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Lesson Plans




That’s Infotainment! (or What is News?)

Joseph Catalfano of Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, Pa.

Joseph Catalfano
Central Bucks East High School
Doylestown, Pa.

Title: That’s Infotainment! (or What is News?)

Description of School and Students

This unit will be taught to a mixture of 10th-, 11th-, and 12-grade students enrolled in the journalism elective. Class size for the journalism elective averages from 20 to 30 students. The high school is public, suburban, and not culturally diverse. Over 90 percent of the population is white; the remaining percentage mostly composed of African-Americans and Asians.

Generative Topic

  • What is news?

Generative Objects

  • A newspaper, news magazine, or news broadcast headlining the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
  • Several current video clips from the major networks’ nightly news programs, including “Hard Copy,” “48 Hours,” “60 Minutes,” “20/20,” “Nightline”
  • Various news articles and broadcasts from a variety of sources

Understanding Goals

  • Essential or Guiding Questions
    • What information should the news contain?
    • How has the content of political news changed since 1960?
    • Why has the content of political news changed since 1960?
    • Who is responsible for this change?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • What is your personal definition of news?
    • What kind of news do you find most relevant to your life?
    • Has news becomes “infotainment”?
    • Must journalism be entertaining?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line

In a world that offers increasing choice to consumers, the definition of news has definitely changed — mostly for the worse. Most consumers have hundreds of available choices of media to receive their news, i.e. dozens of local or national newspapers, television and cable channels, radio stations, and, now, the Internet. Competition among these various forms of media now rules the media marketplace. Because of media ownership and the drive to make a profit, news is now “packaged to sell,” much as a television show or a pair of jeans. Ratings and profits are more important than carefully researched and reported “hard news.” Students must learn how to value hard news as opposed to the candy-coated forms of “infotainment” that too often pass as news. Students must also comprehend the various forces at work responsible for making this change.

Writing for the school newspaper is a requirement for the journalism elective at our school. This lesson will lead students to choosing both a “hard news” story and a “soft news” (feature) story to write for the school newspaper. This lesson will teach students to value the difference between the two news forms.

Activities

Activity 1

  • Have students brainstorm in response to the question, “What is news?” (or students can complete the sentence “News must be…”). They should record their ideas on a piece of loose leaf paper. Pair students off and have them share their ideas for 5 minutes. Each pair should generate a strong one-sentence definition of news. These definitions should be shared out loud and recorded by each student. The class should then vote for and discuss the best definition. Possible discussion questions include:
    • What do these definitions have in common?
    • Is anything being left out of these definitions?
    • Need news be directly relevant to your life in order to be considered important? For example, the crisis in Bosnia flooded the news for weeks. Should foreign wars make front page news? Why should you care about a war in Bosnia when, just last night, a local gang terrorized a group of teenagers from a nearby school, and this made the third page? Why is local news often secondary to national and/or international news?
    • Who, on a newspaper or news broadcast staff, decides what is news? What criteria do you think they decide upon?

Activity 2

  • Discuss with students the six accepted characteristics of news:
    • timeliness
    • prominence
    • proximity
    • conflict
    • impact
    • human interest
  • Have them analyze a current daily newspaper, news broadcast, or news magazine to discover how many of the above characteristics are reflected in the current news stories. Ask students if it is possible to order these six characteristics from most to least importance.

Activity 3

  • Divide the class into groups of four. Bring in multiple copies of at least four current editions of daily local or national newspapers. Give each member of a group a different newspaper. Have students compare and contrast the articles on the front page of each newspaper. Students should discuss the following questions:
    • Did the same story make the headline of the front page of each newspaper?
    • If yes, do you agree that this story is of primary importance?
    • If no, what newspaper made the best decision in its placement of articles?
    • Did these newspapers prioritize the importance of its articles effectively? why or why not?

OR (both of these activities have similar goals).

  • Cut at least a dozen current news stories (including some pictures) from a local paper. Divide the class into groups of four or five. Give each group the same stories as well as a large sheet of white paper approximately the size of a newspaper. Have students put together the front page of a local paper, prioritizing according to the characteristics of news. Students should:
    • Limit themselves to 6-8 columns (horizontally)
    • Cut the articles in order to make them fit; they may also write “continued” if they wish to separate the article onto different pages
    • With a red pen, list the characteristics of news that each article reflects
    • Create their own title for their newspaper
  • Students must defend, or “pitch”, their layout in a short oral presentation to their editor-in-chief / teacher.

Activity 4

  • Have students watch a current half-hour “hard news” broadcast. Follow this with a viewing of a more “soft news” / infotainment broadcast such as “Hard Copy,” “Inside Edition,” “Extra,” etc. As students view these programs, they should reflect on the following:
    • How are these programs similar and/or different?
    • How is each program “packaged”?
    • How does this “packaging” reflect a certain target audience?
    • Are broadcasts such as “Inside Edition” and “Extra” responsible for the “dumbing down” of hard news?
    • Who is most responsible for this “dumbing down”: the show’s producers? the show’s owners? the public who tunes in and, therefore, bolsters ratings and profit?
    • Should changes be made to these programs? Why? Where must these changes begin?

Activity 5

  • Using the same newspapers / broadcasts as in the above activities, have students design charts that compare the number of hard news versus soft news stories covered. They must submit along with their charts the criteria they used to classify a story as hard or soft.

Activity 6

  • The teacher and students should bring in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and television broadcasts covering the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Have students discuss whether these sources should be classified as hard or soft news. Have students debate whether the topic is worthy to be classified as hard news at all (or was it all just infotainment?). Also discuss:
    • What characteristics of news are reflected in these media?
    • Why did many critics label this scandal a “media circus”?
    • Do you believe the media’s coverage of this scandal was a step backwards for respect in the media?
    • Although the public largely claimed not to be concerned with Clinton’s sex life, the sales of newspapers and magazines covering the scandal soured while the scandal was hot. Does this reveal anything about what the public perceives as news?
    • Did this story only further blur the lines between hard and soft news? Explain.

Assessment

  • Students record Robert Blendon’s definition of “What Makes News.”
    • strong impact on immediate lives
    • violence, disasters, corruption, scandals, sex
    • events involving familiar people
    • effects are close to home
    • timely and out of the ordinary
    • relevant to major debates and conflicts
    • visually compelling

In class, have students either peruse a recent newspaper or view a recent news broadcast. Students write a critical analysis of how either medium reflects Blendon’s definition. Students should also critique the order / prioritizing of stories. Instruct students to discuss both good choices as well as suggestions and justifications for re-arrangement of stories.

  • Have students imagine they are newspaper editors. Distribute the same ten news leads to each student. Ask students to prioritize the importance of these stories considering what has been discussed in class. Students write a thorough justification of their decisions.
  • “The media sees the world as a more frightening place than it really is." — Caryl Rivers. Have students respond to this statement in essay form, supporting their position with evidence from recent newspapers and television broadcasts.
  • (for a more advanced class) Taking into account our research and discussions in this unit, does the “softening” of news have an impact on the American democracy? How so? Support your position with evidence from recent newspapers and television broadcasts. Note: you should consider how the media is currently handling the Presidential election.

Resources

  • Marvin Kalb, “The Rise of the ‘New News’: A Case Study of Two Root Causes of Modern Scandal Coverage”, Discussion Paper D-34, October 1998.
  • Postman, Neil, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" (New York: Viking) 1985. Selections: Chapter 2, pp. 16-29; chapters 6 and 7, pp. 83-113.

Joseph Catalfano’s lesson plan, “The Question of Ethical Journalism” was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 2000, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 309.



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