University of Wisconsin–Madison

Pedagogical Suggestions for Using the Press and the Constitution Page

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Comparing Editorial Policies: Then and Now

The teacher should read the introductory essay that can be found in the headnote of The Press and the Constitution page of our website. It is important that the teacher start this lesson with a brief summary of the issue of impartiality in the press at the time of the ratification debates.

  • Divide the class into four working groups. One group will be given documents from Massachusetts. One will be given documents from New York. A third will be given documents from Pennsylvania, and a fourth will be given documents from Georgia.
  • Each group should divide up the documents among the members of their respective groups since there are multiple documents for each state.
  • Have students read their documents and consider the arguments relating to public disclosure of authors who wrote items regarding the Constitution.
  • After each group has read the documents, you may want to spend some time having them brief each other on their findings. You could also have a briefing within each group as well as spend some time having each group report its findings to the class.
  • At this point you will want to lead a discussion that centers around the following questions:
  • Is it appropriate for newspapers to require writers to leave their names with the editors?
  • Does it matter who the author is, if the arguments in a letter to the editor are valid?
  • Does the public have a right to know if the authors are from the community?
  • Do newspapers serve the community or their subscribers?
  • You might want to assign students a response piece, expressing their thoughts on the issue and classroom discussion. As a resource for them to consider, you could give them a copy of Selected Newspaper Policies Regarding Letters to the Editor. This document has five policies that are presently in use. You could also have students access your local newspaper and see how it compares to other policies.

* See below for an idea on how to extend this lesson. You will need to start at step 6 below (“Each group should select a representative….”)

Debating Editorial Policy

This lesson suggestion can be an extension from the lesson outlined above or it can also be a lesson in and of itself. If you choose to do this lesson as an extension, you can simply omit steps A-E. Otherwise, use the lesson as outlined.

  • Divide the class into four working groups. One group will be given documents from Massachusetts. One will be given documents from New York. A third will be given documents from Pennsylvania, and a fourth will be given documents from Georgia.
  • Each group should divide up the documents among the members of their respective groups since there are multiple documents for each state.
  • Have students read their documents and consider the arguments relating to public disclosure of authors who wrote items regarding the Constitution.
  • After each group has read the documents, you may want to spend some time having them brief each other on their findings. You could also have a briefing within each group as well as spend some time having each group report its findings to the class.
  • At this point you will want to lead a discussion that centers around the following questions:
  • Is it appropriate for newspapers to require writers to leave their names with the editors?
  • Does it matter who the author is, if the arguments in a letter to the editor are valid?
  • Does the public have a right to know if the authors are from the community?
  • Do newspapers serve the community or their subscribers?
  • Each group should select a representative from among the group. This person will serve on a two-person debate panel. Two individuals from each side will debate each other using any of the four statements from E as the basis of the debate. One side obviously will take the affirmative side and the other will take the negative.
  • You may want to give the debaters a day to organize their arguments. It also might be good to have a journalist from the community come in to moderate the debate. You should also set up a rubric which you can evaluate the performance of the participants. Students themselves can use the rubric and make determinations as to which side won the debate. Suggestions as to using and constructing rubrics can be found at Rubistar.