by Amy Lerman, Political Science
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005
Too often, even the smartest of students takes an uncritical eye towards the arguments they read. They are quick to take the information they get from articles and lectures as the whole truth, rather than challenging themselves to consider other information or additional relevant points of view. In order to address this issue, I began the semester with an exercise. The goal of the project was to compare a series of writings on the same topic, and examine how even the most neutral writing makes choices about what to include and how to describe things. These choices, whether they intend to or not, present us with a particular way of seeing things.
I started by presenting two ways of thinking about how our views on particular issues are shaped: agenda-setting and framing. Agenda-setting is concerned with what we think about. Cultural and political climates limit both the issues we encounter and what we are likely to consider relevant. Framing is concerned with how we think about things. Social issues are viewed through individual or collective lenses. The conceptualization of particular actors as either perpetrators or victims is a part of the collective process of framing. Even data, I pointed out, are subject to the pitfalls of agenda-setting and framing. It is all too easy to separate empirical fact from the cultural milieu, arguing that data simply represent the cold hard facts. Yet whether and how something is counted is a conscious decision. Just as with other biases, the biases in our “objective evidence” may be either implicit or explicit, located in what research is done and how it is interpreted.
I then asked students to break up into groups, and I assigned each group a different article about a particular bombing that had taken place during the first weeks of the War in Iraq. (While at the time this was the hot topic in the news, this exercise could easily be done around any current issue.) While all of the articles addressed the exact same event and came from reputable sources, I chose them with an eye towards diversity. I picked one from a conservative newspaper and one from a liberal magazine. I chose some that clearly editorialized and others reporting “just the facts.” I also included several pieces by academics, an article by an Iraqi journalist, a piece quoting extensively from soldiers in the field, and a transcript from a Department of Defense press briefing.
Each group of students read only the one piece that they had been assigned, and then in their group they answered a set of questions. These questions were focused on the issues of agenda setting and framing. What is this story about? What details does the author provide about the story? Whose voices are included? What statistics, if any, are cited? Are there “bad guys” or does the author remain neutral? What language suggests this to you?
We then all came together, and each group discussed their particular article. Each group had read their own article as a reasonably complete account of “the way it had happened.” When they began to see the differences between the pieces, though, they were struck by how disparate each account was from the others. In particular, the students were surprised by how even those that were technically “unbiased,” “academic” or “scientific” were unintentionally framed in certain ways. Who was interviewed, whether Iraqi casualties were mentioned or only American casualties, and even whether or not the event was set in the context of the larger war affected how the bombing was ultimately portrayed. Different groups had come away with really different ideas of what happened and what it meant, despite the fact that the stories were ostensibly about the same thing.
I was so pleased when, many times throughout the semester that followed, students came to section eager to talk about the ways in which what they had been assigned to read might not be the whole story. In several cases, students — of their own volition — even brought in other texts that they thought presented additional viewpoints or considered issues that had not been included in the course readings. This ability to think critically and carefully about what they read and hear will hopefully serve them well in other courses, and in their lives outside the University.