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Ellen Harmon
Government teacher
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Lesson Plans

American Government in the Media

American Government in the Media

Ellen Harmon of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.

Ellen Harmon
T.C. Williams High School
Alexandria, Va.

Title: American Government in the Media

Description of School and Students

T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Virginia is a large (c. 2,000 students) comprehensive high school in northern Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C. It is largely urban in character, with a very diverse population in terms of ethnic makeup and socio-economic level. U.S. and Virginia Government are required courses for all seniors. A.P. Government is offered and elected by 20-25 percent of the senior class, and 1-2 sections of E.S.L. Government are also offered.

Generative Topic

The Media: a Source of Information That Helps to Shape Attitudes and Opinions Toward the U.S. Government.

Generative Objects

Media headlines and photos from a variety of news sources (e.g.: The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time, local media); relevant clips from nightly network news programs, current and/or past (e.g.: Bush-Rather interview, 1988, CBS; coverage of Vietnam War; last night’s news programs)

Understanding Goals

Essential or Guiding Question

How do various media sources portray the U.S. government to the American public?

Citical Engagement Questions

  • Is the media thorough in its coverage of the U.S. government? (How much space/time is devoted to it?)
  • What kinds of topics are regularly covered?
  • Is the coverage substantive? biased? different, depending upon the media source?
  • Does the coverage seem designed to present a particular view of the U.S. government?
  • Is that view consistently favorable or unfavorable? How can you tell?
  • Overall, what effect does the coverage have on the consumer’s understanding and outlook toward our government.

Performances of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line

  • Task each student with collecting written documentation of coverage of U.S. government actions and players over a one-week period (or longer). Students may clip newspaper or magazine articles, tape news programs, write a synopsis of a radio broadcast, etc.
  • Ask students to highlight, describe, and analyze at least five different items of coverage over the one-week period. Work should be maintained in a scrapbook format.
  • Assign students to small groups to discuss the media items they’ve assembled and to receive help as needed in interpreting them.
  • Students should then write a narrative in which they present their findings, using the critical engagement questions as a guide. Materials collected, described and analyzed will be a part of the written presentation.


  • Students will be asked to present their findings to their small groups, using their narratives as a basis, and hand in their written work to the teacher. (A class discussion may ensue if the students wish to present and discuss their work with the larger group, and if time allows.)
  • Grades will be assigned anonymously and in writing by each group member to every other group member, which the teacher will use a guide when grading the student’s written narrative work and group participation. Two grades may be given, one for each aspect of the assignment.
  • Grading criteria: Is the scrapbook and written narrative complete in terms of quantity, analytical depth, style, etc.? Did the student participate fully in the group work, as noted by the teacher and especially by their group members?


The teacher will have had to first teach the basics of media, especially how opinion might be conveyed, using the various media sources. A journalist would be a good resource or guest speaker either during that lesson or as a follow-up to the group activity.

Ellen Harmon’s lesson plan, "American Government in the Media" was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1999, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 57.

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