Lesson Plan Booster: Media Literacy and High-Profile Crime Cases
Classroom teachers often use current events to teach students important facts and concepts, including what it means to be an informed citizen. Reading the newspaper can also build student literacy skills. While there are many benefits to helping students access media information, there are also dangers. When a high-profile crime case occurs, sensational news coverage can leave teens vulnerable to misperceptions, overgeneralizations and unfounded assumptions. Following are some guidelines for teachers who want to help high-school students think critically about news coverage of a high-profile crime case. The suggested discussion could be raised in a current events, psychology or journalism/communications class.
Digital literacy and media literacy are increasingly important competencies for young people to develop, and some have suggested that schools’ traditional emphasis on printed texts may shortchange kids in terms of teaching these skills. For example, the 2010 study “Kids and Credibility: An Empirical Examination of Youth, Digital Media Use, and Information Credibility” found that 89 percent of teens believed that “some” to “a lot” of what they found on the Web was believable. It’s clear that students need adult guidance in order to challenge the assumptions implicit in news broadcasts and other types of media messages. Additional helpful skills for young people to practice include identifying stereotypes and social clichés, distinguishing facts from propaganda or opinion, and being able to tell the difference between important news and sensational coverage. For resources on teaching digital literacy, download From the Creative Minds of 21st Century Librarians. For resources on teaching media literacy, visit Media Smarts (Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy).
Grade level: 9-12
Student learning objectives
Students gain “media literacy” skills—thinking critically, evaluating and analyzing news and information, and drawing one’s own conclusions.
One prominent crime case is that of then-25-year-old Casey Anthony, who was charged with first-degree murder in connection with her two-year-old daughter Caylee's death in the summer of 2008. In July 2011, Casey Anthony was found not guilty of murder, and was convicted only of lying to police. Here are some examples of media coverage of the trial that could be used to frame class discussion:
video and written clips
Nancy Grace video clip
- Check out the site Media Smarts, particularly the "key concepts" section of Media Literacy Fundamentals. These five concepts make the point that the media has multiple goals, including (1) informing the public and (2) making money. Consider ways in which these dual goals shape news coverage.
- Read Columbia Journalism Review’s "Should the Coverage Fit the Crime?" which is part of the Crime in the News Lesson. This is an older article but one that brings up important points that are still applicable (i.e., what considerations can/should media outlets use to decide the relative prominence of various types of news stories?).
- Read "WSVN in Miami: Diary of the American Nightmare," which is part of the Crime in the News Lesson. This older American Prospect article by Jonathan Cohn illustrates the point that crime coverage (particularly coverage of violent crime, as opposed to white-collar crime) earns high ratings.
- Record a clip of TV news coverage of the crime trial (or select an online video clip) and prepare to play it for students. If recording a TV clip, note the length (in minutes) of coverage relative to the length of the entire TV news show. Also note how soon in the broadcast the story appeared. Try to select clips that best demonstrate efforts to earn high ratings and “appeal” to the audience. What is it about the clip (tone, particular details included, visuals) that makes it ratings-friendly? Could the clip have been presented in a less ratings-friendly (more factual/objective or less sensational) way? Answering these questions beforehand will help you guide student discussion around these issues.
- Make copies of print-newspaper or online articles about the crime or court trial. If you have a hard copy of a newspaper, compare the length of the crime story to the lengths of stories about other (non-crime) topics. Also compare the placement/prominence of the story relative to stories about other topics. Is a sensational crime story positioned to get more attention? You will want to guide student discussion on these issues.
- Compare print news coverage of the case to television news coverage of the case. You also might want to compare local coverage to national coverage, as evidenced by two different print articles or two different online clips. Consider whether television coverage is more sensational than print coverage, and whether local coverage is more sensational than national coverage. Prepare to ask students to discuss this issue.
Should Adults Talk With Kids About Disturbing or Scandalous Stories in the News?
“Talk with your kids before everyone else does.” So says the Web site of Children Now, an organization whose mission is to find common ground among influential opinion leaders, interest groups and policymakers, who together can develop and drive socially innovative, “win-win” approaches to helping all children achieve their full potential.
