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Lesson Plans

The Press and War: Do We Learn the Issues by Reading the News?

Susan Epstein of A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in New York.

Susan Epstein
A Philip Randolph Campus High School
New York

Title: The Press and War: Do We Learn the Issues by Reading the News?

Description of School and Students

A.P. Randolph Campus High School is located in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. It is part of the City College of New York. The students, mainly African American and Latino, are Selected for their achievement in intermediate school. The school offers a rigorous academic program, with advanced placement courses in all subject areas. The student population numbers 1,300; the average class size is 32. This unit will be taught as the library research component of the 11th grade Participation in Government (spoken of as PIG) course.

Standards met

New York City English Language Arts Standards

  • E1c: Read and comprehend informational material.,
  • E2e: Produce a persuasive essay.
  • E2f: Produce a reflective essay.
  • E3c: Prepare and deliver an individual presentation.

New York State Social Studies Standards

  • Standard 5: Civics, Citizenship and Government
  • Key idea 4, performance standard: Students will take, defend, and evaluate positions about attitudes that facilitate thoughtful and effective participation in public affairs.

Generative Topic

  • News and public policy

Generative Objects

  • Time magazine cover picture of Saddam Hussein, spring 2002.
  • Headline re. Iraq, August 1991.
  • Cover of Vanity Fair, February 2002.
  • Pictures of George H.W. Bush

Understanding Goals

  • Essential or Guiding Questions
    • What is objectivity in the press?
    • What constitutes news?
    • What is point of view in news?
    • What is the relation between the news media and public opinion?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • Do the news media tell us what we need to know as citizens about public policy issues?
    • What is meant by the press being “the fourth estate?” Does the press fulfill this role consistently? ,
    • What happens when war is possible or imminent?
    • Would the 1991 Gulf War have occurred if the press had informed Americans of the recent history of U.S. involvement with Iraq?
    • How well is the press presenting the policy issue of impending war with Iraq?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale and Timeline

Gladys Lang and Kurt Lang state in "The Press as Prologue: Media Coverage of Saddam’s Iraq, 1979-1990": “When there is no informed public opinion, as in the case of Saddam’s Iraq, the hands of policy-makers are freed — at least until such opinion crystallizes. “

Their article raises a question worth investigating in regard to media coverage of our country’s hostilities with Iraq both in 1990 and now: has the press fulfilled its role as a balance against government power by providing the knowledge and debate necessary for the development of an informed public opinion?

This one-week unit will have students examine samples of print news coverage in 1990 and now, to determine whether full, balanced coverage of the issues is present, or if government/presidential policy is prevalent.


Activity 1: News, analysis, and opinion.

  • The possibility of a U.S. invasion of Iraq has been in the news recently. In the folder of New York Times articles on this issue, some are straight news, some are news analysis, and some are editorials. Answer the following questions in your journal:
    • What are the characteristics of each type of article?
    • Select and article that interests you. Which type is it? How do you know?
    • Does the article state or imply a point of view? More than one viewpoint? How does the journalist convey viewpoint?
    • What facts are brought to support statements of opinion, or analytic conclusions?
    • Can straight news convey viewpoint? How might the journalist accomplish this?

Activity 2: Framing of news

  • Since our direct personal experience is limited with regard to public policy issues, we depend on the news media to bring issues to our attention with enough information and analysis for us to have intelligent input into policy. Our issue of concern at present is a possible United States invasion of Iraq, which would have a devastating effect on both countries and the world. In the following activity write your responses in your journal.
  • Choose two of the articles in the folder of New York Times articles.
    • How are the issues defined, or framed, in the articles you chose? Can you tell why the journalist thinks the issues are important?
    • How well do they prepare you to form an opinion on this issue?
    • Do you detect bias? How is it expressed?
    • President George W. Bush apparently favors an invasion. Is his viewpoint presented? Are other viewpoints presented? Whose?
    • What questions remain? Do other articles in the folder answer your questions?
  • Search the Ebsco Masterfile Premiere and/or the New York Times database.
    • Type in “Iraq” or “Saddam Hussein”. Look at two articles.
    • Why are these articles worth publishing? What is news? How does a journalist Select what is news?

Activity 3: Pre-Gulf War news: articles from 1990.

