Understanding the News | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Uniformed high school students read at their desks.
Lesson

Understanding the News

Students develop as critical consumers of news content by thinking about the purpose of the news, whether or not it is impartial and independent, and about their own consumption of news media

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 third 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 helps students develop as critical consumers of news content by encouraging them to think about the purpose of the news, whether or not it is impartial and independent, and about their own consumption of news media. 

In the first part of the lesson, students reflect on what the news is and the purpose it serves, before thinking about the benefits and challenges of keeping up with the news. These activities are followed by looking at news values and thinking about what makes a news story newsworthy. In the second part of the lesson, students explore the ownership and political bias of different news sources, reflecting on the impact that these can have on news content. They then review headlines to understand how bias can manifest in the news, before comparing two articles, one from a tabloid and one from a broadsheet. They finish by summarising the differences between the tabloid and the broadsheet articles and their impact on the reader, and thinking about how they can apply what they have learnt in the lesson to their news consumption habits.

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

  • What is the purpose of the news?
  • Who owns the news media and why is that relevant?
  • How does bias manifest in news content?
  • Students will be able to explain what the purpose of news is and what makes something newsworthy.
  • Students will learn about news ownership in the UK and reflect on its impact.
  • Students will be able to identify bias in news content.

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

  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 handout

News is everywhere and, in a world with the Internet and 24-hour news channels, is readily accessible all hours of the day. It is therefore important for young people to understand more about how the news functions, what its purpose is, why certain stories make the news, how bias exists in the news, and who owns the outlets people consume. 

In 1965, sociologist Johan Galtung and political scientist Mari Ruge identified a set of news values in an attempt to understand why different stories made the news. They created this set of values by analysing prominent international news stories and identifying factors that they all had in common. They identified the following values when assessing what made a story newsworthy: 1   

  • Recency: This is related to breaking news. Media organisations are highly focused on reporting on stories as they happen and being the first to report a story.
  • Size: The bigger the story, the more people affected and the more money/resources involved, the more likely it will be reported on. 
  • Continuity: Events that will have an ongoing impact, like a war or a sports tournament, are likely to be reported on as there will be new details and audiences are more likely to repeatedly engage to get an update. 
  • Simplicity: Simple stories that are easy to explain, such as large lottery wins or celebrity deaths, are preferred to those which are more complex, such as foreign wars or economic events.
  • Elite nations or people: An elite nation or person is one with influence. In the UK, a story about the American president or an American social issue is more likely to be reported on than a story about less influential countries and their leaders.
  • Exclusivity: This is related to a news outlet being the only one to break a story.
  • Predictability: If an event is likely to be dramatic or full of action, journalists will plan to attend it in advance. Sports matches and demonstrations are examples of such events.
  • Unexpectedness: A story about something unique or unusual has more news value than something that happens every day.
  • Negativity: Bad news stories, such as those which involve death, violence and extreme events, etc., are more likely to make the headlines than positive news stories.
  • Personality: A story about a celebrity or a heroic member of the general public will have a better chance of grabbing people’s attention due to its ‘human interest’ angle.
  • Meaningfulness: Stories that have a local relevance or connection – i.e. they have a geographical proximity or involve people from the same country – are seen as more meaningful and more likely to help people connect to their content.
  • Currency: This relates to stories that have been news items for a while. A story about a missing person or a war, for example, can run for weeks, even if nothing new occurs.

These values continue to shape news agendas around the world and are useful for understanding why a story makes it onto the news landscape. 

Understanding how editorial biases influence news content is also relevant. In the UK, most news outlets have a political bias, which shapes the content that they report on, how they present different events and which political candidates they endorse. 

The media company AllSides, which seeks to educate people about media bias, states, 

Journalism is tied to a set of ethical standards and values, including truth and accuracy, fairness and impartiality, and accountability. However, journalism today often strays from objective fact, resulting in biased news and endless examples of media bias.

