Competing Information in a Free Press

A free press provides information about government and politics to people. In many countries in the world, the press is not free and people receive one side only about a topic or issue—the view the government or powerful elites want published. A free press presents wide-ranging and informed perspectives from which people can make up their own minds about what candidates and policies to support. Activities explore the history of newspapers; the threat of "news deserts" to democracy; the role of investigative journalism in “systematic, in-depth, and original research and reporting,” often including the “unearthing of secrets;" and how each individual can become their own digital age investigative journalist. A media literacy activity uses the site AllSides to understand how news is presented differently depending on online or print platforms.

Standard 7.2: Competing Information in a Free Press

Give examples of how a free press can provide competing information and views about government and politics. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T7.2]

A girl holds The Washington Post
A girl holds The Washington Post of Monday, July 21st 1969 stating
'The Eagle Has Landed Two Men Walk on the Moon'
, by Jack Weir, Public Domain

FOCUS QUESTION: How Does a Free Press Provide Competing Information about Government and Politics?

Modules for this Standard Include:

  1. INVESTIGATE: History of Newspapers, Then and Now
    • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: Objectivity and the News from All Sides
    • SPECIAL TOPIC BOX: The History of the Black Press
  2. UNCOVER: Investigative Journalists and Whistleblowers: Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Upton Sinclair, Rachel Carson, Daniel Ellsberg and More
  3. ENGAGE: How Can Every Citizen Become Their Own Investigative Journalist?
    • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: Investigative Journalism and Social Change

    1. INVESTIGATE: History of Newspapers, Then and Now

    Historians cite Ancient Rome's Acta Diurna (Latin for daily proceedings or public acts and records) as the first newspaper. Carved on stone or metal and posted in public places, these publications shared the news of legal proceedings and court decisions as well as births, deaths, and marriages. Modern newspapers follow from Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the early 1600s. Go here for an overview and learning plan on the History of Newspapers from the University of Minnesota Libraries.

    More than a century ago, the newspaper was how people in the United States learned about what was happening in the world. It was the social media of the time. In 1900, more than 24,000 different weekly and daily newspapers were published in this country; 40 papers had over 100,000 readers. The number has been dropping dramatically in recent years; in 2023 there are only about 6,000 local newspapers left with two or more closing every week (The State of Local News 2023).

    Historically, newspapers reflected different political parties and political philosophies, were published in many different languages besides English, and were written for both general and specialized audiences (Breaking the News in 1900, TeachingHistory.org). As historian Jill Lepore (2019, p. 19) noted, “The press was partisan, readers were voters and the news was meant to persuade.”

    Detail of a New York Times
    Detail of a New York Times Advertisement - 1895, by “EP” (19th century),
    Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, {{PD-US-expired}}

    Changing Outlets for the News

    The 21st century has seen a dramatic decline in print newspapers. In 2000, daily print newspapers had an estimated daily circulation of 55.8 million; by 2020, that circulation was down to 24.2 million (U.S. Census Bureau, June 7, 2022).

    Today's Front Pages offer current views from 500+ newspapers worldwide. You can access 200 years of primary source newspapers at the Library of Congress Chronciling America site to find papers from 1777 to 1963..

    Instead of newspapers, readers and viewers now turn to many different kinds of television and digital news outlets: TV cable and broadcast news, YouTube, Apple News, Twitter, podcasts, digital magazines, blogs, and more.

    In Merchants of Truth, her study of the recent history of four major news outlets (BuzzFeed, Vice, The Washington Post, and The New York Times), journalist Jill Abramson (2019) detailed how print newspapers, the "guardians of truth" of times past, became caught in financial crisis at a time when disinformation was becoming very easy to share online. News, Abramson (2019, p. 4) wrote, "had become ubiquitous in the digital age, but it was harder than ever to find trustworthy information or a financial model that would support it." In today's media world, Abramson (2019, p.10) wonders what type of organization will bring "quality news" -- what she defines as "original reporting, digging in to find the real story behind the story" -- to people who are less likely to read print newspapers and more likely to encounter fake and false information online.

    News Deserts and the Decline of Local Newspapers

    While online and television news expands, a Brookings Institution researcher concluded that more than 65 million Americans live in what can be called “news deserts”—counties with only one or no local newspapers (visit Local Journalism in Crisis for a map of local newspapers in the United States). It has been shown that voting decreases and corruption increases in places where people lack access to print or digital news sources (Struggling Communities Hardest Hit by Decline in Local Journalism, Northwestern University, June 29, 2022).

    The Washington Post has reported that as of 2020, a quarter of U.S. local newspapers (some 2,200 papers) have ceased publishing. You can view the 2021 status of local newspapers with this interactive map: The Lost Local News Issue, (November 30, 2021) and the following Twitter thread by Joseph Cranney.

    Tweet that reads: "U.S. local newspapers are dying at a rate of 2 per week. By 2025, a third of them will be gone. If you’re not convinced that’s a doomsday-level threat to democracy, read this state-by-state list of what local reporters uncovered in 2022. It’s a sample of what we stand to lose."
    Tweet by @Joey_Cranney about the decline of newspapers

    The decline of local newspapers has been happening for decades. Between 1970 and 2016, more than 500 daily newspapers went out of business, and in 2016, one-third of the nation’s remaining newspapers reported laying off employees (Lepore, 2019). That same year, in 2016, Google made four times the advertising revenue of the entire American newspaper industry combined (Lemann, 2020, p. 39). A 2018 study found that just 2% of American teenagers read a print newspaper regularly—the report was subtitled “the rise of digital media, the decline of TV, and the (near) demise of print” (Trends in U.S. Adolescents’ Media Use, 1976-2016).

