Beyond “True” and “False”: Teaching Students to Read the News Critically

Jennifer Noji | University of California, Los Angeles

I grew up at the turn of the century in a time when most people still believed that reading the news meant learning about the world. Since I was young, my parents constantly urged me, “Watch the news, and open your eyes!” They insisted that reading the local Sunday paper and Time magazine as well as watching BBC and NBC news reports, among others, would help me keep up with current events and gain a better understanding of the people and societies around me. To this day, whenever an election takes place, a war breaks out, a child goes missing, or a storm forms off the coast, I can expect a text from one of my parents: “Did you see the news?”

Yet, in our current age of misinformation and “fake news,” we can’t simply assume that watching and reading the news means learning facts about the world (and perhaps we never should have).1 Now, when my parents send me articles from their “SmartNews” app about a breaking story or new discovery, I ask them: Who wrote the piece, and who do they work for? Does the article cite sources? If so, what kind of sources?  These questions reflect a sense of skepticism and distrust that began to take root throughout my years of growing up with the rise of social media and that, for better or worse, significantly increased when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 (as Meredith O’Brien, Chris Cillizza, and others note, Trump’s presidency shepherded an era of “fake news”). However, while I have learned to ask these critical questions when engaging with news and public media, I quickly discovered that most of my students have not. When I began to teach undergraduate literature and writing courses in 2019, I was struck by my students’ quickness to believe everything they read and to accept news reports and historical records as “fact.” Even though most of them had spent the majority of their lives in what Timothy Snyder calls the “post-truth” era, many of them had not yet learned how to adeptly navigate the overwhelming magnitude of “fake news” and “alternative facts” crowding our physical and digital spaces. Indeed, a large portion of the US population (including myself) still struggles to do so. 

In our present age of misinformation, where should we instruct our students to go to learn about the world around them? 

My answer: the news. For better or worse, I still think our fastest and most accessible source of information about the world and its happenings is the news. (Of course, “the news” can refer to various different things nowadays, considering many people in our present age read “the news” on Facebook and Twitter feeds or watch “the news” on Youtube and Tiktok. I should therefore clarify that when I advise my students to engage with “the news,” I mean news articles and reports produced by established newspaper and journalism outlets.) Thus, rather than giving up on news segments altogether, I suggest we must teach our students to critically analyze, interrogate, and evaluate them. This means teaching them to identify a news segment’s target audience and political motivations, to recognize its underlying biases, and to check its citations and references (Paul T. Corrigan and Timothy Snyder among others propose additional practices for critically reading the news). Yet, in addition to approaching individual news segments with a critical lens, students must also learn how to seek out multiple reports, representations, and interpretations of the same event or topic from different perspectives. Rather than refusing to acknowledge the “other side” and their opinions, they might deeply benefit from engaging with them. I therefore strive to teach my students that reading news on the same topic from different (and even opposing) viewpoints and sources—in other words, cross-checking the news we consume—is a crucial practice for gaining a more critical and comprehensive understanding of the world we live in. 

Figure 1. Photo by fauxels (on Pexels) .

These critical analysis skills, including close reading and cross-checking practices, are ones I try to teach students in all my composition and writing-intensive courses. While I primarily teach seminars on literature and political violence, in which we frequently engage with past and present news reports about violent events, I think such critical analysis skills are essential for all students living in our complex and complicated “post-truth” world. Along with scholars like Paul Corrigan, who developed an undergraduate composition course on “Fake News” (see his syllabus here), I believe we need to alter our pedagogical strategies to better equip students to confidently navigate and understand the events unfolding around them. I therefore share Corrigan’s ambitions to “teach students to recognize, when they encounter claims that may be false or falsely accused of being false, what truth distorting strategies might be at work and to practice truth sorting strategies in response.” 

