Analyzing Editorials, Editorial Cartoons, or Op-Ed Commentaries

Standard 7.6: Analyzing Editorials, Editorial Cartoons, or Op-Ed Commentaries

Analyze the point of view and evaluate the claims of an editorial, editorial cartoon, or op-ed commentary on a public issue at the local, state or national level. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T7.6]

US editorial cartoon 1901. President Teddy Roosevelt watches GOP team pull apart on tariff issue.

FOCUS QUESTION: How Do Writers Express Opinions through Editorials, Editorial Cartoons, and Op-Ed Commentaries?

Standard 7.6 asks students to become critical readers of editorials, editorial cartoons, and Op-Ed commentaries. Critical readers explore what is being said or shown, examine how information is being conveyed, evaluate the language and imagery used, and investigate how much truth and accuracy is being maintained by the author(s). Then, they draw their own informed conclusions.

    1. INVESTIGATE: Evaluating Editorials, Editorial Cartoons, and Op-Ed Commentaries

    Teaching students how to critically evaluate editorials, editorial cartoons, and Op-Ed commentaries begins by explaining that all three are forms of persuasive writing. Writers use these genres (forms of writing) to influence how readers think and act about a topic or an issue. Editorials and Op-Ed commentaries rely mainly on words, while editorial cartoons combine limited text with memorable visual images. But the intent is the same for all three - to motivate, persuade, and convince readers.

    Many times, writers use editorials, editorial cartoons, and Op-Ed commentaries to argue for progressive social and political change. Look at Thomas Nast's 1869 "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner" cartoon that argues that everyone should have the right to vote - published at a time when African Americans, Native Americans, and women could not. Nast constructs a powerful appeal using few words and an emotionally-charged image.

    Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner (November 1869), by Thomas Nast | Public Domain

    But these same forms of writing can be used by individuals and groups who seek to spread disinformation and untruths.

    Large numbers of teens and tweens tend to trust what they find on the web as accurate and unbiased (NPR, 2016). They are unskilled in separating sponsored content or political commentary from actual news when viewing a webpage or a print publication. In online settings, they can be easily drawn off-topic by clickbait links and deliberately misrepresented information.

    The writing of Op-Ed commentaries achieved national promience at the beginning of June 2020 when the New York Times published an opinion piece written by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton in which he urged the President to send in armed regular duty American military troops to break up street protests across the nation that followed the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.

    Many staffers at the Times publicly dissented about publishing Cotton's piece entitled "Send in the Troops," citing that the views expressed by the Senator put journalists, especially journalists of color, in danger. James Bennett, the Times Editorial Page editor defended the decision to publish, stating if editors only published views that editors agreed with, it would "undermine the integrity and independence of the New York Times." The editor reaffirmed that the fundamental purpose of newspapers and their editorial pages is "not to tell you what to think, but help you to think for yourself."

    The situation raised unresolved questions about the place of Op-Ed commentaries in newspapers and other media outlets in a digital age when material can be accessed online around the country and the world. Should any viewpoint, no matter how extreme or inflamatory, be given a forum for publication such as that provided by the Op-Ed section of a major newspaper's editorial page?

    Many journalists as well as James Bennett urge newspapers to not only publish wide viewpoints, but provide context and clarification about the issues being discussed. Readers and viewers need to have links to multiple resources so they can more fully understand what is being said while assessing for themselves the accuracy and appropriateness of the remarks.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Write a Commentary
      • Review the articles Op-Ed? Editorial? & Op Ed Elements.  What do all these terms really mean? 
      • Have students write two editorial commentaries about a public issue - one with accurate and truthful information; the other using deliberate misinformation and exaggeration. 
      • Students review their peers' work to examine how information is being conveyed, evaluate the language and imagery used, and investigate how much truth and accuracy is being maintained by the author(s).
      • As a class, discuss and vote on which commentaries are "fake news."

    • Draw a Political Cartoon 
      • Have students draw editorial cartoons about a school, community or national issue.
      • Post the cartoons on the walls around the classroom and host a gallery walk.
      • Ask the class to evaluate the accuracy and truthfulness of each cartoon. 

    Online Resources for Evaluating Information and Analyzing Online Claims

    2. UNCOVER: Deepfakes, Fake Profiles, and Political Messaging

    Deepfakes, fake profiles, and fake images are a new dimension of political messaging on social media. In December 2019, Facebook announced it was removing 900 accounts from its network because the accounts were using fake profile photos of people who did not exist. Pictures of people were generated by an AI (artificial intelligence) software program (Graphika & the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, 2019). All of the accounts were associated with a politically conversative, pro-Donald Trump news publisher, The Epoch Times.


