A man reads a newspaper by the wall, by Garry Knight, via Flickr CC.

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center

According to Gallup, 45% of Americans polled trusted the mass media in 2018. Reuters Institute’s 2019 Digital News Report found similar trends among citizens in 37 countries around the globe: the average level of trust in the news is at 42%, and only 23% say they trust news they find on social media. Further, Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer found that, globally, people trust their employers, NGOs, and businesses before the media “to do what is right.”

Media literacy goes hand in hand with trust in the media, especially for younger generations. But studies show that news media has become neglected in media literacy education systems worldwide. To help young people in school better understand how to cultivate a sense of literacy about news consumption, educators could provide examples of what positive engagement with social media and news looks like. Studies show that recommending what young people shouldn’t do on social media — something scholars call “protectionist discourse” — isn’t very helpful.
Scholars argue that it is also useful to distinguish news literacy from concepts such as media literacy and digital literacy. According to Melissa Tully and colleagues, news literacy is defined as: “Knowledge of the personal and social processes by which news is produced, distributed, and consumed, and skills that allow users some control over these processes.” In this model, news literacy includes: “Context,” “Consumption,” “Circulation,” “Creation,” and “Content.”
These 5 “C’s” contribute to how media literacy is part of a healthy, functioning democracy: in a polarized era of partisanship and distrust (learn more about political polarization here), literacy can help consumers embrace differences and facilitate connections for the common good. However, some citizens avoid the news altogether. These “news avoiders” contribute to a culture that evades the need for literacy altogether in a post-fact and post-truth society.

Illustration of Game of Thrones characters who are unimpressed while watching the show. By Silueta Production House via Vimeo.

Let’s face it: lots of fans despised the final season of Game of Thrones. Earlier this year, Scientific American suggested that’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological. When the storytelling was sociological, the characters evolved often in dramatic, unpredictable ways in response to the broader institutional settings, and the countervailing incentives and norms that surrounded them. When the style switched to psychological, viewers had to identify with the characters on a personal level and become invested in them for the story to work. Within this individualistic framing, characters’ unexpectedly evil actions and untimely deaths stopped making sense. As it happens, not only is sociological storytelling an important driver in keeping audiences devoted, it can also be a powerful tool in crafting a persuasive research article.

Research suggests that storytelling is powerful precisely because it gives human faces to abstract social forces, emplotting them as combatants over the very problems which social theory endeavors to understand — conflict, inequality, and modernization, to name but a few. Andrew Abbott thus argues for a lyrical sociology that recreates the experience of social discovery in the reader. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffmann Davis similarly suggest that to capture the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life, one must document the voices and visions of the people they are studying.
Is it enough to fashion stories that enthrall readers with captivating narrative arcs, or must scholarship also advance theoretical arguments? In a recent Twitter thread, Jeff Guhin invites discussion of the tension in qualitative work between telling stories about social problems and making arguments. Some sociologists argue that description alone makes a valuable contribution. Scholars doing qualitative work should strive to publish descriptively rich, findings-driven papers that are so grounded and concrete that the reader intuitively grasps the “so what.” Though ethnography may share some characteristics with imaginative writing, Hammersley points out that it is more than that. Ethnographers must grapple with a number of issues as they analyze data and write up their work, just as they do when they choose where and how to collect it.
Using our sociological imagination in storytelling doesn’t mean discounting characters’ personal or psychological motivations. Instead, it means showing characters in ongoing and complex interaction with the economic and political forces of broader society and illustrating the consequences that emerge. This can be a powerful tool for learning social theory.

An elementary school student shows her younger friend how to sign using American Sign Language. Photo by daveynin, Flickr CC.

Since the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975 and the more comprehensive Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, the number of children receiving special education services has increased dramatically. Today, seven million children in the United States receive special education to meet their individual needs, with more than ever attending their neighborhood schools as opposed to separate schools or institutions.