Yet, while Corrigan maintains the notions of “truth” and “falsehood” at the center of his curriculum, I propose we must go beyond “true” and “false” altogether, since such binary thinking overlooks that “truth” can be defined in infinite ways by different people. As the critical work of Sylvia Wynter demonstrates and Michael Laitman explicitly states, truth is a matter of perspective. When we recognize that “Truth” (with a capital T) and “History” (with a capital H) have always been determined by those with power and weaponized to oppress those without it, such supposedly-objective concepts lose meaning. While I do not mean to suggest that no truth(s) exist, I simply strive to demonstrate and show my students that identifying what is “true” and “false” is not always essential for understanding the world around them. In fact, I think it can be important to recognize that there are always multiple coexisting “truths” (or lived realities and beliefs) in societies with diverse populations like ours.  

Therefore, in my classes, I assign what I call a “Critical News Analysis Assignment,” which is designed to help students move beyond True-False binary thinking and learn to more critically analyze, evaluate, and understand the events and issues occurring around them. While I have assigned slightly different versions of this assignment over the past few years, I usually use an adaptation of this assignment prompt

As the prompt demonstrates, this assignment asks students to write a two-page paper in which they examine two news articles about one current event or issue. In their papers, students must critically analyze, evaluate, and compare their two selected articles and reflect on what we can gain by engaging with multiple perspectives and representations of the same event or issue. The prompt also outlines several learning outcomes. In particular, this assignment is intended to help students: 

  1. Critically analyze, interrogate, and evaluate individual news articles by identifying their goals, target audiences, writing techniques and rhetorical strategies, and potential biases. 
  2. Cross-check and compare multiple news articles and their particular representations of the given topic. 
  3. Recognize how different writers and media outlets can strategically write in ways to craft different narratives about the same event or issue. 
  4. Understand how and why “facts” and “truths” are established rather than only focusing on what is “true” and “false.” 

When introducing this assignment, I encourage my students to choose articles from two news sources with different political ideologies or missions. For example, I suggest choosing articles from one conservative outlet and one liberal outlet (offering the graph below as a reference), or, alternatively, selecting one article from a local news source and another from an international news platform. By analyzing two articles with diverse perspectives, students can, on the one hand, more easily recognize their respective biases and motives and, on the other hand, simultaneously gain a more comprehensive understanding of the given topic.  

Additionally, as my students work to complete this project, I repeatedly remind them that another intention of the assignment is to help them recognize and rethink the ways they themselves approach and engage with the news. For example, I ask my students: 

What kinds of news sources and platforms do you access? 

Do you look at articles, social media posts, infographics, or videos? 

Do you accept what you read as fact? Or do you read skeptically and with disbelief? After finishing an article, do you do further research or look at additional sources?

The list of questions goes on. Yet, in addition to asking students how they read the news, I also prompt them to consider why they read it. 

Do you want to learn something new? 

Confirm a pre-existing belief? 

Stay up to date on a particular event or issue? 

In other words, What exactly are you trying to get out of the news? And why do you want to know these things? 

By raising these questions, I try to encourage my students to engage in critical self-reflection and subsequently gain more self-awareness. Thus, while the Critical News Analysis Assignment explicitly asks students to evaluate the writing, thoughts, and goals of other writers, it also implicitly invites them to critically examine themselves and their own beliefs and motivations. Through this assignment, I try to make clear that part of learning about the world includes learning about ourselves. In order to critically evaluate the events and issues unfolding around us, we must begin to recognize the particular lenses and frameworks that we ourselves use to see them. 

Figure 2. Photo by Yan Krukov (on Pexels) .

So what did students actually get out of this assignment?  Overall, my students began to recognize: 1) how political ideologies both shape and are shaped by the news, 2) the various ways news articles employ literary and rhetorical techniques to craft specific messages, and 3) the benefits of reading multiple articles on the same topic. Turning to my student’s papers, I offer some of their key observations and reflections in their own words. 

Many of my students described how they gained a greater understanding of the deep political polarization characterizing US public media and how such media ultimately perpetuates this cleavage. For example, one student wrote, “The polarization of politics in the U.S. has resulted in divisive media. Media coverage has become a catalyst of disparities in information intake and greatly influences public outlook.”2 Another student similarly asserted: “The consistent consumption of biased news only further polarizes the public.”