  • The Gulf War began in January 1991 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Using the Time and Newsweek articles in the 1990 folder (collected from the Ebsco Masterfile Premiere database) we will try to determine whether these representative articles give sufficient information and analysis for the reader to take a position on how our country should have reacted. Was war the only feasible option? In this activity you will examine the policy issues raised by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Use the responses you write in your journal to draft a preliminary opinion on whether the Gulf War of 1991 should have been fought. You will be using this material in a classroom debate.
  • Read two articles published prior to the August 1990 invasion. For each:
    • Is the article straight news, analysis, or editorial (opinion)?
    • Can you determine what event or situation brought the journalist to write the article?
    • What is the purpose of the article?
    • What do you think the main message is?
    • What does the journalist want you to think about Saddam Hussein?
    • Does the article prepare the reader in any way for the conflict to come? For a crisis? For viewing Sadam Hussein as an enemy?
  • Read an article written from August to December 1990.
    • How is the tone different from the article written before the invasion?
    • What is the main message of the article? What attitude does the journalist convey about Saddam Hussein?
    • What points of view are presented? How does the article deal with the?possibility of impending war?
    • Whose viewpoints are presented? Does the journalist cite government sources? Non?government sources? Both?
    • How well does the article prepare the reader to form an opinion on and debate

Activity 4

  • Students will read articles reprinted in the book, "Iraq: Current Controversies," published in 1991. This book groups periodical articles and speeches according to the various viewpoints on specific issues.
  • Write the responses to following questions in your journal. The final assignment will be a separate paper based on your journal work.
  • Referring to Chapter 1, Prelude to the Gulf War: Is Military Action Justified?
    • There are six articles that answer yes, six that answer no.
    • On the first page of each article, find a reference to the source of the article. Under each category, list newspapers or magazines used (newspapers will have a specific date, e.g. Aug. 7, 1990), other sources.
    • Of the source publications listed, would you expect any of them to have a particular point of view? You may evaluate copies of The Nation, The New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal in the school or public library.
    • Should all journalism be objective? When is objectivity necessary? When is well-supported opinion desirable?
    • Why would you read a magazine with a specific bias? Can such publications help you to develop an informed opinion?
  • Referring to Chapter 5: “How Well Did the News Media Cover the Persian Gulf War?” Look at James Bennet’s article, “The News Media Failed to Encourage Debate About the Persian Gulf Crisis.” On page 216, Bennet criticizes three national newspapers, including The New York Times, for falling into line behind the president’s agenda early on in the crisis.
    • Access the Master File Premiere database.
    • Confine your search to the New York Times, September-November 1990.
    • Use as search terms “Iraq,” “Saddam Hussein,” or “Kuwait.” Read article titles and/or abstracts.
      • Can you find articles that appear to be critical of the president’s pro-war stance (try to find at least three)?
      • Are they news stories or editorials?
    • If you wish to read a full-text New York Times article from this period use the New York Times Historical Newspapers database.
  • Reflect on Bennet’s conclusion: “When politicians close ranks behind a military action, journalists must have the intellectual independence and imagination to supply the critical counterweight on their own.” (224)
    • Use your responses in all of the previous activities to evaluate how well the press has done in the 1990-91 and current Persian Gulf crises to fill this role and provide us what we need to know to reach our own informed conclusions. You will draft this as a documented essay to be presented following our class debate.


Students will respond to the questions listed in the activities in their journals and class discussions. They will use the information culled from the articles read to hold classroom debates around the issues of the 1991 Gulf War and of the current consideration of war with Iraq. In written reports they will reflect whether the articles had prepared them adequately for taking a position well supported by fact. Students will be evaluated on the knowledge and understanding they exhibit in their written and oral work.

Resources Recommended

  • Dudley, William & Stacey L. Tipp, eds. "Iraq: Current Controversies" (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991).
  • Lang, G. E. and K. Lang. “The Press as Prologue: Media Coverage of Saddam’s Iraq, 1979-1990.”
  • W. L. Bennett and D. L. Paletz, eds. "Taken by Storm: the Media, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Gulf War" (Chicago: University Press, 1994).
  • SIRS Global Issues (print cumulation of newspaper and magazine articles, issued annually).
  • www.nypl.org. eresources New York Public Library Web site (gives online access to databases the library subscribes to; you need a valid library ID. Many public libraries have similar services.)
  • Databases
    • MasterFILE Premiere (Ebsco)
    • Academic Search Premiere (Ebsco)
    • New York Times & New York Post Full-text (Gale: 1 year. back)
    • New York Times Historical Newspapers (Proquest).
  • Various New York Times articles
  • Various newspaper and magazine articles from 2002 and 1990 culled from electronic databases.

Susan Epstein’s lesson plan, “The Press and War: Do We Learn About the Issues by Reading the News” was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 2002, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 368


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