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FOR EDUCATORS

The Role of Journalists

This lesson is designed for Journalism, Civics, and English classrooms, grades 9-12. Video clips, discussion questions, and other lesson elements would also be suitable for college-level journalism courses and for use in library outreach activities.

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Watch a series of video clips that show the roles that journalists played leading up to the war in Iraq.
  • Discuss social and economic pressures on journalists during this time period.
  • Identify strategies used by the Bush Administration to build a case for war.
  • Examine strategies used by investigative journalists to scrutinize information provided by news sources.
  • Write a summary of the roles of journalists in society and identify which roles they consider to be most and least important.
Estimated Time

One 50-minute class period. Extensions are provided for classrooms that wish to study this topic in greater depth.

Materials Needed

Relevant Standards

Source: "Content Knowledge"
(http://www.mcrel.org/compendium/browse.asp) by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)

Language Arts, Standard 9
Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

Language Arts, Standard 10
Understands the characteristics and components of the media.

Level IV, Benchmark 1
Understands that media messages have economic, political, social, and aesthetic purposes.
Level IV, Benchmark 10
Understands the influence of media on society as a whole.
Level IV, Benchmark 12
Understands the role of the media in addressing social and cultural issues.
Civics, Standard 19
Understands what is meant by "the public agenda," how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media.
Level IV, Benchmark 6
Understands the ways in which television, radio, the press, newsletters, and emerging means of communication influence American politics; and understands the extent to which various traditional forms of political persuasion have been replaced by electronic media.
Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

This lesson assumes that students have a basic understanding of propaganda and role of the press in a democracy. It would also be helpful if students had some general knowledge of the war in Iraq, but an extensive background isn't required.

Teaching Strategy

1. Begin with a brief brainstorming session where students take turns naming something that they know about the war in Iraq. Record student input where everyone can see it. As students contribute comments, ask them how they know what they do about the war.

2. Next, explain that you are going to show them a two-minute video clip from a Bill Moyers documentary that shows a press conference held by President George W. Bush two weeks before the war in Iraq began in 2003.

Watch the clip

3. After viewing the clip, discuss the following:

  • What was the purpose of the press conference?
  • Do you think the President had a list of reporters to call on in advance?
  • What does this tell you about the relationship between the president and the White House press corps?
4. Continue to examine the role played by the press leading up to the war in Iraq by watching and discussing a series of video clips:

A. After the September 11th attacks on the United States, the country was unified by a strong feeling of patriotism that also influenced how journalists covered the news.

Watch: Patriotism and Journalism

Discuss:

  • Why did some news organizations think that there was something wrong with challenging the Bush Administration?
  • Who was putting pressure on journalists during this time period?
  • What might have been the economic consequence if journalists didn't bow to such pressure?
B. Some prominent people both in and out of the Bush Administration sought to connect Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. They made repeated appearances on news programs and stressed over and over that Saddam was a threat to U.S. security. While many reporters never challenged this idea, some journalists were skeptical.

Watch: Skeptical Journalists

Discuss:

  • According to journalist Bob Simon, why didn't the White House press corps question the alleged connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda? What do his comments imply about how a news organization should position reporters?
  • How did the methods of reporting used by skeptical journalists differ from other reporters?
  • What is a reporter's responsibility to the public to dig deeper?
C. The Bush Administration tried to build public support for the case against Iraq through the repetition of messages that linked Saddam Hussein to weapons of mass destruction and terrorist organizations.

Watch: Sorting Fact from the official word

Discuss:

  • What were some of the strategies used by the Bush Administration to market its policy on Iraq?
  • Why do you think these strategies were effective?
  • What approach did reporter Jonathan Landay use to help the public sort out the facts?
5. Conclude the lesson by asking students to write a summary of the roles that journalists should perform in our society, and to then identify which of these functions students consider to be most and least important.

Assessment Recommendations

Students may be assessed through:

  • Class discussion.
  • Student understanding of the video and discussion, as reflected in the handout.
  • Student summaries about the roles of journalists in society.
Extension Ideas

1. Using the "Buying the War": Article Library or "headlines" in the "Buying the War": Interactive Timeline, have student pairs select and analyze articles written by reporters leading up to the war in Iraq. Guiding questions:

  • Is the article straight news, analysis, or editorial (opinion)?
  • Whose viewpoints are presented? Does the journalist cite government sources? Non-government sources? Both?
  • What is the purpose of the article?
  • What is the main message of the article?
  • How might this article influence the behavior and actions of readers?
2. Ask students to develop a newscast that recaps key events leading up to the war in Iraq. Have students refer to the "Buying the War": Interactive Timeline as they identify events and get background information from the provided videos, articles, and documents.

3. Have student groups divide up the "Buying the War": Additional Interviews section and develop a list of concerns about today's media, as expressed by the featured interviewees. Students should also note any recommendations for how today's journalism could be improved. Then, ask each group to report their findings to the class.

4. In "Buying the War", Bill Moyers points out that of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news, from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Talk about how reporters' heavy reliance on official sources made it easier for officials to control leaks and "stay on message."

5. Have students interview journalists to discover how they balance the need to get a story right while at the same time operating within a profit-driven corporate culture that demands getting it first and getting the biggest audience.

6. Debate whether or not an increase in the public's access to information on the Internet affects the role of journalists.

7. Break students into groups and have them examine the "code of ethics" from three different organizations listed at the American Society of Newspaper Editor's Web site: http://www.asne.org/ideas/codes/codes.htm Summarize some of the journalistic strategies shared by the three documents studied. How well do you think journalists followed their code of ethics in coverage leading to the war in Iraq?

Related Resources

For additional online research, see our "Buying the War": Sites of Interest listing.

Books:

FEET TO THE FIRE: THE MEDIA AFTER 9/11, TOP JOURNALISTS SPEAK OUT
By Kristina Borjesson (Editor)
This collection of interviews with distinguished journalists and news executives addresses the work done by journalists after 9/11 leading up to the war in Iraq.

THE PRESS EFFECT: POLITICIANS, JOURNALISTS, AND THE STORIES THAT SHAPE THE POLITICAL WORLD
By Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman
This book describes how the national press shaped the news of the 2000 election, the Supreme Court's decision on the Florida vote, and national politics after 9/11.

About the Author

Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in broadcast journalism, secondary education, and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource Web site (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

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