My students also discussed how different news outlets and articles seemed to prioritize their political goals above the facts they were reporting, which included tailoring their reports for particular target audiences. For instance, one student compared articles by Fox News and CNN and stated: “Both CNN and Fox want to tell Americans of the horrors and violence in the rest of the world but they both focus on different points to incite specific political change that leans towards their biases.” Another similarly wrote: “With different audiences planted firmly at either end of the political spectrum, information is melded to uphold liberal or conservative ideals.” Another student, who examined articles on the Syrian refugee crisis, offered a succinct critique of the way news outlets seem to use current events as an opportunity to push political agendas: “By consuming one-sided and biased news, with no effort to hear all of the sides of such a multifaceted issue, it becomes easy to forget that the Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian issue, not a political talking point.”

Additionally, my students also adeptly analyzed how news articles employed specific writing techniques and conventions in order to craft particular narratives and achieve their political aims.3 As one student stated: “These articles differ not only in what rhetorical and literary techniques they make use of… but also in the purpose of using those techniques.” For example, several students discussed their articles’ use of diction and language. One asserted: “The exaggerated titles and extreme diction used in the articles help the authors to establish the bias that would best please their viewers.” In a similar vein, another wrote: “The Washington Times used words to fit their conservative narrative… In Al Jazeera, the phrasing was used to convey the liberal narrative.”4 Some students also commented on their articles’ strategic use of tone and mood. One wrote: “their emotions [are] ever-so present in both these articles.”

Students also described their news articles’ rhetorical techniques, for example, offering broader general descriptions of an event as opposed to providing more specific first-hand anecdotes of the people affected. One student discussed how one of their articles represented the personal experiences of Ukrainian refugees while the other presented more statistical and broad stoke coverage of the war: “The appeal to pathos present in the New Yorker article cultivates a personal relationship between the reader and the victims, but is unable to provide a general overview of the crisis (given its focus on individual victims). The appeal to logos present in the Pew Research article provides a general overview of the crisis, but fails to create the personal connection the New Yorker article did.” Another student, describing a similar pairing of articles, claimed: “By reading both of these articles together, it is easy to understand how these statistics are not merely arbitrary numbers but instead records of suffering that impact real people.”

After examining how each article employed particular writing and rhetorical techniques to accomplish their goals, many students ultimately concluded with more general and broad reflections about critically reading and cross-checking the news. Students variously articulated how reading multiple articles can help people gain “a more complete understanding,” “a more well-informed perspective,” “a more unbiased medium,” or “a more holistic understanding of the elaborate realities [of political violence].” Several students also described how the assignment forced them to recognize multiple sides of an issue. For example, one stated: “Whenever I consider the pros to one perspective, the other perspective brings up cons that I cannot ignore.” The students continued to articulate their takeaways and responses to the assignment—including reflections on their own biases and news consumption habits—in our classroom discussions. 

Figure 3. Photo by Leeloo Thefirst (on Pexels) .

As my students’ comments demonstrate, this Critical News Analysis Assignment invites students to reevaluate how and why information about the world around them is produced and consumed. It also shows students the importance of practicing critical thinking, reading, and writing skills within their everyday lives and not just the classroom. It is, however, worth noting some potential limitations of the assignment.

The first limitation relates to the assignment’s scope and scale. In particular, I used the Critical News Analysis Assignment as a midterm project—a medium-stakes, standalone assignment that did not directly relate to the other writing assignments in the class. Since I teach at a university based on the quarter system, one academic term is only ten weeks long. Consequently, this assignment was due Week 5, which gave me a limited amount of time to teach my students the critical reading, writing, and thinking skills necessary to complete the project (see note 3). Thus, while we took the time in class to thoroughly discuss the assignment prompt, review key close reading and writing skills, and analyze sample news articles together, I did not have time to teach information literacy theories and practices in great depth, for example, as Corrigan does in his semester-long class on “Fake News.”

However, while Corrigan’s course and others like it allow students to learn about (fake) news in more depth and detail, many instructors do not have the time or means to dedicate an entire class to this topic (especially in a quarter system). Thus, the Critical News Analysis Assignment (or a modified version of it5) offers a quick and simple way for instructors to still teach their students basic information literacy and critical analysis skills needed to navigate our age of misinformation.

