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Media Literacy

Reading Headlines: Recognizing Media Influence

A summer institute alum provides a lesson designed to help students think about how we read news, how that news influences our world view, and how to recognize bias both in ourselves and in the media.

By Carver Weakley, a teacher at Cosby High School in Midlothian, Va.

The Need

Students in high school level English classes are required to engage in research, and whether the assignment requires peer-reviewed journal articles or secondary sources, the students will need to determine the reliability and bias of their sources. I have found that the most accessible research resources for entry level learners are newspaper and magazine articles. However, database searches often yield overwhelming results and when students turn to internet searches, they struggle to manage their time as they sift through the available information. In a series of studies conducted by  Byeong-Young Cho and Peter Afflerbach and summarized in “Reading on the Internet: Realizing and Constructing Potential Texts” (Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy), researchers found that in order to successfully read on the internet, students must first determine which and how many sources to read then adapt as their topics evolve in order to navigate the wealth of information available online. This lesson was designed to help students sift through that vast amount of information in order to decide why information may be more or less important to different groups of people and identify any bias or context for bias, so they can most appropriately use available resources.

The Background

The idea for this lesson began when I was introduced to Newseum’s Today’s Front Pages, on online feature that allows users the opportunity to view PDFs of hundreds of front pages from around the world each day.  There’s also an archive that curates  newspaper front pages for the dates surrounding major world events, such as elections, terrorist attacks or the deaths of famous people. When exploring this resource, I was intrigued by the visual representation of the reality that what is news in one county in a state or one region of the world might not necessarily make the front page of another newspaper in another part of that state or the world.

The Lesson Plan

Day One

I wanted to familiarize students with the idea of the marketing of news, so to start, I asked them to read this article from The Atlantic: “Time Magazine Is Hiding a Lot of Stuff from a Lot of Countries, Apparently” by Philip Bump.

As a class, we discussed how often students read news, where their news comes from, what organization curates their news, and how that news is packaged for their consumption. It was interesting to hear the students describe how they might get an “awareness of news” or major events (their words) from social media, but they always Google the event and curate their own collection of online articles. Then, we went on to talk about whether they had ever thought about how online headlines (and magazine covers and newspaper headlines) are often designed to attract readers — even from the most reliable of news organizations.

Next, I let the students divide into groups of four or five and chose a significant event from the Newseum’s front pages archives to use for the next few steps of the process. Some classes might benefit from using the same significant event for continuity (in fact there are definite grading benefits for teachers if each group uses the same significant event), but with my classes, I let students pick an event that was meaningful for them.

Each significant event has at least one date’s collection of headlines, but for this activity, encourage students to pick a significant event that was relevant on several days in a row for better comparisons. Then, students should choose a variety of newspapers on the date of the significant event to compare. The list should include two newspapers from major cities far away from one another and newspapers from smaller cities in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the East North Central U.S., the West North Central U.S., the South Atlantic U.S.,  the East South Central U.S., the West South Central  U.S., the Mountain region, and the Pacific region as well as two foreign newspapers. (Note: I use regions defined by the Census Bureau.) Have the students record details about the paper they chose on the chart on the “Comparing Headlines” worksheet, then answer the questions in their groups.

Day Two

For the second day,  I gathered four or five online articles about each group’s significant event that were published around the time of the event and removed their headlines. (I decided I would choose articles from online news sources with differing levels of reliability, but choosing only reputable sources can work as well.) Then, I asked students in small groups to read the articles and write headlines based on the body of the article. After they finished, I had students read their headlines before revealing the original headlines. I found it helpful to have a slideshow with the first few lines of each article, so other groups had an introduction to the articles.

Finally, I had students answer the wrapup questions individually in paragraph form, but the questions can work well for a whole class discussion as well.

  • How did the headlines from different regions or print/online differ? How were they the same?
  • Timing, money, location and bias can all play a part in the delivery of news. Do you see evidence that any of these factors impacted how the news of this significant event was published? If so, please explain why you believe the factor(s) played a part in how the news of the significant event was published. If you do not see evidence that any of these factors played a part in how the news of the significant event was published, why do you believe this is true?
  • Think back to the article from The Atlantic. Do you see any evidence that there are region-specific or rural/city-specific approaches to news like the America-specific features that “Time” magazine published? Why or why not? What does this say about the way news in America is marketed or published?

The Real Story

I didn’t go into this activity with a lot of preset expectations about uncovering insidious bias in local or regional newspapers. In our current climate of fake news and biased online reporting, I wanted to make sure the lesson touched on those possibilities, but I also planned the lesson with a genuine curiosity about how journalists around the country approach significant news events. The students shared my curiosity and both days of the lesson went really well. Students were excited to compare headlines and front pages and find patterns. They were especially excited to read and compare and discuss what they found as they researched, so putting students in groups was an asset for this activity. Some of the groups chose important events that did not produce a lot of variety in headlines. For example, the group that chose 9/11 as their major event was surprised to find that most newspapers approached the event with similar words and used a similar tone, and this made the activity more repetitive. Other groups who chose more controversial topics found that the headlines and front pages varied, and they said this made the activity more interesting. Students also really enjoyed comparing their headlines to the real headlines on Day 2.

Results

I used this lesson in a 12th-grade mixed-level English class as well as a journalism class. Both classes have discussed fake news, institutional bias, and journalistic integrity, so they were familiar with the wide range of results we might see. Groups that chose more controversial topics reported that some underlying bias was evident in the way headlines were written and the placement of the story on the front page. However, students could not find obvious regional similarities or differences. Students concluded that the specific interests of each community have much more of an impact on both writing and design choices.

 

Carver Weakley is a 12th-grade English teacher at Cosby High School in Midlothian, Va., and an adjunct professor at Reynolds Community College. She teaches literature, journalism and college composition. Weakley enjoys educating herself as much as she enjoys educating her students, so her summers are spent traveling and learning. Most recently she spent the summer studying Scottish literature at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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