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A Teaching Unit from the Media and American Democracy Program

Source Sessions

The Rights, Roles, and Responsibilities of the Media, Marvin Kalb, Natalie Jacobson, Mark Jurkowitz, Lance Morrow

Description of School and Students
This unit will be taught as part of a one-semester elective high school course on current events. The school is set in a small town in the midst of an agricultural area, and its students are overwhelmingly white.

Generative Topic
Media bias

Generative Object
Quotes from journalistic contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln.

Understanding Goals

A. Essential Questions
What is bias?
Is it, by nature, always undesirable?
How is bias communicated to others?

B. Critical Engagement Questions
In what ways is personal bias evident in news reporting?
In what ways does media bias impact individuals' perception of current events?
In what ways is media bias good, bad, or neutral?
Is it desirable or even possible to have completely unbiased reporting at all times?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line
This unit will take place towards the end of the current events class mentioned above. We will have already discussed the elements of reporting, influences on the media, journalistic ethics, the media's coverage of politics and how the media have changed and are still changing. In addition, the students will have been working in groups to develop their own articles and broadcasts about current events.
The purpose of this unit is to help students to develop their ability to detect and evaluate media bias and thereby become more critical media consumers.

Activity 1
In order to disprove the false idea that media bias is solely a recent phenomenon, the teacher will begin this unit using examples of biased media coverage of a famous historical figure, without at first revealing who this person is. Abraham Lincoln would make a good subject for this activity, since he is almost universally respected. The teacher will find a variety of journalists' quotes about Lincoln, with as many as possible showing a negative bias. These could be found in southern newspapers during his presidential campaign, while positive ones could be found in Republican-controlled northern newspapers or the abolitionist press. They should be the actual words of journalists and not quotes of political opponents, and they should be quite general, not giving away much about the author's identity. (A more recent subject, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., would be somewhat easier to research, although this activity would be more effective if the person, like Lincoln, is from a more distant historical time.)
The teacher will divide the class into small groups of three to five students and give each group one or two quotes about Lincoln, with each group having different quotes to work with. (The more incendiary the quotes are, the better.) She will tell the entire class that each group's quotes are from newspapers and that they are all about someone famous. After considering the quotes together, the members of each group must guess who their quotes refer to and write their guess down. The teacher will take care to not reveal that all the quotes are about the same person or that this person, whether Lincoln or someone else, is a historical figure.
After all the groups have written their guesses down, they will take turns reading their quotes and sharing who they think the quotes refer to and why. If the activity works as anticipated, the students will think of current political figures or other prominent people from our time. When the teacher reveals that all of the quotes are about Abraham Lincoln, the class should be surprised to learn that not only did such a renowned figure inspire such a wide range of comments, but that these biased statements all came from the national press.

Activity 2
The teacher will follow up the above activity with a broad introductory discussion on bias, especially as it pertains to the news media. The class should begin to explore the essential questions of what bias is and whether or not it is always bad, both in the media and outside it. Is there a place for personal opinions to enter into journalism? If so, should the journalist always make clear that he or she is providing commentary and not just "the facts"?

Activity 3
To prepare the students to evaluate whether or not today's media is biased, the class must deal with the question of how bias is communicated. The teacher will provide the class with several examples of articles, some of which she feels are clearly biased. For homework the students will read these articles and underline words or phrases which they feel show bias one way or another. Back in class the teacher will elicit what words or phrases the students found to be loaded with meaning and why. (If students disagree, the teacher will encourage back-and-forth discussion between them.) This activity will lead to a discussion on loaded language of various kinds, with an emphasis on connotative vs. denotative meaning.

Activity 4
Next the teacher will show several video clips of television coverage of a news event. In addition to noticing any loaded language, she will encourage students to evaluate aspects of verbal communication which may demonstrate a bias, such as tone of voice and body language. Furthermore, she will encourage her students to look beyond what is said and to consider as well what is not said, as this can be another important way to show one's bias.

Activity 5
The purpose of this activity is to try to find out how pervasive media bias is and whether bias tends to be positive or negative. As a whole group, the class will brainstorm a variety of current issues that interest them. Then the teacher will issue a challenge to the students to find: a.) at least one completely unbiased article or TV news segment about that issue b.) three or four articles or news clips that are biased positively towards the subject c.) three or four articles or news clips that are biased against the subject.
One effective way to do this is to maintain the small groups from the previous activity and have each group choose one subject to cover. The students will have one week to find one or more article or tape one or more video clip for each category. They will do this outside of class and will only use a few minutes of class time daily to check with each other on their progress and plan both their search and their presentation. At the end of the week, allow each group five to ten minutes to present their information. They should include analysis of how biased the media seemed to be towards their subject overall, and what sort of media outlets were more or less biased and were biased in a specifically positive or negative direction.

Activity 6
What about in the realm of politics? Is there a clear media bias here? The teacher will assign the class to read all or part of Paul Weaver's article, "Is Television News Biased?" in which he discusses a study done during the presidential elections of 1968, and which showed that the media demonstrated a clear anti-Nixon bias in their coverage. She will also have them read excerpts of Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee: the Press and the Reagan Presidency, which contends that Reagan received unusually favorable press coverage during most of his presidency.
In addition to reading these articles, the students should take an unofficial poll of their parents and other adults they know, asking their impressions of the media's political prejudices. This should yield some interesting opinions to discuss in class the next day.

Activity 7
Earlier in the course, the class will have made a list of local media figures--newspaper journalists or editorial staff, local news writers and anchors, for example--whom they would like to invite to address the class on a variety of media issues. Now as the class draws to an end, the students will have a chance to interview these people about their work. The ideal situation would be to organize a panel of three or more members of the media that could address the class at once. By this time in the course, the students will have many questions for these people, including questions about media bias.

Activity 8
This unit will conclude with a class discussion on what the students have learned and what did or did not surprise them about media bias. Was there more or less bias than the students expected to find? Have they changed their views about the media at all as a result of their investigations? Finally, since media bias is an inescapable fact, how should one always read or view the news? (I would hope that the ultimate result of this unit is to encourage students to be critical news consumers, always digging beneath the surface of the news reports they watch, hear, and read.)

The unit will end with either an in-class or take-home test in which the students will read three short news articles and write a short essay, evaluating the bias (or lack thereof) of each. Their essay should take into account both what is included in the articles and what is excluded from them, and it should include a detailed analysis of the journalists' use of language to convey either a biased or an impartial viewpoint.

Resources Recommended
Quotes from journalistic contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln.
Articles and video clips from various media outlets, covering current issues from different standpoints.
Blendon, Robert. "Educating Americans about Public Issues in an Era of Distrust." Lecture delivered at Harvard University on June 30, 2000.
Hertsgaard, Mark. On Bended Knee: the Press and the Reagan Presidency. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.
Jacobson, Natalie, Mark Jurkowitz, and Lance Morrow. "The Rights, Roles, and Responsibilities of the Media." Panel discussion moderated by Marvin Kalb and held at Harvard University on June 26, 2000.
Weaver, Paul H. "Is Television News Biased?" The Public Interest, number 26, Winter 1972.

Contact Person
Liz Reumann
Nellie Ackerson Middle School
410 City Road
Manchester, MI 48159
(734) 428-7442