Another potential limitation of the assignment relates to its request that students select and analyze two articles. Although the assignment is intended to help students think beyond binaries like “true” and “false,” asking students to analyze two articles may inadvertently encourage binary thinking. Some of my students’ comments, for example, demonstrate a tendency to speak in binaries. In their papers, a couple of my students commented on the importance of learning “two sides” of the story. Another student described how she gained “a more unbiased medium amid the two extremist perspectives.” Furthermore, given the highly partisan political climate currently characterizing the US, several students fell prone to liberal-conservative binary thinking in particular (see note 4). Thus, having students engage with more than two articles could perhaps better emphasize how there are always multiple (not just two) sides of a story.

Nevertheless, engaging with two articles still allowed my students to recognize how writers can represent the same event or issue in very different ways. In our class discussions, students confessed they usually only read (or skimmed) one news article without cross- and fact-checking its contents. Indeed, I wager most people only read one news report (from a source of their choosing) and move on. Thus, in asking my students to analyze two articles from different kinds of news outlets, the assignment challenged them to break their media consumption habits. Moreover, it invited them to engage with ideas and beliefs with which they themselves may disagree. As a result, the assignment offered them the opportunity to take seriously and reflect on the perspectives of people with different beliefs and motivations than themselves—perspectives they might otherwise overlook. Students thereby gained more comprehensive understandings of current events and issues, precisely by recognizing the various ways and reasons that different “facts” and “truths” are created about them. To quote one of my students, the assignment reminds us “there is invariably more to the story.”


  1. While many think of “fake news” as a contemporary phenomenon, Michael Griffin traces the “erosion of the concept and standards of quality news” back to the 1960s-80s, when media companies were bought by major corporations and subsequently expected to make money. Griffin posits this “erosition” of reliable news was further accelerated by the rise of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and 2010s. Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich similarly demonstrate how “truth decay” (a rise in misleading media and a growing distrust in the news) has existed since the 1890s. Yet, Kavanagh and Rich note that our present-day era of “truth decay” is more extreme, insofar as it includes “an increase in disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data” (xiii). 
  2. These quotes derive from my students’ papers written in a writing-intensive seminar I taught recently. I chose to anonymize the individual quotes taken from their papers in order to protect their personal and political opinions.
  3. While we discussed several literary and rhetorical devices (such as diction, tone, metaphor, and hyperbole) in my seminar, many students used terms (such as logos, pathos, and ethos) that they had learned in previous classes and educational settings.
  4. A potential limitation of asking students to pick articles from different kinds of sources (sources with different political values, geographical scopes, etc.) relates to their tendency to fixate solely on political polarization as driving the articles’ key differences. As a result, some students too readily categorized news outlets as “conservative” or “liberal” and used such labels to explain the composition and rhetorical designs of their articles. The students’ tendency to employ liberal-conservative binary thinking demonstrates the difficulty of teaching critical reading in a partisan media landscape.
  5. For example, rather than completing one higher-stakes longer paper focused on a single current event or issue, students could complete multiple lower-stakes shorter responses throughout the entire term, thereby allowing them to analyze several different topics and progressively develop their analytical and writing skills. 

Works Cited

Cillizza, Chris. “Here’s Donald Trump’s most lasting, damaging legacy.” CNN, August 30, 2021,

Corrigan, Paul T. “Fake News: An Undergraduate Composition Course.”

Gajanan, Mahita. “Kellyanne Conway Defends White House’s Falsehoods as ‘Alternative Facts’.” Time, January 22, 2017,

Griffin, Michael. “How News Has Changed.” Macalester News, Macalester College, April 8 2020,

Kavanagh, Jennifer, and Michael D. Rich. Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. RAND, 2018. 

Laitman, Michael. “Social Engineering — Truth Is a Matter of Perspective.” Medium, February 13, 2022,

O’Brien, Meredith . “Teaching Journalism in the Age of Trump.” Inside Higher Ed, May 10, 2019,

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Crown, 2017.

Snyder, Timothy. “@TimothyDSnyder, author of On Tyranny, exposes the danger of ‘post-truth’ and fascism.” The Daily Show, Twitter, 2017,

Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3 no. 3, 2003, p. 257-337.

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