the Video Unit 10
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.
- How typical is this type of investigative journalism?
- In pursuing stories, should journalists be given special access
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.
- 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.
- What is news? Can you identify criteria that make something
- What role does the interests of the audience play in the selection
- How do the norms of professional journalism interact with the
need to attract and keep an audience interested?
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:
2. Media Bias: Do You Know It When You See It? (10 minutes)
- 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.
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.
Read the following Readings from Unit 11 to prepare for next week's
- 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
Read next week's Topic Overview.
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.