A Free and Open Press: Evaluating the Media
Grade level: 10-12
Subjects: U.S. Government, Civics, Media Literacy
Media literacy is the understanding of the structure and function of media messages and the organizations that create them. Broadly defined, media is a term for anything that communicates, such as books, magazines, computers, radio, film and television. Media literacy is the ability to interpret and create personal meaning from the hundreds, even thousands, of verbal and visual messages we are exposed to every day.
The goal of media literacy education is to enable the individual to select, to challenge and question, and to use media actively and consciously for one's own purposes. Young people are living in a media-rich environment where they receive most of their information and entertainment through the electronic media of television, radio, and the Internet, but also from newspapers, magazines, and film. Media literacy education helps students to critically evaluate the incredible variety of information to which they are exposed, to understand the power and influence of the media, and to become informed, discriminating and active media consumers.
One critical area that media literacy education focuses on is the news and the role of the news media in a democratic society. This lesson will cover several key areas of media literacy: essential differences in news reporting among the different media; editorial choices in reporting the news and bias in reporting.
- Compare and critically evaluate the different media as sources of news;
- Develop criteria for defining "news";
- Experience the editorial process of selecting news stories;
- Detect bias in news reporting
- Recognize differences between straight news and editorials, and between reporting and analysis;
- Examine the role of competition in news reporting;
- Analyze the effects of media ownership on news reporting and analysis;
- Organize information into a concise format;
- Summarize the main points of an issue;
- Communicate orally and in writing.
Teaching Strategies and Activities
Choosing the News
Time needed: 1-2 class periods
When it comes to reporting the news, whether on a television or radio news program or in the newspaper, choices have to be made and someone has to make them. And there are a variety of reasons for the choices that are made, such as the news directors' perception of the audience's interests; philosophy of the newspaper or station owner; the editor's perception of his/her own role as "gatekeeper", etc.
1. Are all stories equally important?
2. In light of their role in the democratic process, what types of stories should news organizations report?
3. What are some criteria that can be used in deciding what news to report? (Write students' suggestions on the board or flip chart.)
Evaluation: Is it news?
Refer students to News Judgement at www.media-awareness.ca/eng/med/class/teamedia/class2.htm
which they can print out. Using these criteria and others that came out of the discussion, students should evaluate the newspapers available in the classroom. To keep this activity manageable, divide the students into groups, e.g., front page of the paper; front page of the metro or local section.
Afterward, continue the discussion.
4. Did the newspapers meet the criteria for what is news? Explain.
5. What news was relevant or useful to citizens of the local area, including young people? In what way was it useful or relevant?
As a homework assignment, students should watch a national or local news program on television and apply the criteria used in the newspaper evaluation exercise above. They should list the stories that were covered and write answers to questions 4 and 5.
(Obtain an hour's worth of wire service stories from a local television or radio station or newspaper. At the television or radio station, contact the news director. At the newspaper contact the national news assignment editor.)
Students will play the role of news editors. Their job is to choose which stories, of the hundreds that came into the newsroom, to report that day. Which ones will they choose to report, and how will they make those decisions?
Divide the class into the following groups: local news, network news, major newspaper such as the New York Times or Washington Post, commercial radio, and Internet. Give each group a copy of the wire service stories. Each group should decide on the lead story; the order of the stories (for TV or radio) or the placement of the stories (for the newspaper; and what will be left out. Have each group report and explain their decisions.
Compare the News Media
Time needed: 1 class period
Divide the class into groups of 3-5 students and have select a recent national or international event and compare the coverage it received in various media: a newspaper, commercial television network, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, commercial radio, National Public Radio (either Morning Edition or All Things Considered), a newsmagazine and an Internet news site. Then have them create a "Comparison of News Media Chart" and track the coverage of their story over the course of one week. Students should chart the following: number of pages, columns, or minutes devoted to each story; main points of the story, kinds of visuals used, use of on-camera interviews or quotes from experts or others involved; and whether or not there was enough information available to understand the story. Have the groups report their findings to the class. Make a list of the advantages and the limitations of each type of medium as a source of news.
Which medium gave the most complete coverage of an issue?
Which one left you with questions, wishing you had more information about the issue?
Would getting all your news and information from any one medium make you an informed citizen? Why or why not?
Bias and Spin
Time needed: 1 class period
Bias and spin are two ways of shading the truth in news. The first comes from those presenting the news, i.e., editors, news directors and reporters. The second comes from those who are the source of the news itself.
Pose this question to the class: Is it possible to completely eliminate bias in choosing and reporting the news? Get their responses and remind them about the decision-making process they experienced in the Editorial Committee exercise. What biases came into play then?
Discuss other slogans and their relevance to the notion of bias, e.g.: "All the news that's fit to print", on the front page of every issue of the New York Times; and "If it bleeds, it leads" a somewhat facetious statement describing what some see as an emphasis on sensationalism in local television news.
a. Have students compare a story on the same topic from two different sources, e.g., two print media, two electronic media, print and electronic media. Ask students to deconstruct the story by analyzing the particular words used in describing persons and events; the order in which the facts are presented; who is quoted; the use of visuals; and the headline.
1. How does each element you analyzed affect your perception of the story?
2. Why is it important to get the news from several different sources?
b. Have students watch a local television news program. Ask them to note whether the anchors comment on any of the stories they report, even something brief such as "How awful" or "Nice story". These seemingly off-hand remarks are a form of editorializing, where the reporter is giving an opinion on the news. What is the effect of such remarks on the viewer?
"Spin" is usually associated with politics and public officials who have staff who serve as "spin doctors". Their job is to see that a news story is reported in a way that allows them to control the public's perception and subsequent political reaction.
Afterward, discuss these questions:
1. How can a news organization deal with spin in a way that serves the public interest?
2. How can a reader or viewer determine if a story has been shaded by "spin"? (e.g., note the sources mentioned and who is quoted in the report. Would it be to their interest to influence the way the story is reported?)
Getting to the unvarnished truth often takes time-more time than most journalists have in a competitive business where being first with a story is of overriding importance.
Ask: Why is being first so important in the news business?
Elicit students' responses, making sure they understand that being first helps to sell newspapers or bring more viewers to a news program, which means that more people will see the ads or commercials and potentially, at least, buy the advertised products. And, in order to stay in business, a newspaper or broadcaster has to deliver an audience to the advertiser.
Have the students' watch a television news program and list the products advertised during the commercials. What does this tell you about the audience for that program? Who is likely to buy those products? This is the audience that those particular advertisers want to reach.
The Media Awareness Network
NewsHour Extra: Advertising Lesson Plan
NewsHour Extra: Media Smarts, News and Marketing
NewsHour Extra: To Report or Not to Report
Newsweek Education Program
Center for Media Literacy
News and Journalism
Columbia Journalism Review
Fred Friendly Seminars
World Press Review
Regulation and Ownership
Federal Communications Commission
Online NewsHour Merging Media
About the Author
Karen Zill is the former Manager of Educational Outreach at WETA, Washington, D.C. She is currently an
independent consultant who writes educational materials, develops outreach campaigns, and conducts media literacy classes and workshops.
This lesson correlates to the following Language Arts Standards and Benchmarks for Media from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.