Media bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But hidden bias misleads, manipulates and divides us. 2

Helping students understand that the media is biased and how to detect bias is therefore important and can shape how they engage with news content, and how far it shapes their views. 

Additionally, it is useful for people to understand that news outlets have owners, which can shape the content people consume, a newspaper’s stance on news stories and the news media landscape in general.

In the UK, ‘three companies—DMG Media, News UK and Reach—dominate 90% of the UK’s national newspaper market’; ‘71% of the UK’s 1,189 local newspapers are owned by six companies’; 3  and ‘10 of the top 15 online platforms used to access news in the UK are owned by Meta, Alphabet [Google’s parent company] and X Corp (owners of X/Twitter)’. 4 Moreover, Meta and Google command around four-fifths of all online advertising spend, which gives them power over how online news is found and funded. 5

The Media Reform Coalition explains why this concentration of power is a problem and why media plurality matters:

To participate in democracy, citizens need to be exposed to a diverse range of voices and perspectives and be kept informed about the actions of the powerful. In liberal democratic theory, the media is supposed to act as a ‘fourth estate’ – sitting alongside government and the courts and playing a crucial role in holding them to account. Although investigating elites and exposing abuses of power is expensive and risky work, media organisations are supposed to be willing to invest in it because they are competing with one another to break stories.

This theory stops working in a media system like we currently have in the UK which is highly concentrated in very few hands. When we don’t have enough plurality, media [outlets] themselves become major power holders, and their interests are often aligned both with other elites and with one another. 6  

Helping students understand that the content they consume can be shaped by vested interests can help them be critical consumers of information.

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 encourages students to think about the purpose of the news and what makes a story newsworthy, while Part II encourages students to reflect on bias and how it manifests in news content. While we encourage teachers to teach both parts, if you are pushed for time teaching this unit, then you might wish to teach only Part II.

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:

  • News (noun): Verifiable information in the public interest. 1
  • Truthful (adjective): Telling or expressing what has really happened. 
  • Impartial (adjective): Treating something fairly/not allowing your views and interests to impact how you engage with or present something.
  • Accountable (adjective): Being responsible for content shared and willing to explain any actions and decisions.
  • Independent (adjective): Not being influenced or controlled by others.
  • Left-wing (adjective): Holding socially liberal ideas and a belief in social and economic equality, brought about by greater state involvement, like higher taxes and benefits. 
  • Right-wing (adjective): Holding socially conservative ideas and a belief that the state should be small, and that people’s success is down to their own hard work and merit. 
  • Tabloid (noun): Newspapers, like The Sun and the Daily Mail, with lots of images, celebrity news and opinion pieces. They are less reliable than broadsheets and tend to sensationalise news stories.
  • Broadsheet (noun): Newspapers, like the Financial Times and The Guardian, that provide in-depth stories and generally contain reliable content. They were named after their format, but many broadsheets are the same size as tabloids.
  • Sensationalism (noun): The presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy and truth.
  • 1Journalism, “Fake News” and Disinformation: Handbook for Journalism Education and Training, UNESCO, p. 7.

In Part II of the lesson, students will analyse and compare two different news articles on the same topic. If you are providing students with a recent news article, please select one example from a tabloid and another one from a broadsheet, ideally of different political persuasions. You could also divide students into groups and give them physical newspapers to analyse in groups, being sure to give each group a tabloid and a broadsheet. If you are doing this, please review the entire newspaper to ensure nothing harmful is contained within its pages.

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 Plans

Part I Activities

Inform students that in today’s lesson, they will be focusing on the news. First, ask them to respond to the following questions in their journal

  1. What is the news? 
  2. Why do people consume the news? 
  3. Where do people get their news from? (Note down different sources)
  4. Do you read the news? 
    • If so, where do you get it from? 
    • How do you know you can trust your news sources? 

Lead a short class discussion, inviting students to share their responses and taking notes of their answers on the board.

