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The Anatomy of Public Opinion — Vox Populi Scrutinized

Gerhard Albert Fuerst of Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Gerhard Albert Fuerst
Kalamazoo Central High School
Kalamazoo, Mich.

Title: The Anatomy Of Public Opinion – Vox Populi Scrutinized: An Exercise In Direct Democracy

Description of the School and the Students

Kalamazoo Central High School (KCHS) is an urban-suburban secondary school with an enrollment of 1,450 students and a staff of 86 teachers. Additionally, KCHS is an intern teacher training site for the directed teaching experience of students from Western Michigan University. The ratio of minority to non-minority students is approximately 45:55. This unit is designed for l1th- and 12th-grade students in a required class of American government. KCHS operates on a block schedule of 90 minutes per class period.

Generative Topic

Public Opinion …. What is it? Analysis and Application. Time needed: approximately 5-6 class periods; may be extended as needed.

Generative Objects

  • Students will be given a collection of editorial opinions from various local, regional, and national newspapers.
  • Students will be introduced to a variety of opinion articles written by nationally syndicated columnists and correspondents.
  • Students will be given the option of Selecting opinion articles that are of greatest interest to them for closer examination and analysis, choosing from the following list of syndicated writers, whose articles regularly appear in the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette:

    • Cal Thomas, Los Angeles Times Syndicate
    • Molly Ivins, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram
    • A.M. Rosenthal, The New York Times
    • Cynthia Tucker, The Atlanta Constitution
    • David Broder, The Washington Post
    • Tom Teepen, Cox Newspapers
    • Thomas Friedman, The New York Times
    • William Raspberry, The Washington Post
    • Ellen Goodman, The Boston Globe
    • Dave Barry, The Miami Herald
    • Josef Perkins, The San Diego Union-Tribune
    • Bob Herbert, The New York Times
    • Nat Hentoff, expert on Constitutional Issues
    • Otis Pike, Newhouse News Service
    • Peter Luke, Kalamazoo Gazette, Lansing Bureau
    • William Safire, The New York Times
    • Maureen Dowd, The New York Times

Note: Bulletin boards will display samples of articles from each writer

  • Students will also “meet” in article form, and perhaps in person:
    • Jim Mosby, editor, Kalamazoo Gazette
    • George E. Anvady, publisher, Kalamazoo Gazette
    • Dave Hager, editor of “Letters to the Editor” and adviser to the Young Editorial Staff (Yes Team), Selected from area high school students.
    • Earlene McMichael, education writer, Kalamazoo Gazette
    • Diether H, Haenike weekly columnist, Kalamazoo Gazette, president emeritus, Western Michigan University.

    Note: The last 3 individuals will also be invited to function as resource persons, and to share their personal and professional experiences as shapers of opinions.

Critical Engagement Questions

  • What is or constitutes an opinion? (Make use of dictionary definitions).
  • How are opinions expressed (verbal, written, published…)?
  • How and why do we form opinions?
  • What and who influences us in formulating opinions?
  • Are there different kinds of opinions (negative/positive, right/wrong, good/bad)?
  • Is there a difference between informed opinion and loose talk?
  • What is the difference between objectivity and subjectivity?
  • Will opinions affect our personal conduct, attitude, behavior, and actions?
  • Will the opinions we hold encourage us or hinder us from certain engagements?
  • How are personal experience and opinions related?
  • Can there be a negative consequence to expressed opinions?
  • How are personal experience and opinions related?
  • Is there an interplay between bias, prejudice, and expressed opinions?
  • Can you have an opinion on matters unknown to you?
  • Is there a connection between fear, ignorance, suspicion, and certain opinions?
  • How do religious belief and personal philosophy impact on opinions?
  • What is the connection between personal preferences, value judgments, and expressed opinions?
  • Are there proper and improper ways to express opinions (a matter of time, place, occasion, and manner of speaking..)?
  • What would inhibit the expression of opinions?
  • What would stimulate you to express your opinion on public issues?
  • Is the formulation of opinions dependent on a person’s state of mind, mental condition, sentiments, moods, psychological and physical health, economic condition, employment status…?
  • What is the relationship of the right of freedom of speech (See: First Amendment to theU.S.Constitution) to the
  • actual practice of expressed opinions?
  • Are there legal restrictions to the expression of opinions? If so, under what conditions?
  • Do you feel free to express your opinions?
  • To whom can or should you express your opinion?
  • What would cause you to change or alter a previously held opinion?
  • To whom will or should your opinion be a matter of concern?
  • Do you think your personal (private) opinion is a matter of public concern or public interest?
  • Is there a relationship between voting behavior and expressed or privately held opinions?
  • Can you qualify (evaluate & interpret) and quantify (record & measure) public opinions? [Ref. to surveys and polls].
  • Could you be coerced or intimidated by others into accepting an unwanted opinion?
  • Is there or should there be a problem with “unpopular” opinions?
  • Are “unpopular” opinions legally sanctioned (protected)?
  • Is there a difference between the opinion(s) of the “majority” of the public and “minority” groups in society?
  • Is there a connection between consensus and expressed opinion?
  • Does consensus require a compromise or public vote?
  • What is the direct or indirect impact of expressed public opinions on the formulation of public policy (i.e. legislation)?
  • Does anyone listen, will anyone care, will anyone read, does it really matter?

