Newseum window

Why we must teach journalism and press freedom

Last year I visited the Newseum in Washington, D.C.; a museum about the news, dedicated to upholding the First Amendment, the right to free speech, press, petition, assembly, and religion.

Newseum exterior

The museum started with a history of communication and the press. It was enlightening to see how many newspapers were printed in languages other than English in the 18th and 19th century. And it was a trip down memory lane to see how telephone technology has evolved! (Who else had a Nokia?!)

A number of newsworthy world events were highlighted, like the fall of the Berlin wall and September 11th, and overall it was a great museum.

wall of 9-11 newspapers

Unfortunately, I was one of the last visitors to view the Newseum. It closed at the end 2019 because it didn’t get enough visitors to stay in business. Its folding seems to underscore a bigger trend of the suffering of journalism. With instant news at our fingertips on the internet, newspaper companies are folding left and right. Additionally, with an ever-increasing number of people with pocket smartphones, there are more and more citizen journalists that capture events as they happen.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, it’s more important than ever that we teach our students the importance of professional, accurate, and unbiased journalism, as well as teach them to evaluate the sources they get their news from for bias.

The Newseum itself provided a great example of analyzing bias. The museum’s exterior displayed daily copies of newspapers from around the world, updated daily. I wondered who decided which newspaper would be shown from each country. Stars and Stripes, for example, is an American military newspaper, not a newspaper from Afghanistan. The Bangladeshi newspaper is in English, even though Bengali is the official language. In Algeria, the newspaper is in French, not Arabic, which is also the language of the country that colonized it.

newspapers

The photo of these newspapers below would be a great conversation starter with students. What do you notice about these newspapers? What languages are they written in? Who produces them? What bias or point of view do they have?

An easy digital activity would be to compare the headlines of newspapers (or websites) from various countries to see how they report the same international story.

Map

Because I think that teaching students media literacy and the importance of press freedom are so important, I created a unit in my Spanish Language Arts (SLA) class around this theme. While at first it may seem an odd topic for an SLA class, in fact media literacy and press freedom can be woven into any Language Arts, World Language, or Social Studies course. And it is especially relevant to highlight in a Spanish class because of the many Latin American countries that don’t have freedom of the press and the role a lack of press freedom has played in their history.

Photo wall

We start the unit by reading La Guerra Sucia, a novel for Spanish learners about an American journalist who gets into a dangerous situation when she goes to Argentina in 1977 to investigate why people there are disappearing. It provides a great context to start talking about the dangers that journalists can face and why governments would want to control journalists. I really like this book because it has a cliff-hanger ending that students don’t suspect, and it really leaves them wanting to learn more about the topic.

Next we look at the current situation of journalism in Mexico, and students learn how factors like drug cartels and corrupt government officials can prevent journalists from discovering or publicizing the truth.

Then we compare the US, Mexico, and Argentina to other countries by looking at publications from Freedom House and Reporters without Borders (website available in Spanish!), and we look for press freedom trends, both geographically and chronologically. During this time we look at what constitutes a free press and why having freedom of press is important.

This is a good time to start talking about the unprecedented attacks on the press that have occurred under the Trump administration and for students to start forming arguments about the role that the press should or shouldn’t have in politics and government. Showing a clip of respected journalist Jorge Ramos getting thrown out of a press conference with President Trump is a good example of attacks on the press. Some questions to ponder could be:

  • -Does the press have a responsibility to support the President?
  • -Does the United States have a free press?
  • -To what extent is having freedom of the press necessary for democracy?
  • -How has technology helped or hurt the press?
  • -Is it the responsibility of websites like Facebook to make sure the information on their sites is valid?
  • -Should people be able to publish information that is known to be untrue?

Finally, we dive into “fake news” with this lesson. We look at what fake news is actually is (hint: it’s not just news that you don’t agree with!) and read through tabloids and satirical sites like The Onion or El Mundo Today (in Spanish). I was shocked at how hard it was for my students to determine if a text was satire or not, but this also showed me that teaching this unit was even more important! Students learn how to spot fake news, and one of their projects was to make a poster describing how to determine if what you are reading or viewing is valid and reliable.

One of the things I like most about this unit is I feel that I am teaching students real life skills that are sure to serve each and every one of them in the future. They are on social media and seeing news every day, and giving them the skills to critically evaluate what they see is so incredibly important nowadays.

Additionally, there always seems to be something happening in the news that students know about that fits in perfectly with the curriculum, whether it be a fake news story that is circulating or a social media platform that is facing scrutiny (will TikTok be shut down??!!).

A media literacy and journalism unit may have less emphasis on culture than most of my other units, but it is relevant, engaging, and pretty damn important to teach.

Resources for teaching about Media Literacy and Journalism

If you are looking to create your own unit, here are some organizations that provide a good place to start.

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