October 19, 2022

An article from the West Cook News claims that a school near Chicago will give students different grades … based on their race? Can that be right? How could someone’s race play a factor in the grades they receive? 

Here’s how we fact-checked it.

Look for evidence

The article from West Cook News said that Oak Park and River Forest High School would “require teachers next school year to adjust their classroom grading scales to account for the skin color or ethnicity of its students.”

When faced with claims like this that might evoke a strong emotional reaction, the first thing to do is take a step back and breathe. Look for evidence in the story supporting the claim and then find out what other credible sources are saying about the subject.

The first thing we noticed is that the West Cook story provided no further evidence to back up this claim. But what were other sources saying about the subject?

Read upstream

We did a Google keyword search and found an article from Politifact, which described the West Cook News story as misleading. It said that while “the school board and administrators discussed ways to more equitably assess students … there is no indication the district plans to grade students differently based on race.”

The Politifact article also linked to a statement from the school district released on May 31 that said it “does not, nor has it ever had a plan, to grade any students differently based on race.” 

It’s a good practice to click on the links in the story and read from the primary source. That’s called reading upstream.

Pink slime journalism

The controversy over the West Cook article was later addressed in a Washington Post column by media critic Margaret Sullivan. She says this story is part of an even bigger problem: pink slime journalism.

Here’s some background: In the past decade, many local news sites have either gone out of business or are struggling to survive, and questionable sites like the West Cook News have replaced them. Many of the articles on pink slime sites are written by inexperienced writers. 

The sites appear to be reliable, but in reality, they’re funded by outside companies that receive financing from a partisan source or one that has an interest in a certain type of coverage — or avoidance of other coverage.

The term “pink slime” was first used to describe a meat byproduct used as “filler,” and Sullivan advises one solution: “Skeptical awareness.” She said readers need to figure out the difference between “journalistic meat and fraudulent filler.”

To be clear, the West Cook News is just one of hundreds of these types of sites identified by the Columbia Journalism Review in a 2019 article.

Here’s how to figure out if what you’re reading comes from a legitimate news site or a pink slime site:

  1. First, do some lateral reading to investigate whether the site is legit or not. Find out who runs the outlet and look into their political tendencies. A hallmark of good journalism is objectivity, so if the site is pushing an agenda, it is probably not legit.
  2. Read the “About” page and try to figure out who funds the site. Does the money come from a source that is pushing a particular point-of-view? For example, the About page for the West Cook news says: “Funding for this news site is provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” That’s not a real answer. Always question sites that are sketchy about where their money comes from. A credible news source is always transparent about its funding. 
  3. See if any fact-checkers, such as Politifact, Snopes or other reputable sources have said anything about the site’s legitimacy.


Not Legit. Based on all the evidence we reviewed today, it’s safe to say the claim that an Illinois school district will soon be grading students based on their race is not legit.  The article comes from a “pink slime” source and there is no evidence to back up the claim.

ATTENTION TEACHERS: This fact-check is featured in a free, one-hour lesson plan about what pink slime journalism is and how it can spread. How to spot ‘pink slime’ journalism — misinformation in long-trusted local newsis available through PBS NewsHour Classroom, and includes slides and a handout, among other resources for teachers.

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