check the information they encounter online.

Review the We Move Together learning guide and share any appropriate questions and activities with students. While the book We Move Together is aimed at younger learners, the guide offers lots of useful ideas for conversations around disability that are appropriate for all ages.

Use our lesson Addressing Islamophobia in the Media from our unit Discussing Contemporary Islamophobia in the Classroom. In this two-part lesson, students explore how Islamophobia manifests and is spread in the media, both in the news and in the entertainment industry. In the first part of the lesson, the activities provide students with the opportunity to reflect on media bias; to explore literary devices used in the media to provoke emotional reactions and spread Islamophobia; to analyse the portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the media; and to reflect on how humanity’s negativity bias impacts responses to Islamophobic news content. In the second part of the lesson, students reflect on film as an art medium; discuss the representation of Muslims and Islam in the film industry; consider the impact of this representation; and finally reflect on what shapes people’s responses to Muslims and Islam.

Show students the video How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (8:04), in which the social psychologist Claude Steele, who was one of the researchers who coined the term ‘stereotype threat’, describes the effects of stereotype threat in our daily lives. You might then ask students to complete a Connect, Extend, Challenge activity.

Help students reflect on how stereotypes and ‘single stories’ influence our identities, how we view others, and the choices we make by teaching them the lesson Transcending Single Stories from our unit Standing Up for Democracy.

Show students the talk Breaking Down Stereotypes Using Art and Media (12:38) by the artist Bayeté Ross Smith and invite them to reflect on how stereotypes have impacted how Ross Smith has been treated, and what he is doing to counter stereotypes. You might also wish to show images from Ross Smith’s photography series Our Kind of People and encourage them to consider how the choices individuals make about clothing affect how others perceive them.

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