Then, explain to students that UNESCO defines news as ‘verifiable information in the public interest’. 1 Invite students to share any responses to this definition. 

  • 1Ibid.

Next, inform students that they will be watching the BBC My World video What is News? (3:37) and responding to the following questions (show them the questions prior to watching the video so that they are primed to answer them):  

  • Why, according to the video, do people consume the news? 
  • How has technology changed how people consume the news? 
    • What challenges has it created? 
  • The video describes five fundamental principles of news and the journalists who create it: be truthful, impartial, accurate, accountable and independent.
    • Why are these principles important? 
    • Why is it important to consume reputable news sources that tend to abide by these principles? 
  • How does the video’s content connect to, extend and/or challenge your understanding of the news? 

If needed, share some or all of the following definitions:

  • Truthful (adjective): Telling or expressing what has really happened. 
  • Impartial (adjective): Treating something fairly/not allowing your views and interests to impact how you engage with or present something.
  • Accountable (adjective): Being responsible for content shared and willing to explain any actions and decisions.
  • Independent (adjective): Not being influenced or controlled by others.

After students have watched the video, invite them to share their responses in pairs or lead a short class discussion.

Explain to students that they are now going to think about why different stories make it into the news, i.e. makes a story newsworthy.

Inform students that in 1965, sociologist Johan Galtung and political scientist Mari Ruge identified a set of news values. Their initial research was focused on news values in stories printed in newspapers, but the values they identified can apply to any news story and are helpful for understanding why something becomes newsworthy.     

Distribute the handout News Values so that there are enough for one between two. In pairs, ask students to read the handout, cut up the news values and then place them in order of importance.

Then, lead a short class discussion using the following questions: 

  1. Which news value do you think is the most important and why?
    • The least important? Why?
  2. Which news value do you see most often in news stories?
  3. How, if at all, might a news value impact how a story is reported on and/or sought out? 
  4. These news values were created in 1965. Do you think any news values need to be added to the list? If so, why and what are they?

Next, inform students they will be identifying how news values have been used in a current news story. Select two recent videos that are guided by different news values from the BBC News TikTok page, which are suitable for your students – one, for example, might be a video about an important event and another about a celebrity or a craze. 

Inform students that they will be watching a news video and reflecting on the following questions. Then play them the first video:

  1. Which news values are present in this story? 
    • Which, if any, are more prominent? 
  2. If people consume news that is shaped around these values, what does it suggest about their priorities? 
    • How might it impact how they feel? 
    • How might it influence how they view the world? 

After watching the video, ask students to respond to the questions using the Think-Pair-Share strategy. 

Then, play them the second video, asking them to consider the same questions. After they have shared their thoughts in pairs, lead a short class discussion, reflecting on the two videos. 

If there is time, you may wish to show students another TikTok video that is on a different topic or from a different trusted broadcaster. 

Alternatively, you could allow students to choose their own news story, but if you choose to do this, please provide students with a reputable news source they can use. 

To end the lesson, ask students to reflect on the following questions: 

  • What are the benefits of engaging with the news? 
    • What are the downsides? 
  • In your opinion, should young people stay on top of the news? 
    • Why? Why not?

Part II Activities

Explain to students that they will now be learning a bit more about the news media landscape in the UK, and who owns different news outlets and the biases that different outlets have. 

First, ask them to respond to the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of the news media? 
  2. Why is it important to have an impartial and independent news media i.e. a news media that is not controlled by vested interests? 
  3. Do you think the sources of news in the UK are impartial and independent? Why? Why not? 
  4. If someone controls what you read, do they control what you think? Explain your answer.

Inform students that they will now be reflecting on the ownership of news sources.

