This month on Vamos a Leer we’ve been talking about how certain groups, histories and moments in time are portrayed in history books, through school lessons and through stories passed down from generation to generation. However, there is a key cog of this wheel that we need to focus on: the news. The news media play an immense role in shaping our opinions by presenting images and events through a certain lens to color not only what is seen by the audience, but how it is imbedded in our minds and how we then turn to question that story or pass it along. Everything from the music used to open a news segment on TV, to the position on a newspaper page, to the use of seemingly innocuous words, greatly effect our perception of the story. For example, the issue of immigration in the US garners lots of press and is generally divisive. Note the difference between these two phrases: “illegal alien” and “undocumented worker”. While not even engaging in the politics and morality behind immigration, the same sentence used with each of these terms would elicit a different feeling in the reader. “Illegal Aliens Found on Southern Arizona Ranch” vs. “Undocumented Workers Found on Southern Arizona Ranch” or “Mexican Nationals Found on Southern Arizona Ranch.” Take a minute to note your reaction and all the subsequent thoughts/feelings/ideas that each of those terms bring to mind. Let’s take it into the classroom.
I want to offer some ideas on how we can study the news coverage of Civil Rights (both historical and ongoing) in order to engage our classroom learners in thinking critically about everything — everything!– they hear and see. The Newseum Digital Classroom is, “a national news literacy website that provides high-quality digital media content in a curriculum-based structure for elementary, high school and college classes. Through this website, the Newseum hopes to promote critical thinking and civic responsibility and verify the timeless belief that an informed citizenry is the bulwark of democracy.” While I wish the Newseum (or some organization) had free archival access to all newspapers, Newseum does offer a few interesting videos on the Press and its relationship with/to historical events, two of which (that come with viewing guides and lesson plans) are Bias in the News and The Press and the Civil Rights Movement. My suggestions for using these videos:
- I would start your classroom activity by viewing Bias in the News asking your children to note what they see, what was said by reporters, what they learned, what they didn’t know, etc. (may be worth watching through twice, it’s about 8 minutes). How are the questions asked? What biases are the reporters showing? Are they honest about that bias?
- Have them watch the Press and the Civil Rights Movement video explaining the relationship of the press to the Civil Rights Struggle in the 1960s. Ask them to note what the newspaper headlines were, what they perceived as the relationship of the news and Civil Rights, discuss language and how it truly matters (again, may want to view twice 8 minutes).
- Have them use what they learned through these two videos — and through what I hope will be a fruitful classroom discussion — to analyze a few newspaper articles (a week’s worth perhaps) that they can come across on the web or perhaps resources you have in the classroom for teaching about Black History Month. (Believe it or not many newspapers still offer some news free, usually their front page, which is perfect since it gives us a great idea of what is considered front page news). Have them pay special attention to the language used, all the way down to the words. As Brian Williams noted in the film, monikers matter in shaping opinion and establishing an enemy (i.e. saying ‘Conservative Republican’ and then just ‘Democrat’ without adding ‘Liberal’).
- Finally, have them rewrite a few headlines or a paragraph of a story they found problematic. Using these skills, how would they change the discussion of ‘The Civil Rights’ movement, or a current civil rights movement? How can they be more involved and attentive to what they hear, see and internalize as knowledge?
Outside of the classroom, our youngsters are growing up in a world full of influence: parents, friends, extended family, the internet, TV, etc. etc. etc. Rather than try to deny this is the case or shelter them from it, let’s give them the tools to both look at history critically and at their everyday influences with a sharp eye.
–Reading backwards, upside down and between the lines,
P.S. This activity is geared towards high school students. Also, there will be content in the videos they may not understand nor have any context about (i.e. Bush, Clinton, etc). And please feel free to look critically at Newseum itself as an organization and a video maker. Were the documentaries biased? Aren’t documentaries supposed to be true? A-ha!