Examining Media Coverage: A Classroom Study of Iraq War News

By Leahey, Christopher R. | Social Education, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

Examining Media Coverage: A Classroom Study of Iraq War News


Leahey, Christopher R., Social Education


Throughout the 2003 school year, my ninth grade global history students followed the media's coverage of the escalating crisis between the United States and Iraq. In early March of that year, as the media's coverage intensified, students brought a multitude of questions and concerns into the classroom. Rather than simply answer these questions, I saw the unfolding events as a "teachable moment" and planned a project to analyze how the media depict significant events.

I decided that our classroom project would center on the U.S.-Iraqi conflict. In an effort to minimize any influence of my own opinions, the project would not deal with whether the war was "right" or "wrong" Instead, we would investigate the local media's coverage. My primary goal was to approach the coverage by drawing from a critical constructivist model. White asserts that such a model can be implemented by "modeling and applying, reflecting, involving students actively, and developing a community of learners." This project would also draw upon National Council for the Social Studies curriculum standards as students explored the relationships between power, authority, and governance (NCSS strand VI). More specifically, this project would focus on "the conditions, actions, and motivations that contribute to conflict and cooperation within and among nations." (2)

A Critical Model for Analyzing the Media

To fully grasp the political, social, and economic forces that have shaped the United States relationship with Iraq through to March of 2003, students needed to be exposed to much more than the slogans that were being transmitted in the newspapers, on the radio, and on television. To illustrate, just days before the United States fired missiles at Baghdad, MSNBC started "Countdown: Iraq," an electronic ticker counting down the hours Saddam Hussein had to comply with George W. Bush's ultimatum to leave Iraq. Throughout the days leading up to the war, CNN's slogan "Showdown: Iraq," generally preceded each half-hour segment of its twenty-four hour coverage of the conflict. Other news outlets also ran similar slogans such as NBC's "Target Iraq," CBS'S "America at War," and ABC'S "War in Iraq." The media neatly packaged the war as a commodity to be consumed rather than a complex historical event to be studied, reflected upon, and actively scrutinized.

Indeed, the mass media can be a powerful educational force as it provides constant information and ideas, reinforces values, shapes expectations, and conveys models for appropriate action. (3) Hepburn outlines how media analysis can be used as a heuristic to arouse student interest, identify propaganda, learn the difference between fact and opinion, explore marketing techniques, and encourage parents to become involved in their child's schoolwork. (4) Studying how various media outlets depict major events allows social studies teachers to encourage authentic historical inquiry. By analyzing the construction of print and broadcast media, students can develop their own knowledge and opinions on controversial events. Tillman, in an effort to help students understand the circumstances surrounding the Bosnian War, created a three-day unit where his eighth grade geography students analyzed video footage of an hour-long ABC News special. (5)

The model I used to analyze the media consists of four parts:

1. teaching students the political, social, and economic context in which an historical event takes place,

2. identifying the various groups of people whose lives are linked to the conflict,

3. analyzing newspaper and television news broadcasts devoted to covering that particular event, and

4. writing formal evaluations on bow the media covered an event.

I have used this strategy within my global history course to teach about the Hutu-Tutsi conflict that resulted in genocide in Rwanda (1994), the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, the student protests in Chinas Tiananmen Square (1989), and the conflict between the Sandinistas and Contras during Nicaragua's civil war (1985-1990). …

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