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The Shape of News

How educators can use news coverage as a tool to foster critical thinking skills
Teen sitting on newspapers with laptop

Critical thinking skills — analyzing facts to make reflective and informed decisions — are essential for students when it comes to civic engagement. However, in today’s fast-paced news cycle, it’s become increasingly difficult for students to discern fact from fiction to make informed decisions. This is especially true of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new educational report from Project Information Literacy (PIL) uses the first 100 days of the COVID-19 news story to help educators and high school and college students revisit the early coverage and think critically about how journalism shapes the national narrative and often defines what we see and learn, what we think, who we are.

“Familiarity with news is a powerful social practice, one that nurtures civic literacy,” principal investigator Alison Head says. “In our 2018 study on news engagement, we found seven in 10 students got their news from the classroom, so this time we asked, ‘What if we focused on coronavirus, arguably the biggest story of the century, and made it into a unique and timely learning experience during a critical election year?’”

According to Head, the novel resource emphasizes two critical areas of development:

  1. Information Agency. This is the ability to reclaim some control over the news, Head says. It takes pulling back and looking at the “shape of news” to identify critically important themes and pieces of information. To help students build this skill, the first part of the report presents interactive graphs and a timeline narrative to show the coronavirus story’s development over time. Learning resources include exercises for seeing how news stories develop and managing readers’ attention over time.
  2. Visual Literacy is the ability to understand how the composition and presentation of images adds meaning to a news event, while eliciting certain emotional responses. The second part of the report looks at news images in the coronavirus coverage and how lighting, angle, or cropping played a role in visual messaging. Learning resources let students code news images on their own to see firsthand the effect visuals can have on viewers.

Within the classroom context, educators can use this study as a reading and teaching resource to prompt student questions and nurture civic literacy. Here are a few activities and questions to prompt thinking in the classroom developed by the PIL team.

Understand the Context of News

  • Draw on student experience. Ask what news stories or images do they remember from the start of the pandemic? How did they hear about the stories? Where did they find their news? How did they know what was credible?

Compare Sources

  • Compare two news stories from the same day from two different sources or two stories from the same source but from different times. What is the same? What’s different? Whose voices are featured? What assumptions are made about the reader?
  • Compare two images from the report. How do the visual techniques contribute to your response? What do the visual techniques have in common? What’s different? Who is featured in the image?


  • Have any groups of people been left out of the coverage? Who? And why hasn’t the media paid attention?
  • Choose a well-known figure or leader who frequently appeared in the news. How was their reaction portrayed over time by news outlets?
  • Choose a particular image. Figure out when and where it was originally published and if it has been used elsewhere. Was the image cropped? If so, what was left out?

Key Takeaways

  • Focus on the “shape” of news to understand major trends and how that shaped the national perspective.
  • Consider the ways in which visual representation is also a vehicle for information.
  • Be sure to keep track of who is represented and who is telling the story.

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