Because special education has become so institutionalized in schools over the past three decades, we often take for granted that the categories we use to classify people with special needs are socially constructed. For instance, Minnesota has thirteen categorical disability areas, ranging from autism spectrum disorders to blind-visual impairment to traumatic brain injury. But these categories differ from state to state, as do states’ definitions for each category and their protocols for determining when a child meets the diagnostic criteria in a given area. A more sociological take suggests that the “special ed” label does more than just entitle children to receipt of services. For better or worse, it also helps to establish their position within the structure of the mass education system, and to define their relationships with other students, administrators, and professionals.
Research suggests that children of color are overdiagnosed and underserved. They are more likely to be referred for special education testing and to receive special education services than others. This disproportionality occurs more often in categories for which diagnosis relies on the “art” of professional judgment, like emotionally disturbed (ED) or learning disabled (LD). It occurs less often in categories that require little diagnostic inference like deafness or blindness. The attribution of labels can be particularly concerning for children of color, as these labels can be associated with lower teacher and peer expectations and reduced curricular coverage. Even when appropriately placed in special education classes, children of color often receive poorer services than disabled white children. Some research suggests that this happens because the culture and organization of schools encourages teachers to view students of color as academically and behaviorally deficient.
Given the disproportionate representation of students of color in special education, sociologists have investigated whether a child’s race or ethnicity elevates their likelihood of special education placement. By controlling for individual-, school-, and district-level factors, researchers have found that race and social class are not significant predictors of placement. However, school characteristics — like the overall level of student ability — play a role in determining who gets diagnosed. And, because children of color tend to be concentrated in majority-minority schools, they are less likely to be diagnosed than their white peers.

You may also be interested in a previous article: “Autism Across Cultures.”

For more information on children and youth with disabilities, check out the National Center for Education Statistics.

Students take the AP Statistics test. Photo by Adrian Sampson via Flickr.
Students take the AP Statistics test. Photo by Adrian Sampson via Flickr.


As senioritis infects graduating classes across the U.S., one group of students is denied the thrill of the “senior slide”: those enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. These students look forward to a grueling gauntlet of 3-hour exams on topics ranging from Computer Science to Studio Art to Chinese Language and Culture. The tests are rigorous, cumulative assessments of each student’s mastery of an entire year’s worth of class content, and they have extremely high stakes. College Board, the organization that creates and scores the exams (as well as the SAT), claims high AP scores help students “stand out in the admissions process.” While these tests only seem to target elite, high achieving students, they also impact educational processes school-wide.

AP classes are a source of inequality in educational attainment. Minority and low-income students are more likely to attend schools offering fewer AP courses. Even when courses are available, these students are also more likely to be underrepresented in them relative to their more affluent and white peers.
Policies aiming to increase AP courses at underprivileged schools may be one way to narrow the gap, since parent/student demand and school officials’ response in more affluent districts are likely driving the difference. The proportion of upper-middle class students at a school is an excellent predictor of both the number of AP courses offered and the number of students who enroll.
AP tests weren’t always used in college admissions. They were originally designed to allow high-achieving students to place out of introductory courses and into more advanced college work. Only in recent years have they become an important indicator for college admissions boards.
AP testing culture affects all students, no matter where they’re tracked. In most cases, tests change curricula by narrowing content to tested subjects, fragmenting content area knowledge into test-related pieces, and increasing teacher-centered instruction. However, certain types of high-stakes tests can encourage curricular content expansion, integration of knowledge, and cooperative learning.

Eric Shinseki resigned last Friday as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, stating that “the VA needs new leadership”. This comes in the wake of scheduling issues at VA medical centers leading to extended delays for veterans’ healthcare—issues he now recognizes as a “systemic lack of integrity” involving a widespread cover-up. According to a new VA audit report prompted by a series of CNN investigationsdeadly delays in care were being suppressed by clinics driven to meet performance targets. The VA report concluded that the 14-day wait time performance target was “simply not attainable,” and it called for a “long-term, comprehensive reset” of the broken system. While  Shinseki acknowledges these problems, how reasonable is it to expect his successor to fix them? Research shows that scheduling issues are only one barrier among many to veterans’ accessing care.

When predicting which people will seek care, sociologists take into account patients’ prior experiences with the system such as health outcomes and customer satisfaction. Poor service doesn’t just hurt the veterans who seek care—it may keep them from seeking care in the first place!
Some veterans are eligible for both Medicaid and VA services. The largest group of these vets relies on Medicaid rather than VA care or a combination of the two.
Issues with gender in the military also have an effect. Female veterans have less access to VA healthcare relative to males, with 19% of women reporting delayed health care or unmet needs. Knowledge gaps about VA care, perceptions that providers are not gender-sensitive, and a history of military sexual assault predicted women’s likelihood to delay or forgo treatment.


