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Kaye Oliver
Social studies teacher
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Lesson Plans

When is the News Not News?

When is the News Not News?

Kaye Oliver of Calvert High School in Prince Frederick, Md.

Kaye Oliver
Calvert High School
Prince Frederick, Md.

Subject: When is the News not News?

Description of School and Students
This unit will be taught to ninth grade civics students in a suburban high school that is 80% Caucasian and 20% African American. It will be taught in conjunction with the unit on reliable and unreliable information and is third in a series. Class sizes vary from 25-35 in a class.

Generative Topic
Three posters with quotes:

  • "If they don’t know, they’re cynical and don’t pay attention, you can manipulate the **** out of them." — Robert Blendon
  • "Like the IRS, the press can get anyone." — Bill Bradley
  • "All the news that’s fit to print" — The New York Times

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Questions
    • When is a story not a story?
    • When should the news not an event?
    • Should some things be considered "off limits" to the press?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • Is there a limit to what the public has a right to know?
    • Does the press tell us things we should not know?
    • Should a candidate or public official have some areas of his/her life "off limits" to the media?
    • Does the media go too far in probing our "public figures"?

Performance of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line

Students will differentiate between a news story and a non-story and decide at what point the press becomes invasive in its coverage of public officials and private citizens.’

Activity 1
Students will be given a list of possible events the media could expose on a public figure. They will check yes or no, whether they think the item in newsworthy: fear of heights, wife beating, sexual abuse, insomnia, flagrant lying, alcoholism, messy work habits, comment from childhood friend, smoked marijuana, former teacher comment, essay in middle school, an extramarital affair, unreported income

Have students vote individually, then tally a class vote based on student responses. (Teacher should reserve judgments on any student decisions). Make a list on board of events that should be made public in one column, then a second list of events that should not. Discuss the criteria they used in creating their lists. Solicit any additional examples generated by students from any recent current events. Discuss: is the "line" our class drew changeable?

Activity 2
Distribute five readings equally among the class, giving each student one article to read:

  • "Tennessee Poisoning", The Washington Post, August 22, 1999
  • "Bush Urges Parents to Share Lessons from Earlier Errors", The Washington Post, August 21, 1999
  • "The AIDS Mouse and Its Creator", Michael Specter, April, 1993
  • "Children of the President", Susan Reed, January, 1998
  • "Truth, Lies and Videotape", RW Baker, CJR, August, 1993

Form groups of two, ensuring each student has read a different article. Have each student summarize to his/her partner what the article said, and then indicate whether or not the story in question should be told tot he public. Was it newsworthy? Have student indicate to his/her partner reasons why she thins the story should or should not have been reported. Rotate groups until all students have had exposure to all five articles and discussed them with a partner. A chart may be used to jot articles and notes and collected from each student.

Activity 3
Teacher generated discussion on board: Which is unacceptable?

  • videotaping a funeral of a public figure
  • videotaping the immediate family of a public figure
  • videotaping a public figure without his/her knowledge

Questions to discuss/reflect:

  • Does the public have any control over what the media tells us?
  • How can the public help decide what should or should not be printed or covered as news?
  • Does our opinion of what should or should not be covered change over time?
  • Mark Carter: "The line of ethics is moving"; what is the difference between news and entertainment? How and why are they converging?


  • Choose one of the three quotes as the generative object and write a reaction to it. Indicate 3 reasons discussed in class to help support your answer.
  • Write a letter to the editor or the source of a news story you feel has "crossed the line." Indicate your reason for your letter, your complaint, and a solution to the problem.


  • "The Media Burn", in Time Present. Time Past, Bill Bradley, NY, Alfred Knopf, 1996, pp 145-161.
  • "Media, Ethics, and American Society", Mark Carter, lecture, Harvard University, August 12, 1999 all articles as
    described in Activity 2
  • "Educating Americans About Public Issues", Robert Blandon, lecture, Harvard University, August 10, 1999

Kaye Oliver’s lesson plan, "When is the News Not News" was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1999, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 177.

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