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Free Press Challenges Through History: Analyzing Historical Sources

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Freedom of the press is much simpler in theory than in practice. In this activity, students use the E.S.C.A.P.E. strategy to closely analyze a historical source, shedding light on how freedom of the press has ignited controversy and drawing comparisons to today’s debates over the role of the media.

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GRADE LEVEL: Middle and high school

TIME: 30–60 minutes

MATERIALS: Copies of the Free Press Challenges Through History worksheet; access to the gallery of historical sources on this page (either printed copies or via devices); E.S.C.A.P.E. Junk News poster (for reference, optional download); internet access (optional)


  1. Make copies of the Free Press Challenges Through History worksheet, one per student.
  2. Review the gallery of historical sources on this page. For additional background, read the artifact page on of each source: Civil War Editorial Cartoon, Newspaper Coverage of a Forged Proclamation, and Civil Rights Ads Leads to Lawsuit.

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Overview PDF DOC
Worksheets PDF DOC
Extensions PDF DOC
Full Packet PDF DOC

To request a large print or Braille version, call 202.292.6650.


  1. Have your students define freedom of the press. Basic definition: the government cannot censor what can or cannot be published by the press; in today’s media landscape, the press includes established news organization but also all of us who take advantage of platforms that allow us to create and share information. Explain that throughout history and today, there has been an ongoing debate about how far freedom of the press should really go. Should the press be allowed to publish information that would embarrass our leaders? That could jeopardize national security? That could harm someone’s job prospects? One of our roles as citizens in a democracy that protects freedom of the press is to understand why it is sometimes contentious and weigh the pros and cons on each side of the debate.
  2. Hand out the Free Press Challenges worksheet and assign students one of the historical sources in the gallery on this page to analyze. They may work in teams, pairs or individually. You may choose to go over the E.S.C.A.P.E. Junk News poster to prepare students to employ its six ways to analyze an artifact: evidence, source, context, audience, purpose and execution.
  3. When students have completed their worksheets, look at the historical sources in the gallery as a class and briefly explain what each one is.
  4. Then discuss the questions below.
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  1. Consider each example. What does it reveal about a way in which freedom of the press has been controversial?
  2. In any of these cases, did the press do something that caused harm? Explain.
  3. In any of these cases, why might someone have objected to what the press was doing or wanted to limit press freedom?
  4. What challenges does freedom of the press face today?
  5. Do you think today’s press is more or less free than it was at the time of these examples?
  6. Do you think we should err on the side of more or less press freedom? Why?
  7. Is it possible to protect freedom of the press without this freedom leading to examples of sloppy reporting, factual errors or even fake news stories? Are these media problems the unavoidable consequences of this freedom? Explain.
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