These days, if kids learn all they really need to know in kindergarten, it means they’re a year behind their preschool-educated peers. Fortunately for children in NYC, Mayor Bill de Blasio managed to secure $300 million in state funding to provide free prekindergarten citywide. Although the mayor’s pre-K proposal carried the day, the public education debates in New York echo nationwide controversy over which policies promise the best long-term outcomes. Sociologists wonder, who benefits most from programs like Head Start?

Though policy debates continue, the positive impacts of preschool have been known for a long time. These programs prevent learning difficulties, promote healthy development, and decrease the likelihood of incarceration for urban and low-income kids.
One caveat to this trend, though: a rapid expansion in pre-K access might also mean increased misdiagnoses of ADHD in young children.

For more on how children’s mental health labels change when institutions change, check out this recent TSP Reading List post on autism.

Despite being struck down in Kansas and vetoed in Arizona, proposed legislation granting businesses the right to refuse service to customers on the basis of their sexual orientation has been spreading across a number of states this week. As victories for gay rights leave conservative citizens looking for novel ways to fight back, the meaning of religious freedom is called into question. While the line between religious freedom and civil rights often seems like a matter of public opinion, both the enforcement of these laws—if any pass—and the fight against them face a number of institutional hurdles.

Religious and political factors have historically influenced attitudes towards gay marriage. Here’s how:
Public opinion may not be enough to change this kind of legislation, but controversy helps. State governments rely more on public conflict and issue salience as motives to act, and may be bad at protecting the LGBT population from job and housing discrimination “even when the public supports the pro-minority position.”
Moreover, how good is the “gaydar” at these religiously inclined businesses? Sexuality is learned and performed in a wide variety of social situations, and identifying patrons’ sexual orientation might pose more of a challenge than lawmakers think.

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Security breaches can be slippery slopes. Fortunately, Friday’s failed planejacking ended with the containment of a Ukranian passenger who, claiming there was a bomb on board, attempted to reroute a Pegasus Airlines flight to land in Sochi during the Olympic Opening Ceremony. This success corroborates the findings of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism:  given that there have been no consistent changes in number of terror attacks during the past five Games, efforts to reinforce Olympic security have generally been effective. However, with the number of terrorist attacks striking Russia skyrocketing from 50 in 2003 to 250 in 2010, public safety at the Sochi Olympics continues to be a top priority. Safety and surveillance measures taken by Olympic officials have been largely successful at mitigating increased risks, but we’re left wondering why sport mega events are targeted in the first place.

Does the “spectacularization” of the Olympics make the games an ideal arena for terror? A historical look at terrorist attacks on the Olympics sheds some light on potential risks facing host cities.
Social forces—such as  global economic conditions and professional network structures—shape the security and surveillance strategies at sport mega events. How do these strategies change as both security concerns and expenditure rise?

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The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic torch will boldly go where no torch has gone before: to the moon. Travelling by plane, train, car, reindeer sleigh, and spacecraft as part of the 39,000 mile relay involving 14,000 torch bearers, the Sochi flame relay will be the longest in the history of the Olympics. The torch will go to the bottom of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest, to the peak of the Mt. Elbrus, the highest in Europe and Russia, and to the International Space Station, for the first spacewalk in flame relay history. This makes us wonder: is this “faster, higher, stronger” performance inspired by the Olympic spirit or the Olympic sports industry?

Changes in the flame relay show the influence of the managerial revolution on Olympic affairs and provide new insights into globalization. For more on the controversial history of this transnational ritual, read:

A recent CNN article reports that relationships between EU officials and the US have been “severely shaken” on account of information leaked by Edward Snowden that the NSA monitored the personal cell phones of 35 world leaders, possibly including Germany’s Angela Merkel. The statement made by Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco raises the important question: Are we collecting information because we need it or just because we can?

While privacy and publicity are often portrayed as a tradeoff, the editors at Cyborgology demonstrate that in many cases, one is a necessary condition for the other.
Although we typically think privacy is “freedom from” government intrusion, some scholars say society makes it a “freedom to” choose whether or not to disclose personal information. From this perspective,  both social and technological solutions are needed to solve privacy issues.
Leading scholars show how many government practices are invented and learned to manage their populations.