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The Media Past and Present: What’s the Difference?

Carl Addington of Smith Middle School in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Carl C. Addington
Randy Smith Middle School
Fairbanks, Alaska

Title: The Media Past and Present: What’s the Difference?

Description of School and Students

Smith Middle School is one of four middle schools in Fairbanks, Alaska, with a population of 435 students. The student body is ethnically mixed: white, Alaska native, Hispanic and Asian. This unit will be taught to 8th grade U.S. history students.

Generative Topic

  • What is the meaning of “Freedom of the Press” today?

Generative Objects

  • Pictures and/or copies of newspapers throughout U.S. history
  • Samples of political cartoons throughout U.S. history
  • Local, current newspapers

Understanding Goals

  • Essential or Guiding Question
    • Under the Constitution, what does freedom mean?
    • Do the media exercise its First Amendment rights responsibly?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • The Constitution was drafted in part “to secure the blessings of liberty.” What liberties or freedoms do we enjoy as Americans?
    • Are there any values that should accompany or complement liberty or freedom, especially in the press?

Performance of Understanding, Rational, and Time Line

This lesson is intended to help 8th-graders gain a historical perspective of the evolution of the media from the colonial era to the present day. In addition, in their daily class discussions, they often voice a sense of either morbid fascination or disgust with much of what they read or see in the media. After placing the media in an historic perspective, students will then explore the question of how responsibly the media acts today.

Activity 1 (Day 1 & 2)

After completing an extensive unit on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, students will then take notes on a multimedia lecture about the history of journalism in America. The lecture will include visuals (in a projected PowerPoint presentation) of colonial newspapers circa 1776 with explanations that early papers contained local news, perhaps a listing of goods arriving in a ship, etc., possibly an essay or two.

Proceed with the rise of political parties and party-owned or business-owned newspapers to show how content changed, to include sometimes scathing political cartoons and editorials as well as other items not necessarily viewed as “news.” While viewing examples of these papers, ask students to identify similarities between these papers and present-day newspapers.

Show and talk about examples of the “penny press” of the 1830s to show even further changes in the nature of news: the appearance of advertising, letters to the editor, feature stories, etc.

Cover 1840s tickertape and telegraph technology, the concept of deadlines, urgency in obtaining “the story.” Include in this segment the appearance of the traveling correspondent during the Civil War. Also discuss about the censorship that occurred during this period.

Describe the practices of Hearst and Pulitzer. Show examples of yellow journalism. Also introduce the idea of an activist press during the Reform era under Theodore Roosevelt and later the press as an agent for social change during the Great Depression.

Describe the role of the press from World War II to the end of the Cold War; show that, in Marvin Kalb’s words, “the ‘Responsible Press’ was an aberration.”

Activity 2 (Day 3)

Help students to set up a compare and contrast writing session by soliciting “compare” words and “contrast” words from the students (compare: both, also, too, and, in addition to, like, equal, parallel, etc.) (contrast: but, differ, nor, neither, unlike, however, or, etc.) and writing them on the board. Divide students into groups of three. Have some groups work cooperatively to create a few paragraphs comparing past journalism with present-day journalism. Have other groups contrast the same. Discuss these differences and similarities with the class as each group presents its writing.

After discussion, require class to agree upon a definition of the term “Responsible Press”. Tell them to take into consideration what they have learned about personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

Activity 3 (Day 4)

Finally, give students current copies of several newspapers and news magazines. Divide students into groups of 7 or so. Tell one group to find and cut out as many news stories that reflect responsible journalism as defined by the class in Activity 2. Tell another group to find and cut out as many stories that do not conform with the definition of responsible journalism. Tell another group to find and cut out as many stories that they would not consider to be “news”. Tell another group to find and cut out as many stories which use editorial or overly descriptive language. Each group should be able to articulate exactly why they rated the stories as they did.

Then, each group will then count how many stories and features are left in whatever paper or magazine they used. Taking into account that some papers or periodicals do a better job than others, this exercise will show how little “hard news” there is in comparison to all other material. Students should then be able to make a good comparison between the amount of responsible journalism and opinion passing as news, sensationalism and other practices occurring in print media today.


Require a writing assignment which addresses the topic: “Describe how the press has changed in America over the past 200 years. Tell how you think the media could or should be improved and why.”

Add a grade for participation in each group activity.


  • Fairbanks Daily News Miner
  • Anchorage Daily News
  • Time
  • Newsweek
  • U.S. News & World Report
  • Photos from Microsoft Encarta
  • Teacher-generated PowerPoint slide lecture

Carl Addington’s lesson plan "Do Americans Even Want Hard News" was published in The Media and American Democracy Compendium 2000, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 17.

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