Share the following information, the top three bullet points of which are from the Media Reform Coalition’s 2023 Report Who owns the UK media?, with students: 

  • Three companies dominate 90% of the UK’s national newspaper market. These same three companies account for more than 40% of the total audience reach of the UK’s top 50 online newsbrands, giving these publishers an unrivalled position for setting the news agenda. 1
  • 71% of the UK’s 1,189 local newspapers are owned by six companies. 2
  • 10 of the top 15 online platforms used to access news in the UK are owned by three companies, two of which command around four-fifths of all online advertising spend, which gives them power over how online news is found and funded. 3
  • Several of the companies that dominate the news market are owned by billionaires; others have boards of directors that represent the interests of shareholders.

Then, invite students to respond to the following prompts using the Think-Pair-Share teaching strategy:

  1. What do you find surprising, interesting and/or troubling about these facts and statistics?
  2. How, if at all, might a news outlet having billionaire media owners and/or a board of directors impact its impartiality and independence?
  3. How can concentrated news ownership shape the news landscape? 
    • What, if any, impact can it have on the ability of media outlets to hold power to account? 
  4. The Media Reform Coalition argues that ‘these companies hold a dangerous level of power to dictate our national conversation and influence the political agenda to favour their own interests’ and that this can risk the health of our democracy. 4
    • How far do you agree with their views? 

Next, explain to students that most news media outlets have a political and editorial bias, which shapes how they report on issues and which politicians they support. While some outlets have an obvious political bias, others can be more politically neutral, but will nonetheless have a bias in the words they use and in the process of selecting which news stories to report on. 

The media company AllSides, which works to educate people about media bias, states that ‘Media bias isn't necessarily a bad thing. But hidden bias misleads, manipulates and divides us.’ 1

To explain biases and where people stand on a spectrum, the terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ are used. Share the following summaries:

  • Left-wing views are associated with socially liberal ideas and a belief in social and economic equality, brought about by greater state involvement, like higher taxes and benefits. 
  • Right-wing views are associated with socially conservative ideas and a belief that the state should be small, and that people’s success is down to their own hard work and merit. 

Then, share the YouGov survey results on slide 19 of the PowerPoint Understanding the News about people’s perceptions of the bias of some of the UK’s leading newspapers. 

Finally, lead a short class discussion using the following questions: 

  • How far do you agree with the survey results? 
  • What, if any, bias have you observed in UK newspapers?

Next, inform students that they will be reflecting on how news outlets report stories differently, depending on their editorial stance. Inform students that they will now be analysing fake headlines that could all be used for the same news story (stress that both the headlines and the news story are made up). 

Share the following headlines that could be used for a news story about a student who organises a school climate protest:

  1. Student organises school climate protest.
  2. Troublesome student disrupts vital lessons.
  3. Inspiring student takes a stand against climate change.
  4. Pupils led astray by peer. 
  5. Student shows incredible leadership skills. 

For each headline, ask students to respond to the following questions: 

  • How does the headline make you feel about the student? Why?
  • How does it present the situation?
  • What words/phrases in the headline shape your view of the student/situation?
  • What bias, if any, do you think the newspaper that puts out the headline might have? 
  • How can a newspaper’s bias impact how you respond to a news story?

Invite students to share their responses in pairs or small groups before leading a short class discussion.

Next, explain to students that they will be analysing and comparing two articles on the same news story from two different newspapers, one a tabloid and one a broadsheet. 

Share the following definitions with students:

  • Tabloid: Newspapers, like The Sun and the Daily Mail, with lots of images, celebrity news and opinion pieces. They are less reliable than broadsheets and tend to sensationalise news stories.
  • Broadsheet: Newspapers, like the Financial Times and The Guardian, that provide in-depth stories and generally contain reliable content. They were named after their format, but many broadsheets are the same size as tabloids.
  • Sensationalism: The presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy and truth.

