The American Historian

Of News Literacy and Education

Karen Dunak and Victoria Hupp

Following a revised paperback edition release of James Loewen’s bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen sat for an interview with The Atlantic’s Alia Wong in the summer of 2018. Loewen continued his lament about the nature of high school history education in the United States, identifying history as “our worst-taught subject in high school” and suggesting that failure in history education has contributed directly to what Wong termed “the country’s current ‘post-truth’ moment.” As Wong writes, “By providing students an inadequate history education, Loewen argues, America’s schools breed adults who tend to conflate empirical fact and opinion, and who lack the media literacy necessary to navigate conflicting information.” In classes where students are presented with what Loewen calls “stuff to learn,” too often they end their high school history education with no sense of causality, underdeveloped critical thinking skills, and limited knowledge of the recent past.

Loewen’s interview struck a powerful chord for us, reading it as we did at the conclusion of a summer fellowship that investigated the role of media and political image-making in recent history. As we created a series of high school lesson plans that integrate media evaluation with historical analysis, we were struck by how important knowledge of the recent past is at this particular cultural and political moment. Some history educators are reluctant to embrace the use of the term “relevant.” The events of the past, after all, are not “just like today” and we fear the oversimplification of the past. Yet, we want students to make connections between events of the past and the present day. We are faced with the paradox of presentism as we attempt to draw links between then and now while emphasizing how then and now are not one and the same. Because students crave relevance, a sense of why what they learn in history class matters and how those happenings have shaped the world in which they now live, it is important for us to tackle this paradox. As James Baldwin noted in 1965, another time when American life was particularly contentious: “History…is not merely something to be read....On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” This, we believe, should be an essential understanding communicated in history education. We have aspired to create a series of lessons that combine the teaching of the “stuff” of the past and historical thinking in a manner that communicates the relevance of that stuff and that thinking. Here, we share an overview of our lessons and our sense of their value to students on the verge of adulthood, in a world of media saturation, and on the cusp of full civic responsibility.

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Contemporary American high school and college students are coming of age at a particularly divisive moment in the nation’s history, a time when phrases such as “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “lamestream media” have entered into the national lexicon and are repeated—and debated—ad nauseam. Understanding the contentious relationship between the nation’s political parties and the various interest groups representing different political perspectives presents a particular challenge for young citizens who are beginning to assess the world from their own point of view and who are learning the nuances of media coverage, framing, and bias. As history and social studies teachers approach their classrooms, as they endeavor to teach the nation’s political history, lessons should focus on political contests and their outcomes, as well as the competing ideologies of political parties and their representatives. Students also need to understand the ways candidates and groups have attempted to shape American media and how various media have historically covered political contests, candidates, issues, and ideologies. By including a diversity of media in lesson plans with a conscious eye to evaluating how different forms of media accomplish different goals, teachers have the opportunity to impart not only political history but also news literacy—critical thinking skills that allow students to analyze, assess, and distinguish between media sources they encounter. These skills, we argue, are especially important at a moment when a seemingly unending stream of news—not all of it created equal—competes to shape public opinion.

When applied to political history, news literacy instruction has the possibility to double as a lesson in civic engagement, an element of education dedicated to developing students’ sense of connection to their community as well as their values and motivation to become involved in that community. Modern political campaigns use various media outlets including television, social media, newspapers, and the internet to reach voters. With such a flood of information, it can be difficult for students to understand how to find reliable information to trust. As students are exposed to various forms and quality of media, they require analytical skills to successfully navigate the field. This means they should understand things such as: What is the media? How does it affect me? Where can I find reliable information? What makes a source reliable? How do I interpret media? What are the dangers of misleading media? News literacy ensures that students can answer these questions. In addition, understanding media and how to navigate it helps students understand the role of media in political image making. Young adults should receive an education that provides them with skills to understand image crafting and its implications. How does a politician create a desired persona, and how does that compare with that person’s behavior or proposed policy initiatives? If students are taught news literacy, they can better make decisions as informed adults. This kind of media instruction provides civic training and serves a civic end.

Further, teaching history or government with an eye to civic engagement can serve as a source of inspiration to students. Our proposed lessons encompass a series of important questions about the nature of democracy, technological change, grassroots activism, community engagement, power, and media. If we view high school as a time for students to build habits that will follow through to adulthood, this is precisely the moment to construct a commitment to an active civic role and present students with an understanding of the broad reach of politics in their lives and with models to emulate. By making lessons active and requiring sustained student involvement, high school instructors have the opportunity not only to teach about civic engagement but have students demonstrate and perform it, a kind of “informed action,” that ideally propels their engagement beyond the classroom walls. In a series of lessons such as the ones that follow, students learn not only the history of image-making efforts undertaken by previous presidential candidates and their staffs and networks of campaign volunteers, but communication skills, collaborative group skills, and an ability to crafted well-founded, evidenced-based opinions of their own making.

