One of the many pleasures of reading Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Pressis getting to know the big three New York newspaper editors who framed political debate during Lincoln’s ascent to the presidency. James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, and Henry Jarvis Raymond were prominent features in Lincoln’s political landscape. Their competition, always bitter, led to innovative practices that grew the editors’ readership, influence, and profits. Lincoln spent significant energy cultivating relationships with these men, knowing they were the key to swaying public opinion and winning elections. He obsessed over their editorials and coverage. He wrote to them often, at times directly and at times through “private” letters released to competing editors. Bennett, Greeley, and Raymond were celebrities, and not for lack of self-promotion.
Earlier this year I wrote about asking my seventh grade students to interview family members, asking them what they thought the news was supposed to do. I described how a novice like me was able to figure out how to weave separate interviews together into an audio montage with several student and parent voices. I also predicted that if I decided to teach students how to edit and design their own podcasts, there would most likely be students in the room who could teach me a thing or two about audio production.
Rodger Streitmatter first published Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American Historyin 1997. It was intended to be both a textbook for his popular undergraduate journalism course at American University and a general reader for anyone interested in exploring the news media’s influence on our democracy. In his preface to the fourth edition, published in 2016, Streitmatter attributes the book’s popularity to the readers who “enthusiastically embrace its thesis: for more than two centuries the American news media haven’t merely reported and commented on the news, but they’ve also played a significant role in shaping this country’s history” (ix).
Streitmatter delivers on defending his thesis, with examples of how the news media has both championed and failed the American people, from our country’s founding to present day. Check out the table of contents for sixteen chapters in American history that get the treatment from Streitmatter. Each stands on its own and is designed to be readable and easy to integrate into the classroom. You and your students will recognize some of these chapters – yellow journalism, muckrakers, Watergate – but some are less well known, such as the discrediting of the movement for women’s rights in the mid-nineteenth century, standing up to the Klan in the 1920s, or the role the press played in electing our first African American president.
I want students to have expectations of journalistic standards, which continue to evolve over time but still tend to embody some sense of duty to citizens, the regular folks like you and me. I think it’s important for students to appreciate that tradition of watchdog journalism and how it relates to our democracy. Honestly, this watchdog role is the reason most of us put up with today’s scurrilous news media. No matter how much they annoy us, we count on journalists to watch out for us, holding the powerful and negligent accountable even if the law fails to do so. This is why we respect the institution of journalism, defend its reputation, but also hold it accountable. I want students to know how to hold their journalists accountable.
I tried something new with my seventh graders in library class and I want to share it with you.
I imagine that many young people (though not all) have different expectations of journalists than most adults do. I don’t blame them. I rarely thought about the news as a tween or teen. I was fairly self-centered and more interested in my friend group. If students today feel like I did then, are they wondering what the big deal is when I try to arm them with strategies to spot fake news? Do young people know why the grownups are so bent out of shape about fake news? If students don’t interact much with the real news, if they don’t appreciate what the real news is supposed to do, then why should they worry about fake news?
I thought it couldn’t hurt if students asked their parents what they thought of the news. Maybe a conversation with an authority at home would put future news literacy lessons in context. I also like any kind of assignment that gets kids interacting with their parents. So I asked my students to record an interview with a parent or someone from a different generation, asking for opinions about the news media.