    Note: This long list will be parceled out to the groups for consideration. The.list can be shortened or added to at the teacher’s discretion. Students could also be encouraged to make their own Selections from the above list, based on preference and personal interest. The CEQ’s should be typed on 3×5 cards for open choice, or concealed in envelopes for choice by chance.

Performance of Understanding, Rationale and Time Line

The purpose of this series of activities is to stimulate critical thinking skills in evaluating the opinions of others, and to sharpen the skills of expressing and articulating personal opinions on public issues, both in oral and written form. The teacher will model the entire lesson for the students with an appropriate introduction to the study of public opinion.

Day 1: Introduction & Explanation of the Purpose of this Unit of Study, Organization and Structure of Planned

Activities:

  • Students will be divided into small groups (partners or pairs of free choice, or assigned groups of students, 3-4 maximum).
  • Students will Select a recorder and a spokesperson, but all students will share equally in the tasks of analysis and discussion of all matters regarding public opinion
  • Students are to Select a group identity (a clever, interesting, or humorous name, a symbol, color, or badge, to identify their group’s spirited engagement).

Tasks

  • Pick at random 3-4 items from the listed CEQ’s for group discussion. Each group may trade one of their questions for another of better preference.
  • Brainstorm and reflect on each of the chosen CEQ’s and record the stated responses and reactions. Suggested time limit: 15-20 Minutes (30 min. max.).
  • Share your findings with the class as a whole and solicit additional responses from the class. Add these comments to the official record of the group.
  • Share what you have learned from the experience (both positive & negative). Note: An additional class period may be necessary to cover all group reports.

Day 2 (or 3):

Students will reassemble in their (chosen, assigned, or random Selection) groups to discuss first if additional thoughts came to mind about the previous day’s activity.

Tasks

  • Students will Select 1-2 opinion or editorial articles for group analysis.
  • Read the article individually first and then discuss and analyze the article’s content, purpose, and message.
  • Record all reactions, responses, and observations.
  • Discussion Questions (DQ’s) for possible consideration:
    • What is the article’s topic, subject, interest, or concern?
    • Is the content of the article of personal interest to you? State reasons for or against.
    • Is the article factual and informative?
    • Do you agree or disagree with the expressed opinion(s)?
    • What are noticeable indicators (adverbs and adjectives, labels …)of the writer’s bias?
    • Is the article serious or humorous and entertaining in content?
    • Is the article critical or complementary in nature
    • Who or what is the object of criticism or commentary?
    • Can you detect a “liberal” or “conservative” bias or preference by the writer? (If needed discuss the terms “liberal” and “conservative” for group understanding)
    • Is the article reasonable or exaggerated in content?
    • Add your own questions for consideration and discussion! Suggested time limit: 20-30 minutes. Flexibility in time allocation is a must!
  • Report your findings to the class, summarize the article, and state your findings and personal responses (with reference to the list of suggested DQ’s).
  • What did you learn from the reading and examination of the article(s)? Any positive or negative reactions? Could reading such opinion articles influence or affect your own opinion(s)?

