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10. Understanding Media: The Inside Story, Using the Videos
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources


Classroom Applications Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion Watch the Video and Discuss Pre-viewing Activity and Discussion



Using the Video Unit 10

Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:

  • What are some of the limitations on the freedom of press according to the Supreme court?

  • According to Tocqueville, the press of the nineteenth century was violent. Why did he say this? Is it true today?

  • What are the advantages of a privately owned press in America? What are the disadvantages?

  • What power does the press have in America?

Watch the Video (30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes) [Top]

The video includes three segments:

1. Washington Post and DC Foster Care

The American media are a powerful force in our lives. We turn to the media for information and entertainment, but the media also play an integral role in our political system. This story about a long and difficult news investigation of local government mismanagement shows that the media often serve as a check to make sure our government officials remain accountable for their actions, or inaction.

Discussion Questions

  • How typical is this type of investigative journalism?

  • In pursuing stories, should journalists be given special access to materials?

2. The True Smoking Gun: How David Kessler and the FDA Used the Media to Fight the "Tobacco Wars"

Journalists are often very rough on politicians and public officials. They often distort public officials' statements, question their motives, and scrutinize their personal lives. So why are politicians and public officials often so willing to talk to the press? A major reason is because the press and politics are highly interdependent. Journalists need public officials as sources of news, while public officials need the media to get their message out.

Discussion Questions

  • Journalists and public officials are often portrayed as locked in combat. What does this segment tell you about the relationship?

  • How important are leaks to the press?

  • Why do people leak stories?

3. Who Chooses the News?

No media outlet can report all that happens. Television news in particular must be brief in what it shows, and discerning in what it airs. In addition to deciding what are the most important stories, television news must appeal to a sufficiently broad audience to keep its advertisers happy. What ultimately gets shown on a daily news program is the product of journalistic and editorial judgment made under severe constraints and often with the financial bottom line well in view.

Discussion Questions

  • What is news? Can you identify criteria that make something worth reporting?

  • What role does the interests of the audience play in the selection of news?

  • How do the norms of professional journalism interact with the need to attract and keep an audience interested?




Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes) [Top]

Try the Critical Thinking activity for Unit 10. This is a good activity to use with your students, too.

1. Suggested Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists (20 minutes)

Throughout American history, newspaper readers have complained when they perceived that news coverage in print was biased, incomplete, or misleading. Newspaper publishers and their reporters, writers, and editors struggle to provide fair and accurate coverage of the news. Recently, the Freedom Forum initiated a series of conversations with the public in communities across the country and asked people what bothered them about the press. Participants affirmed that they were strong believers in a free press as an important institution of democracy. But they also raised concerns about basic journalistic practices that they consider unfair and misleading. The following section highlights some of their major concerns, and summarizes some of their recommendations, or "best practices," to remedy those concerns. As you read through these complaints and possible remedies, think about other possible additions that could be made to this list. Hopefully, by becoming more familiar with these common problems and proposed solutions, we can all become more discerning readers of print media.

According to people who participated in the recent Freedom Forum study on journalistic practices, newspapers are unfair when:

  • They get the facts wrong. While journalists may think that errors in spelling, grammar, and facts like names, titles, and dates are minor and of little consequence, the public thinks otherwise. Among the study's participants, the frequency of factual errors was cited as a major factor in the public's skepticism of what it reads. Comments about such errors included: "I couldn't believe they got that wrong"; "He's lived here for 40 years and they can't even spell his name right?"; and "Don't they have people to check that stuff?" One way to address the problem is to make the elimination of these seemingly simple mistakes a top priority. The Chicago Tribune, for example, has developed a system to track down and reduce such errors, including employing an outside proofing agency that reads the newspaper line by line every day to find mistakes that elude the regular staff. The result has been a marked decrease in such errors from 4.5 errors on average per page in 1992 to 2.5 errors per page in 1997. Undoubtedly, many people would still consider an average of 2.5 errors a page too many.

