Cut through the Noise to Understand How Politics Really Works

American Politics Today authors David Canon and Bill Bianco discuss how they get their students to look beyond the noisy headlines and focus on how American Government is supposed to function.

One of our goals as authors and teachers is to make students more engaged citizens. While it could be debated what this means and looks like in practice, we have focused in our lectures and in our American government textbook American Politics Today on teaching students how to think about politics, not what to think. This is easier said than done, especially in our unique political moment. 

Image Credit: Paul B.

Today, many of our students are more comfortable speaking about policy and issues from a place of emotion or preconceived ideas, rather than engaging their critical thinking skills to develop informed opinions based on facts and evidence. I am sure you’ve all seen this in action, regardless of the discipline in which you teach.

You can’t really blame them; for many, this is the only model they have—what they see and experience on social media sets the tone for their own contributions to the larger political dialogue. And we’re up against a lot of noise online. The figure below illustrates the ways in which Facebook users alone engaged with fake and mainstream news as the 2016 elections came into view. 

While many of our students are not old enough to be part of those 8.7 million fake news “likes” and shares in 2016, this set the tone for the political environment they presently inhabit as we get closer to the elections this November. 

When you look at data points like this, it’s not surprising to hear that some instructors have decided to retreat, eliminating current events from their lectures to prevent potential conflicts. While we can’t blame them, as navigating these hot-button issues is tricky, the reality is that this is the political environment in which students will be living not just this semester, but the rest of their lives. As such, it is a moment for us as authors and teachers to challenge ourselves to live up to our own goal: to teach students how to think about American politics. 

But how do you get students to cut through all of the noise? 

Photo Credit: Ricardo Galliano Court

In order to get students to engage in civil dialogue, we need to teach them how to see both sides of an argument. And before they can do this, they need to recognize good evidence on which to build their case. So in order to give them a head start, we developed a tool kit—five simple steps—that they can apply when encountering new sources of political information. We’ve been testing this out in class as we discuss current events. By getting students to interrogate their sources, rather than each other, our discussions have gone beyond the headlines to focus on the processes and procedures of American government—how government really works.  

Tweets. Blog posts. Podcasts. Cable. Sources of political information are limitless, so media literacy matters more than ever. As you head into a new semester and fight the inevitable tide of sensational headlines, we hope this checklist will encourage your students to be critical of their sources and not each other. 

Media Checklist: How to assess reporting on politics

1. Says who? Evaluate an author’s reputation

The Internet and social media allow virtually anyone to report on politics, but authors are not created alike. Trust reporters who have experience covering American politics.

2. Fact or “fake news”? Verify information

Good reporting is the result of good sources, and you should always be able to identify and find the source without too much searching. Take a look at the source yourself—whether it is data, polling results, or even a journal article—to verify that evidence was reported fairly.

3. What’s the impact? Assess the extent of a claim

As the astronomer Carl Sagan once put it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Evidence should also match the claims being made by reporters. We need more than their word to believe what they are saying. 

4. Who agrees? Corroborate a report

A story about a political event or outcome is more credible if it is consistent with other reports. Make sure you verify that other credible sources of news and reporters are saying the same thing. 

5. Tell me more! Assess if an explanation is too simple

Be skeptical about simple explanations for political outcomes. Complex outcomes are rarely explained by a single factor.

Providing our students better tools to be good consumers of information is critical in this politically polarized time. If students are overwhelmed by conflicting or confusing information, they are likely to tune out politics. Giving them confidence to navigate the political world is the first step to encourage active engagement in politics.