EducationWorld spoke with Ted Lempert, President of Children Now, to get his take on whether adults, including teachers, should discuss with students the crimes, scandals and other dicey issues that inevitably receive extensive news coverage. His answer was “yes,” although he noted that there are clear “do’s and don’ts” for talking with kids about sensitive topics. He offered the following tips:
- Talking it through is better than tip-toeing around the case. This is backed up by medical science, and the fact that the world has changed in the last five years. Parents and teachers today may not be as up to speed on these cases as the students who get instant updates via their phones.
- While it may be tough to keep ahead of students with respect to the most recent happenings of a particular case, it remains very important to discuss it with them. If you don’t know something, say you don’t know, and offer to discuss it later.
- You’re not there to dissect the particulars of the case, but rather to put it in perspective, help them understand it and address any fears or concerns. That is far more important than going over the most recent courtroom testimony.
- With middle-school kids, remember that they have a lot less perspective than even high-schoolers. It’s important to speak more broadly with them, going over the bigger picture rather than the often-gruesome details.
- Because the news is so instant and international, it may seem to kids, especially younger children, as if these terrible events are happening all the time in our own back yards. In reality, the chances of being involved in a case like this are very small.
- Do not diminish the impact of the incident but make it clear that this is a rare occurrence, even if the media features a horrible story for days on end. Explain the reasons for media coverage of these events (i.e., fear and crime often mean big ratings) and that the rarity of an event is often the very reason it receives extensive coverage.
- With ages six to 11, you have to be extremely careful with these issues because that group can’t really separate fantasy from reality on television. Focus even more on generalities and the very low likelihood of this happening to them.
Introducing discussion to students
You may have seen a lot of news coverage of [insert name of crime or court trial]. Because this is a case we hear a lot about in the media, it’s a good idea to analyze the coverage to see what we can learn about how the media approaches crime-related coverage, and how we as viewers may be affected as a result.
Options for student discussion questions
- What criteria do you think media outlets use to decide when and how to cover crime stories? Remember that media outlets are very concerned about ratings, as this impacts their financial bottom line. (Reference the "key concepts" section of Media Literacy Fundamentals and/or "Should the Coverage Fit the Crime?" from the Crime in the News Lesson.)
- How does the attention span of a TV viewer differ from that of a newspaper reader or a Web site visitor, and does this affect how each type of media outlet approaches decisions about coverage?
- What are some of the characteristics of “sensational” news coverage? Do you see those elements present in coverage of [insert name of crime or court trial]? (Reference "WSVN in Miami: Diary of the American Nightmare" from the Crime in the News Lesson.) How does the coverage portray the alleged perpetrator of the crime? Which aspects of the case/trial are emphasized?
- [If you have a printed newspaper available to demonstrate] Is a sensational crime story positioned to get more attention, either in terms of length of story or placement/prominence of story?
- [If using a video clip] Is a sensational crime story positioned to get more attention, either in terms of minutes spent covering the story or how soon in the broadcast the story appeared?
- [If using a video clip] What is it about this clip (tone, particular details included, visuals) that makes it “ratings-friendly”? Could the clip have been presented in a less sensational way? What changes could the media outlet have made in order to do this?
- What would “thoughtful” television news coverage look like, compared to “sensational” coverage? What about with print coverage?
- Which kind of coverage (sensational or thoughtful) is more appealing to viewers? Why? Do you think the age of the viewer makes a difference? (Reference "Should the Coverage Fit the Crime?" from the Crime in the News Lesson.)
- Based on the coverage samples presented, how does the television or online video coverage differ from the newspaper or online written coverage? (Students might take some notes regarding the tone and characteristics of each type of coverage, and then report their findings.)
- Are young people more likely to access print, television or online news sources? Why might they find one type of news source more appealing than others? What impact might this have on how news stories are presented to them? What beliefs and assumptions might they take away because of this?
- Is there a difference between local coverage and national coverage? Which type of coverage tends to be more “sensational”? Why? (Reference "WSVN in Miami: Diary of the American Nightmare" from the Crime in the News Lesson.)
Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
Copyright © 2011 Education World