Students, the majority of whom never knew a world without television, the internet, or the realm of social media, may take for granted that they “know” these sites of information, that they understand how they work and how to understand them. They also may assume a) that there is no real skill required in doing so and b) that use of these channels has always been the way of politics, with no sense of the emergence of various media and the evolution of usage over time. Providing a historical background to these mediums and the ways candidates have employed certain mediums to reach voters sheds light on the power of visual and virtual messaging and the value in being able to read sources with an eye toward political intent. It also reveals how playing a civic role requires more than a passive reception of media; students need to actively interrogate and question sources.

This lesson series is especially candidate-centric, reflecting the nature of twentieth and twenty-first century U.S. politics. Certainly the focus on the politician as individual is reflected in the presidency of Donald Trump. In the view of many, Trump has made use of media in a manner that appears dramatically different from his predecessors, both in the mediums he most often uses and in the tone and language he employs. But politicians’ efforts to shape media to reflect their desired message has a long history. Establishing that history and tracking its evolution also has the potential to help students make sense of this particular political moment. Assessing Trump’s historical predecessors and thinking about the ways they used media to communicate will help students make connections across different administrations and political eras, establish for them a broad historical content, and foster development of essential news literacy skills.

From the First Television President to the First Social Media President

This series of lesson plans fulfills the American Government standard from the Ohio Social Studies Standards that intends to demonstrate that “Political parties, interest groups and the media provide opportunities for civic involvement through various means.” The lessons are designed to extend over five class meetings and are broken into four parts: historical background; textual analysis (two days); synthesis discussion; and written analysis. The series begins with an introduction and overview of John F. Kennedy as the first television president. This is the historical background stage where students participate in an inquiry activity in which they are responsible for researching and answering questions on a provided reading guide. The questions may include: Who was John F. Kennedy? How did John F. Kennedy use the media, including television in his 1960 campaign? Why might some people consider JFK’s 1960 campaign the beginning of modern media in politics? The second and third meetings provide students with an overview of the importance of media to American culture and politics. The second class meeting, dedicated to textual analysis, begins with a discussion on how JFK skillfully navigated the world of televised media but was also attuned to other forms of representation. The bulk of this class meeting includes a station activity where students rotate to and analyze various sources. There will be three stations: 1) Role of media in the 1960 campaign—analyzing the September 26, 1960 televised debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon and Kennedy’s PT109 story in Readers Digest 2) Kennedy’s use of media while in office—analyzing Jackie Kennedy’s Tour of the White House and press conferences given by John F. Kennedy; and finally, 3) Legacy building through media after JFK’s assassination—analyzing Life magazine memorial editions, letters to Jackie Kennedy, funeral coverage, and eulogies. During the third class meeting, students will use textual analysis and shift focus to study Barack Obama’s campaign as he became what some have called the first social media president. The students will analyze a case study about and media analysis of Obama’s effective use of social media and an interview with Obama after his second term in office concluded. The sources highlight the Obama team’s skilled use of social media, but also indicate the negative consequences of citizens’ reliance on sites such as Facebook or Twitter for their political information. The sources link Obama to the modernization of media usage in political campaigns and highlight the importance of news literacy in the world today. Over the course of these two days, students learn that politicians have used media to create and dispense a particular image, but also that their ability to control the dispensation of information has changed.

The fourth class meeting emphasizes synthesis discussion. The students will be asked to design a media campaign for a classmate “running for office.” The students must decide which form of media to use and provide a rationale, create examples, and explain how they think their proposal will influence voters. The class will then have a conference where they present and discuss their media campaigns. The class meeting will end with a mock voting session and a discussion to follow to decide which media campaign was most effective and why. In the fifth class meeting, the students turn to written analysis as they respond to the following prompt: Not all media is created equal. How will you make decisions as a future media viewer?

Ideally, a lesson series of this kind develops both historical thinking and news literacy. It establishes the longer arc of contemporary events and links time periods together. Even as it focuses on a top-down approach of political figures’ and media’s distribution of information, it likewise communicates something about the United States and its population at particular moments in the past. We have a sense of what messages political figures believed most likely to resonate with the voting public—and to whom, in particular, they wished to appeal. Both the desired public and the means of communicating with that population have changed over time. Students will have learned something of the “stuff” of history, but they will also be armed with skills as they more fully enter the civic landscape.

Author

Karen Dunak is Associate Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She is the author of As Long As We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America and is a contributor to Of the People: A History of the United States. She currently is writing a book about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, American media, and understandings of women in public.

Victoria Hupp is a student at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She will graduate in May 2019 with a BA in history and a license to teach high-school level social studies in Ohio. She is interested in political image crafting and myth making in modern U.S. history and plans to highlight the importance of news literacy, media literacy, and civic engagement in her high school classroom.