    The People in These Photos Do Not Exist;
    Their Pictures Were Generated by an Artificial Intelligence Program
    Images on Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    Deepfakes are digitally manipulated videos and pictures that produce images and sounds that appear to be real (Shao, 2019). They can be used to spread misinformation and influence voters. Researchers and cybersecurity experts warn that it is possible to manipulate digital content - facial expressions, voice, lip movements - so that was it being seen is "indistinguishable from reality to human eyes and ears" (Patrini, et. al., 2018).  For example, you can watch a video of George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama saying things that they never would (and never did) say, but that looks authentic (Watch a man manipulate George Bush's face in real time).

    Image preview of a YouTube video
    Watch on YouTube https://edtechbooks.org/-zocs

    To recognize deepfakes, technology experts advise viewers to look for face discolorations, poor lightning, badly synced sound and video, and blurriness between face, hair and neck (Deepfake Video Explained:  What They Are and How to Recognize Them, Salon, September 15, 2019).  To combat deepfakes, Dutch researchers have proposed that organizations make digital forgery more difficult with techniques that are now used to identify real currency from fake money and to invest in building  fake detection technologies (Patrini, et.al., 2018).

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Draw an Editorial Cartoon
      • Show the video Can You Spot a Phony Video? from Above the Noise, KQED San Francisco.
      • Then, ask students to create an editorial cartoon about deepfakes.

    • Write an Op-Ed Commentary
      • Write an Op-Ed commentary about fake profiles and fake images on social media and how that impacts people's political views.  

    3. ENGAGE: Should Facebook and Other Technology Companies Regulate Political Content on Their Social Media Platforms?

    Social media and technology companies generate huge amounts of revenue from advertisements (ads) on their sites. For example, 98.5% of Facebook’s $55.8 billion in revenue in 2018 was from digital ads (Investopedia, 2020). Like Facebook, YouTube earns most of its revenue from ads through sponsored videos, ads embedded in videos, and sponsored content on YouTube’s landing page (How Does YouTube Make Money?). With all this money to be made, selling space for politically-themed ads has become a major part of social media companies’ business models.

    Political ads are one part of the larger problem of fake news on social media platforms like Facebook. Researchers found that "politically relevant disinformation" reached over 158 million views in the first 10 months of 2019, enough to reach every registered voter in the country at least once (Ingram, 2019, para. 2). Nearly all fake news (91 percent) is negative and a majority (62 percent) is about Democrats and liberals (Legum, 2019, para. 5).

    Mobile apps on a phone
    Image by Pixelkult, licenced under CC0 1.0 

    But political ads are complicated matters, especially when the ads themselves may not be factually accurate or are posted by extremist political groups promoting hateful and anti-democratic agendas. In late 2019, Twitter announced it will stop accepting political ads in advance of the 2020 Presidential election (CNN Business, 2019). Pinterest, TikTok, and Twitch also have policies blocking political ads—although 2020 Presidential candidates including Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have channels on Twitch. Early in 2020, YouTube announced that it intends to remove from its site misleading content that can cause "serious risk of egregious harm."  More than 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.  

    Facebook has made changes to its policy about who can run political ads on the site, but stopped short of banning or fact-checking political content. An individual or organization must now be “authorized” to post material on the site.  Ads now include text telling readers who paid for it and that the material is “sponsored” (meaning paid for). The company has maintained a broad definition of what counts as political content, stating that political refers to topics of “public importance” such as social issues, elections, or politics. Read the official statements by Facebook about politics and political ads:

    The extensive reach of social media raises the question of just how much influence should Facebook, Twitter and other powerful technology companies have on elections and/or public policy. Policymakers and citizens alike must decide whether Facebook and other social media companies are organizations like the telephone company which does not monitor what is being said or are they a media company, like a newspaper or magazine, that has a responsibility to monitor and control the truthfulness of what it posts online.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Create a Political Advertisement for Social Media
      • Students create a political ad for different social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and TikTok. 
      • As a class vote on the most influential ads. 
      • Discuss what made the ad so influential? 

    • State Your View
      • Students to write an editorial or op-ed that responds to one or more of the following prompts:
        • What responsibility do technology companies have to evaluate the political content that appears on their social media platforms?  
        • What responsibility do major companies and firms have when ads for their products run on the YouTube channels or Twitter feeds of extremist political groups? Should they pull those ads from those sites?
        • Should technology companies post fact-checks of ads running on their platforms? 

    Online Resources for Political Content on Social Media Sites

    Standard 7.6 Conclusion

    To support media literacy learning, INVESTIGATE asked students to analyze the point of view and evaluate the claims of an opinion piece about a public issue—many of which are published on social media platforms. UNCOVER explored the emergence of deepfakes and fake profiles as features of political messaging.  ENGAGE examined issues related to regulating the political content posted on Facebook and other social media sites. These modules highlight the complexity that under the principle of free speech on which our democratic system is based, people are free to express their views. At the same time, hateful language, deliberately false information, and extremist political views and policies cannot be accepted as true and factual by a civil society and its online media.

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