Note: An additional day may have to be added to cover all groups with equal time opportunities.

Day 3 (or 4):

  • An invited resource person will come to speak to the class. Students will be prompted and will be asked to compile a list of questions in preparation to ask and discuss with the guest (part of the assignment from the previous day).(See above list of mentioned resource persons).
  • Alternative possibility: Viewing of Video, see list of resources below!

Day 4 (or 5)

Meet in the assigned or chosen groups and first reflect on the previous days visit.

Task

  • Brainstorm about issues and interests that directly or indirectly affect you personally or your age group. Consider these possible areas of concern or scenarios:
    • a. You as a student at KCHS
    • b. You as a member of the Kalamazoo community, and your immediate neighborhood.
    • c. You as a member of a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group
    • d. You as a citizen of the United States and the world at large, thinking globally, and acting locally, showing care, consideration, and a sense of responsibility.
  • Compile a list of personal concerns, and then rank order them from greatest to least concern.
  • Select one that your group feels the strongest about. Allow for free consensus, formulate a compromise, or vote democratically to make your group’s choice.
  • Compose an opinion article, about one page in length.
    • a. Make certain to distinguish between fact and fiction.
    • b. Express your sentiments clearly and convincingly.
    • c. Try to convince others with your opinion.
  • Share your opinion article with the class, and allow for class reaction and discussion.

Note: An additional day may be necessary, in order to allow adequate time to each group to present and defend their opinion article. These articles will have to be submitted, typed and proof read, with the final group report.

Assessment

Student performance will be evaluated on the basis of the following criteria:

  • Self evaluation, self-analysis, self-criticism:
    • How actively did you participate?
    • What did you learn from the experience?
    • How well did your group work together?
    • Is there anything you (we) could have done differently, better, more effectively?
    • Are you now more encouraged to state your opinion(s) in a public forum?
  • Teacher evaluation based on actual observation of daily performance
    • individual grade
    • group grade
  • Written effort of the expressed group opinion. An individual student may offer an alternative opinion, if it differs with the general group consensus. The articles must be typed, double-spaced, and proofread. Each group must submit a written report of their daily tasks, along with the final opinion article(s). The finished opinion articles will be forwarded to:
    • The Kalamazoo Gazette for possible publication.
    • Members of the Board of Education (FYI’s)
    • Public officials in the community, and at the state and federal level.

Resources

  • Collection of actually published editorial opinions or opinion articles by syndicated columnists (see initial list for possible Selection of examples).
  • Reproduction of these articles (one copy per student)
  • A list of the stated objectives and the rational for this unit of study.
  • List of all questions to be considered (one per student).
  • Bulletin board display of all published articles under consideration.
  • Sufficient writing materials and folders to collect each group’s findings.
  • Actual time line for completion of this project.

Bibliography

List of book and video resources available at the Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL):

