Curriculum on Presidential Debates—the Media, the Message, the Impact

Politics—especially presidential politics—dominates our discussions, whether on social media or at the family dinner table. It is playing out on our televisions, our tablets, and our phones. Yet, are we confident that the next voting generations are engaging in and learning from this real-time civics lesson?

The Museum of Broadcast Communications wants to help close the documented “civic opportunity gap” by bringing an innovative online exhibit and curriculum on The Great Debates to schools across the country. From talk radio to television to podcasts to social media, students need to understand not just the debates but also the critiques, the spins, and the patterns.

The museum’s curriculum develops students’ critical thinking and media literacy by linking to performance highlights, commentary, and analyses of past debates, to help students understand how today’s debates have been shaped by 60 years of broadcast history.

For example, a free downloadable lesson titled “Presidential Campaigns: Is Rancorous Coverage New?” demonstrates that bias in the media is not just an issue in today’s political discourse; it is also a long-standing practice in the country’s history, particularly when the country is faced with great cultural change. Students will be taken back to the campaigns of Abraham Lincoln, who was pilloried for his antislavery stance, and John F. Kennedy, who was attacked for his religion, to discover why bias is utilized to sway public opinion. By examining the discourse from specific time periods, students will determine the purpose of biased coverage and its negative impact. They will also consider whether biased news coverage can be turned into objective news coverage, and if so, how. The lesson was designed for high school classes but can be adapted for middle school work as well.

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