For a Google doc of this lesson, click here. (Note: You will need to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it.)
This lesson is designed to start a conversation about media consumption and media literacy. Check out resources at the end to dive deeper into questions of news reliability and determining misinformation and disinformation.
The news media provides essential information for citizens to make decisions that influence our democracy. The media also provides other information that is less crucial for making decisions as a citizen, and often “Nice to Know” news dominates social media or other easily accessible sources of news. In this lesson, students will explore news stories and decide where they fit on the “Nice to Know” v. “Need to Know” continuum.
Teacher’s note: We find NAMLE’s definition of “media literacy” helpful, and you may wish to share it with your students.
Social Studies, English Language Arts, Journalism
Estimated time: One 50-minute class period
- Students will be able to evaluate news stories in terms of their contribution to public knowledge and a democratic society.
- Students will explore the idea of subjectivity (being influenced by personal feelings) and how our own personal bias plays a key role in determining what’s nice to know and what we need to know.
- What is the role of the press/media in a democratic society?
- How should citizens use the media to help make decisions for their communities?
- Where do people get their news in our society, and how much “Nice to Know” rather than “Need to Know” news do people consume?
Warm-up activity: Read the following quotes about the relationship among citizens, government and the news/media, then discuss some or all of the following questions:
- What do these quotes suggest about the power and importance of the news in a democracy?
- What do these quotes suggest about why some governments restrict freedom of the press?
- What do these quotes suggest about the role accuracy of the news?
Media and Democracy Quotes:
The media is absolutely essential to the functioning of a democracy. It’s not our job to cozy up to power. We’re supposed to be the check and balance on government. — Amy Goodman, journalist
If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed. — Mark Twain, writer
…the most striking feature of our present-day democracy is not partisan divide — it’s a corrupt system that protects incumbents (lawmakers currently holding office) from the consequences that real democracy brings. — Letitia James, New York State Attorney General
Democracy doesn’t work unless the public is informed. — Brad Pitt, actor
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson, U.S. president
Journalism still, in a democracy, is the essential force to get the public educated and mobilized to take action on behalf of our ancient ideals. — Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian
If you want to rip the heart out of a democracy, you go after the facts. That’s what modern authoritarians do. You lie. All the time. Then, you say it’s your opponents and the journalists who lie. — Maria Ressa, Filipino-American journalist
A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. — Paul Simon, musician
Discuss as a class:
Start by discussing the differences between what you think are “Nice/Fun to Know” and “Need to Know” stories. News stories exist on a continuum, so it is possible for news stories to have elements of both. For example, reports about the weather are usually “nice to know” stories for personal reasons — people like to know what to wear. Other times, weather stories can be important for citizens to know because of emergencies like floods or snow storms.
“Nice to Know” vs. “Need to Know” exists on a scale with urgent, essential news at one end and stories that are interesting but unimportant to most news consumers on the other. Sometimes what’s “Nice to Know” vs. “Need to Know” may be in the eye of the beholder. For example, consider the ways personal experience and bias may play a role in determining what is nice to know and what is necessary to know. Take for example hip hop artist Nicki Minaj who made news for funding college scholarships for more than three dozen students. Some people could read this news and think that’s interesting while others might feel this news was something important and worth needing to know.
Need to Know: These are stories that provide information that citizens can use to perform the role of citizen. Typically these might include information about public issues or elected officials. Check out the Freedom Forum’s Front Pages and click on a few different newspapers. What stories do you think fall under Need to Know end of the spectrum?
Nice/Fun to Know: These are stories that are likely less important to the role of citizenship and democracy. They may be of personal interest or are intriguing or sensational in nature. Check out the Freedom Forum’s Front Pages and click on a few different newspapers. What stories do you think fall under the Nice/Fun to Know end of the spectrum?
- Remember that the media, while often free or inexpensive to viewers, is dependent upon getting a large audience. Advertisers want large audiences for their products. Even public media (that doesn’t rely upon traditional advertising) makes decisions based on the number of people who view/read/listen.
- Here are two sample stories that students could use to practice placing on the continuum.
Florida Man Rescues Puppy from Alligator (NBC News)
1. Visit the homepage of several news organizations, including local newspapers and television stations and select stories to place on the continuum. Be sure to point out any “clickbait” and rate those stories based on the headlines as well. (Be careful about actually clicking on the clickbait links!). Then answer the discussion questions below.
Below are some resources for finding stories:
- Newscompare: allows you to see web pages of familiar news sites side by side.
- Freedom Forum (The Newseum): offers the front pages of 100’s of newspaper worldwide on a daily basis.
- Yahoo News: is a news aggregator collecting stories from many sources.
- Wikipedia list of news sources
- Pulitzer Prize web page explore the site and journalism’s top award
- What kinds of stories did you see more of? Did that vary by news source?
- Which stories interested you the most? Do you think this is true of most people? Do you think the media provides those kinds of stories on purpose?
- What advice would you give to people who will be voting for the first time about where to look for news?
- What motivates the media to produce Need to Know stories? Do you think we should encourage more of these types of stories? If so, how?
2. Social media activity: Peruse your favorite social media channels that link to news stories and count up the stories you consider Nice to Know vs. Need to Know.
- How much of the content pushed in front of you day after day is really important?
- How does the ratio of Nice to Know vs Need to Know compare between your social media count and the news sources you found in step one of this activity?
You can dive deeper into conversation about reliable news sources, media literacy and disinformation using some of the following resources:
- Journalism in Action: Civic Engagement and Primary Sources Through Key Moments in History — Explore the history of journalism in the U.S. with this new interactive website by PBS NewsHour EXTRA supported by the Library of Congress.
- Newshour Classroom’s News and Media Literacy resources
- Learn to distinguish mis-information from dis-information
- Fact or Fiction? How can students sort through misinformation?
- NYTimes Lesson and Links: Fake News
- Stanford History Education Group’s “Civic Online Reasoning” curriculum
This lesson was prepared by Kent Willmann. Willmann spent 31 years preparing young citizens by teaching high school social studies. He currently works at the University of Colorado Boulder training the next generation of social studies teachers. He is also the curriculum writer and trainer for Colorado’s Lessons on Local Government.