Divide students into groups and give each group a newspaper article from a broadsheet and a tabloid on the same news story (see the third note in Notes to Teacher, above), and project the instructions on the board:

  • Read your two newspaper articles, then review and compare them using the following questions (some of which have been adapted from the 5A rating):
    1. What is the AIM of the content?
    2. Who/What is the AUTHOR of the content?
      • What do you know about the author/source?
      • Are they reliable/trustworthy/unbiased? 
    3. What is the communication APPROACH used? 
      • How does it portray its topic? How is the topic framed?
      • How is the content trying to get your attention (font, text size, images, layout, language, etc.)? 
      • What, if anything, is seeking to provoke an emotional response? 
    4. Who is the target AUDIENCE
      • How has this shaped the content?
      • What impact might the content have on different audiences? 
    5. How would you rate the ACCURACY of the content? 
      • How do you know if you can believe/trust what you are reading? 
      • What facts and evidence, or opinions, does it contain? 
    6. How, if at all, is the newspaper’s bias evident in the way they report on the story? 
    7. Summarise the differences between the tabloid and the broadsheet articles and their impact on the reader. 

Once students have finished discussing the questions, lead a short class discussion, inviting students to share their findings. 

Then, discuss the following questions as a class: 

  1. How do you think it affects people’s views and beliefs if they get all of their news from one media source?
  2. How can you reduce the impact that bias in the news has on you? 
  3. Why is it important to consume reputable and trustworthy news sources?

You might also choose to show students the US website AllSides, which reveals the bias of media outlets and shares the same news story reported by news outlets from across the political spectrum. 

Finally, invite students to reflect on the news media by responding to the following question in a Wraparound:

What, if any, impact will this lesson have on how you consume news media in the future?

Extension Activities

Share the animation How to choose your news (4:33) with students. As they watch the video, ask them to take notes on how news consumption has changed, the present-day challenges in news consumption and the tips on consuming news. Then, lead a short class discussion inviting students to share their responses and consider if there are any tips they would add.

Share the animation How statistics can be misleading (4:18) with students. As they watch the video ask them to take notes on what Simpson’s paradox is, why statistics can be misleading, and approaches they can take when encountering statistics. Then, lead a short class discussion inviting students to share how what they learnt in the video will impact how they consume and share information.

Facing History and Ourselves UK partnered with VotesforSchools to understand what students thought about facts and opinions in the news. Students engaged in an informed discussion and debate and were then invited to participate in a nationwide vote on the question ‘Should opinions be shared as part of news reporting?’.

Share some or all of the following activities from the lesson with students: 

  • Play the video What's the difference between news and opinion? Gary Younge tells us about his role (The Guardian, 1:40) and ask students to consider the following: 
    • Gary Younge is a columnist who writes opinions on the news. 
      • What does he enjoy about his job? Why might this be helpful for people? 
      • When is it not appropriate for people to share their opinions on the news? 
  • Next, ask students to vote with their feet and decide whether or not it is appropriate for opinions on each of the following issues to be shared as part of news reporting. Designate one side of the room as ‘always appropriate’ and the opposite side as ‘never appropriate’ and tell students to stand in a place that reflects their view (they can stand anywhere between the two sides to highlight varying levels of agreement). 
  • Share each of the topics and ask students to stand in a place that reflects their view, and be ready to explain why they have chosen to stand where they did: 
    • Mental Health
    • The Government
    • Sport
    • Climate Change
    • Celebrities
    • War and Conflict
  • Next, share each of the following views and invite students to consider to what extent they agree with each one, and whether or not there are any issues that each of these views could cause: 
    • Opinion one: Journalists will have researched a topic in depth, so we don’t have to; hearing their opinions is important.
    • Opinion two: Opinions have no place in our news cycle; we just need to know the facts so we can come to our own conclusions.
  • Finally, invite students to vote yes or no in response to the question ‘Should opinions be shared as part of news reporting?’. Once they have voted, share the results of the nationwide vote with them:
    • 56.9% of students voted no. 
    • 43.1% of students voted yes. 

You may also choose to share Facing History’s response to the nationwide vote for students to reflect on, inviting them to consider how it connects, extends or challenges what they have discussed about facts and opinions in the news.

Materials and Downloads

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