July 23, 2011

Original quotes and discussion questions to open a class exploration of media issues.

To the Teacher:

Lately, "the news" has been in the news. Among the recent stories focusing on U.S. media are:

  • the failure of most media outlets to raise tough questions about Saddam Hussein's reputed weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.
  • the using of reporters by official government sources to out CIA operative Valerie Plame.
  • high-level leaks to the Washington Post on CIA-run torture prisons in Eastern Europe and to the New York Times on the National Security Agency's program of eavesdropping on American citizens. President Bush called the leaks "shameful," and a Justice Department investigation is now underway.

The lesson below is aimed at elevating student literacy about "news" and how to read it and to help students develop insights into the problems and operations of major media outlets.

See the companion lesson on this website, News, National Security, and Democracy, for a more in-depth exploration of the recent controversy over Bush administration security policies and leaks. Earlier materials on news and the media available on this website include: War and the Media: A Resource Unit, Presidential Election 2004: Making TV News, and, in three parts, Iraq War Coverage, which includes Correspondents as Targets, Reporting Civilian Deaths, and Background Reading.

Discussion: What is News?

Before having the class read and discuss the following definition of "news," ask students to write short definitions, then discuss them in groups of four to six. Ask each group to select what the group regards as the best for report to the whole class. What are their problems in writing definitions? What are the strengths of the reported definitions? The weaknesses?

Student Reading:

Defining "the News"

"Let me begin by reminding you of Justice Holmes' definition of the law. In effect, Holmes said that the law is what the courts say it is. Nothing more. Nothing less. Similarly, news is nothing more or less than what reporters—with the encouragement or sufferance of their editors and publishers—say and write. This definition of news implies that the news, like the law, is a product of a particular man's imagination, his prejudices, his courage, his timidity, his perceptual limitations. This definition implies, too, that news is not something 'out there' to be gathered or collected, as so many newsmen would like us to think. News is made, not collected. 'All the news that's fit to print,' [the New York Times' tagline] if it means anything at all, means only the publicly asserted biases of the reporters and editors of the New York Times —which biases, I am sure you have noticed, frequently differ from those of the Chicago Tribune or the New York Daily News or the Columbia Broadcasting System."

—Charles Weingartner, "The Interpretation of News," in Neil Postman, Language and Reality

For discussion

1. Do you agree with Weingartner's definition of "news"? Why or why not?

2. In what sense does Weingartner use the word "biases"? Why does he suggest that all "news" is inevitably biased? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

3. How is your definition of "news" similar to or different from Weingartner's?

4. How might your definition of "news" affect your understanding of what you see on the TV news or read in the newspaper?

5. Can students reach a consensus on what they mean by "news"?

Student Reading:

The Importance of the Press

"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them."
—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Colonel Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787

"The only security of all is in a free press."
—Thomas Jefferson, letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, 1823

For discussion

Jefferson was of course writing at a time when the newspaper was the only mass medium for the communication of news. Face-to-face conversation and letters were the only private media.

1. Why did Jefferson think it is more desirable to have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

2. In his letter to Lafayette, Jefferson said that he regarded a free press as "the only security of all"—apparently even more important to security than the American army. Why do you think he thought this? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org