  • Angell, Norman, Sir (1874-1967), "The Unseen Assassins," Harper & Brothers, 1932 Subjects: International law, war, public opinion, international relations. KPL Call# 172.4 A56.2
  • Boas, George (1892-?), "Vox Populi: Essays In The History Of An Idea, John Hopkins Press ,1969. Subject: Public opinion KPL Call # 301.154 B662
  • Bogart, Leo, "Silent Politics: Polls And The Awareness Of Public Opinion," Wiley Inter-science, 1972. Subjects: Public opinion, public opinion polls. KPL Call# 301.154 B674
  • Burlingame, Roger (1889-1967), "The American Conscience," Knopf, 1957 Subjects: United States – Civilization, Public opinion, National characteristics -American. KPL Call# 917.3 B95
  • Cirino, Robert, "Don’t Blame The People: How the News Media Use Bias. Distortion and Censorship to Manipulate Public Opinion," Vintage Books, 1971. Subjects: Mass media, public opinion. KPL Call# 301.16 C578
  • Dykema, Wilma, "Neither Black Nor White," Rinehartt, 1957. Subjects: Southern States – Race Relations, African American, Segregation, Public opinion,U.S.Race relations.KPL Call# 325.26 D99
  • Fenton, John M., "In Your Opinion: The Managing Editor of the Gallup Polls" looks at polls, politics, and the people from 1945-1960, Little Brown, 1960. Subjects: Public opinion, public opinion polls,U.S.politics and government 1945-1960,U.S.civilization. KPL Call# 973.91 F342
  • Gallup, George Horace (1901-?), "A Guide To Public Opinion Polls," Princeton University Press, 1944, Subject: Public opinion. KPL Call# 301.15 617.1
  • Ginsberg, Benjamin, "The Captive Public: How Mass Opinion Promotes State Power," Basic Books, 1986. Subjects: Power (Social Science), public opinion, Representative Government and Representation, Voting, Elections. KPL Call# 301.154 G93
  • Hofstadter, Richard (1916-1970), "The Paranoid Style In American Politics, And Other Essays," Knopf, 1965. Subjects:U.S.- politics and government, Right and Left (Political Science),U.S.- territorial expansion, public opinion. KPL Call# 329. H713
  • Lippman, Walter (1889-1974), "Public Opinion," Harcourt Brace, 1922. Subject: Public opinions. Note: This is a classic study and should be available as a resource! KPL Call # 301.15 L76
  • Liston, Robert A., "Why We Think As We Do," F. Watts, 1977. Subjects: Propaganda, public opinion, advertising. KPL Call# 301.1523 L773
  • Markel, Lister (1894-?), "What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You, A Study of Public Opinion and Public Emotion," Public Affairs Press, 1972 KPL Call # 301.154. M345
  • Merk, Frederick (1887-?), "Manifest Destiny And Mission In American History; A Re-interpretation," Knopf, 1963. Subjects: U.S.- territorial expansion, public opinion, imperialism. KPL Call# 973.6 M563
  • Roper, Elmo (1900-1971), "You And Your Leaders: Their Actions and Your Reactions, 1936-1956," Morrow, 1957. Subjects: Public opinion, public opinion polls, statesmen – American,U.S.- politics and government. KPL Call# 973.91 R78
  • Stouffer, Samuel Andrew (1900-?), "Communism, Conforming, And Civil Liberties. A cross-section of the nation speaks its mind," Doubleday, 1955. Subjects: Civil rights, communism, public opinion. KPL Call# 323.4 S88
  • PBS Video Series (c. 1984), "A Walk Through The 20th Century with Bill Movers: The Image Makers." Subjects: Documentary film, public opinion, public relations, publicity. KPL: Audio-Visual Section: PBS Videos, Video Cassette Note: This should prove to be a very interesting addition to the mix of activities.
  • Yankelovich, Daniel, "Coming To Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work In Complex World," Syracuse University Press, 1991. Subjects: Public Opinion – U.S., public opinion – democracy. KPL Call# 321.8 Y23

Additional Resources in my private collection

  • Cohen, Jeff, and Normal Solomon, "Adventures in Media Land, Behind The News, Beyond The Pundits," Common Courage Press, 1993
  • Dale, Edgar, "Can You Give The Public What It Wants," World Book Encyclopedia and Cowles Education Corporation, 1967
  • Herman, Edward S, and Noam Chomsky, "Manufacturing Consent, The Political Economy Of The Mass Media," Pantheon Books, New York, 1988
  • McLuhan, Marshall, "Understanding Media, The Extension of Man," The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996
  • Mott, George Fox, et al, "New Survey of Journalism Techniques for the Gathering of News and the Writing, Editing and Producing of Newspapers and Magazines," Barnes and Noble (College Outline Series), New York, 1962 Of particular interest: Chapter XXXI: The Editor Speaks, pp 258-269, Chapter XXXII: The Press As A Political And Social Force, pp. 270-277
  • Wertheimer, Linda, "Listening To America, 25 Years in the Life of a Nation, as Heard on National Public Radio," Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1995
  • Will, George F., "The Leveling Wind, Politics" The Culture & Other News, 1990-1994,Viking, Penguin Books, New York, 1994.

Gerhard Albert Fuerst’s lesson plan, “The Anatomy of Public Opinion: Vox Populi Scrutinized” was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1999, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 106.



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