Teaching the 2016 Election: The Press - Boys on the Bus

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

On Monday we established the pivotal role the press plays in shining a light on politics for the governed. It goes without saying that we must also develop a healthy skepticism of the material purveyed by the media, refusing to accept it as gospel, and leveraging the plethora of perspectives and information at our fingertips in the Digital Age.

Timothy Crouse wrote Boys on the Bus, an expose of modern campaign journalism in the context of the 1972 presidential election, and called into question the extent to which reporters offer information independent of the campaigns they are covering or the press pack itself.

Thomas Patterson has gone so far as to suggest that the modern presidential nomination process consists of winning the “media primary,” as the game of expectations established by the media arguably has more sway in the winnowing process than voters or party regulars.

Specific to the 2016 Election, the press as a whole repeatedly dismissed Donald Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination, and also downplayed the insurgent candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side of the ledger. The post-mortem is still in progress, but it underlines the necessity of honing the news literacy chops of our students.

To this end, the News Literacy Project offers an entire unit on the subject of news literacy: http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/learn-channel/open-access-digital-unit.

In a similar vein, this PBS lesson on “A Free and Open Press: Evaluating the Media” is also worth a download: http://www.pbs.org/flashpointsusa/20030916/educators/lessonplan.html

Institutional trust is historically low among Americans, and the press is part of this equation. There is a general sense of systemic bias within the so-called “media establishment,” and this lesson is designed to help our students detect it: http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/pdfs/lesson-plan/Lesson_Bias_News_Sources.pdf.

Specific to elections, we launched this lesson plan in 2008 (and updated it in 2012) to investigate and analyze press coverage on the campaign trail: http://documents.mccormickfoundation.org/Civics/programs/files/pdf/CoveringTheCampaignTrail.pdf

Campaigns are in constant search for “earned” or free media, and attempt to spin news coverage in a favorable light. This lesson plan illuminates this process and the accompanying propaganda techniques employed: http://civics.sites.unc.edu/files/2012/05/PropogandaSpin1.pdf.

President Obama is arguably the first presidential candidate to perfect the use of social media in the context of a campaign, and Donald Trump has effectively employed Twitter as the primary platform to broadcast his message. These phenomena beg the question: What is the role of social media in elections? And this PBS lesson helps students consider its answer: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/lessons_plans/what-is-social-medias-role-in-election-2016-lesson-plan/.

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