  • They refuse to admit errors. Many newspaper readers feel that newspapers not only make too many mistakes, but when they do make mistakes they seem unwilling to correct them fully and promptly. This problem may be partly due to how journalists view their role in a free society. Many see themselves as writing the "first draft" of history, usually under strict deadlines, and that the public should expect some initial errors and misunderstandings. Only the most egregious errors should be corrected in the newspaper, while historians should sort out the rest. The reading public, in contrast, expects newspapers to clean up their errors promptly and fully when they realize that mistakes are made. Study participants also preferred that newspapers publish corrections on the front page, or in another prominent place within the newspaper, and not near the back.

  • They won't name names. Evidence suggests that newspaper readers are uncomfortable with the common practice of reporting information from "anonymous sources." For example, 70 percent of the Freedom Forum study participants disagreed that "using anonymous sources was an appropriate way for the media to report" on what was happening inside a grand jury room. When asked what they thought the press should do when it was impossible to get anyone to confirm the facts of a story, 45 percent said the story shouldn't run at all, 28 percent said the story should run with quotes from unidentified sources, and 23 percent said they were not concerned with the problem of unidentified sources. Journalists defend the practice saying that major stories such as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers episode would not have run without journalists' reliance on unnamed sources. Rules for using anonymous sources vary greatly among major newspapers. The Associated Press (AP), which provides news reports to every daily paper in the United States, has a reputation for fairness and lack of bias. The AP guidelines on using unnamed sources allow such sources to be used when: (1) the material involves information that is essential to the story, not opinion or speculation; (2) the information is only available under conditions of anonymity imposed by the source; and (3) it is determined that the source is in a position to have accurate and reliable information.

  • They concentrate on bad news. A long-running complaint is that the press focuses too much "on what is wrong, violent, or bizarre, and that it never prints 'good news.'" Study participants offered several examples of the dearth of positive news, including several involving the performance of public institutions such as local governments and schools. Some journalists respond that the news is not the story of all the airplanes that landed safely yesterday, but of the one that did not. Newspaper editors also defend their paper's content by saying that there is a lot of good news reported, but that the public tends to recall reading only about bad news. In response to the ongoing complaints about too much bad news, several newspapers designate "doing good" reporters whose beats include positive stories such as profiles on a group dedicated to saving old trees or feral cats, and a regular "local heroes" column.

  • They insert editorial bias into news stories. Several study respondents complained about editorial or political bias in news stories, and said they sometimes have difficulty separating what they read on the editorial pages from what they read on the news pages. In particular, they were concerned that when newspapers ran a major investigative series they often supported that series with items in the editorial page, and this gave the impression that the newspaper was engaging in an intensive "campaign" or "crusade." Commenting on the perceived problem of editorializing in the news media, respected TV journalist Jim Lehrer has written that the news media's credibility problem arises from the blurring of three types of journalism: straight reporting, analysis, and opinion. Other journalists who were questioned about this problem during the study said that newspapers would never completely rid themselves of complaints about bias. However, journalists should be ever on guard against letting their personal bias interfere with accurate and fair reporting. One way to do that is for reporters to take periodic "temperature checks" to question themselves that all sides are being treated fairly.

2. Media Bias: Do You Know It When You See It? (10 minutes)

Pick a national story such as a war, a Supreme Court ruling, an election, or a scandal and build an exercise on media coverage around that story. Pick a news source to analyze and examine the content and style of reporting, including any noteworthy facts that were omitted, any bias they detected, and the overall tone of the stories. Is the coverage biased? If so, explain why. Is the news coverage biased, incomplete, or inaccurate? Are there more reliable sources.



Homework [Top]

Read the following Readings from Unit 11 to prepare for next week's session.

  • Introduction-Public Opinion: Voice of the People

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: "Political Associations in the United States"

  • Paine, "Common Sense"

  • Federalist Papers: "Federalist No. 10"

  • Hahn, "Student Views of Democracy: The Good News and Bad News"

Read next week's Topic Overview.



Classroom Applications [Top]

You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities: Suggested Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists and Media Bias: Do You Know It When You See It? They are provided for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.



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