    Sources of Political News

    Broadcast news outlets have become the main source of political and education news for most Americans with Fox News (16%) and CNN (12%) being the most frequently named sources. News viewing has also become more intensely partisan politically. An overwhelming number of Republican or Republican-leaning adults named Fox News as their main source of political news; Democrats and Democrat-leaning adults named MSNBC as their main source (Pew Research Center, April 1, 2020).

    An added complexity are the ways that TV news outlets cover political news. Analyzing the frequency on which members of Congress appear on cable and broadcast news, researchers found that the most airtime goes to those with the most extreme views (Journalist's Resource, January 17, 2021). While extreme viewpoints may drive ratings for news programs, such bias in coverage contributes to political polarization, dislike of opposing viewpoints, and distrust in institutions of government.

    All these developments raise a fundamental question: How is the decline of print newspapers and the rise of digital media changing the roles of the press in our society?

    Media Literacy Connections: Objectivity and the News from All Sides

    Print newspapers, television news shows, online news sites, and social media platforms do not all present the news in the same way or even as objectively agreed upon and accurate facts.

    Rather, as demonstrated in a 2018 Rand Corporation report Truth Decay, the news we read and view is a combination of facts and opinions, neutrality and bias, packaged to appeal to different audiences (young, old, affluent, working class) and, in some cases, partisan political perspectives (Democrats, Republicans, progressives, conservatives). The same event is likely to be covered differently by Facebook, Fox News, MSNBC, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.

    In the following activities you will practice evaluating the news from different sides; that is, from different points of view and contrasting political perspectives.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    Construct a News Timeline

    Create a Graphic History of The Newsboys Strike of 1899

          Girl and Boy Selling Newspapers
          Girl and Boy Selling Newspapers, Newark, New Jersey (1909)
          Lewis Hine, Library of Congress | Public Domain

          Special Topic Box: The History of the Black Press

          The Black Lives Matter movement has focused attention on many aspects of African American life, including the Black Press, which in 2019, consisted of a collection of 158 publications in 29 states and the District of Columbia; serving some 20 million readers online (Ford, McFall, & Dabney, 2019, p. 1). Throughout its history, the Black Press has reported stories and covered issues that were neglected or ignored by mainstream White-controlled media.

          History of the Black Press Choice Board

          (click here to make your own copy of the choice board)

          History of the Black Press Choice Board
          History of the Black Press Choice Board by Robert W. Maloy, Ed.D. & Torrey Trust, Ph.D.,
          College of Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0

          The Black Press has been, and still is, a central voice of Black experience. Its impact, particularly through its advocacy for civil rights, voting rights, school desegregation, and equal justice, has extended beyond African American communities to the wider society where it has helped change attitudes and propel change.

          116th Anniversary of the Negro Press
          116th Anniversary of the Negro Press - with caption and reference to the founder of the first Negro Newspaper, John B. Russworm,
          by Charles Henry Alston, U.S. National Archives, Public Domain

          Here are key milestones in the history of the Black press:

            • John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish were the founders of Freedom's Journal (1827-1829), the first newspaper owned and operated by African Americans.
            • Frederick Douglass founded The North Star abolitionist newspaper in 1847. Explore Frederick Douglass Newspapers, 1847 to 1874 from the Library of Congress.
            • Mary Ann Shadd Cary, was an activist, writer, abolitionist and the first Black woman to publish a newspaper (The Provincial Freeman) in North America in 1853.
            • The Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, became one of the nation's most influential Black newspapers before World War I.
            • The Philadelphia Tribune, founded by Christopher James Perry, Sr., in 1884 is America’s oldest and largest daily newspaper serving the African-American community (aalbc.com). 
            • In 1892, Ida B. Wells began a newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech, that exposed and denounced the lynching of African Americans in America, the beginning of her career as an activist and journalist. Learn more at this Ida. B. Wells historical biography wiki page

          Check out the picture book, The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome (2020). Ethel L. Payne has been called the "First Lady of the Black Press."

          Capital B is a local-national nonprofit news organization that centers Black voices, audience needs and experiences, and partners with the communities it serves.

          Mapping Black Media is an interactive map and directory of 300 media outlets across the country serving Black communities that has been developed by researchers at The City University of New York's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.  

          Screenshot of a map of the United States with dot representing black media
          Mapping Black Media (screenshot)

          You can learn more about the history of the Black Press at African American Media Today: Building the Future from the Past, a report from Democracy Fund.

          Suggested Learning Activities

          • Conduct a critical media literacy analysis of a present-day Black-owned newspaper and a non-Black-owned newspaper of your choosing.
          • Examine articles from historical Black-owned newspapers.
            • What are common themes and issues addressed in these articles? Are these themes and issues still prominent today? Why or why not?
            • Share your findings in a TikTok or Snapchat video.

          Online Resources about Newspapers

            2. UNCOVER: Investigative Journalists and Whistleblowers: Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Upton Sinclair, Rachel Carson, Daniel Ellsberg, and More

            Investigative journalism is one of the ways that a free press provides truthful information to people. Investigative journalism “involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed–either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding. It requires using both secret and open sources and documents” (Mark Lee Hunter as cited in UNESCO, 2015, para. 1). 

            Nellie Bly
            Nellie Bly (Pseudonym of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) (1867 - 1922), by H. J. Myers, Library of Congress {{PD-US}}

            The United States has a history of courageous investigative journalists willing to “speak truth to power” by informing the public of intolerable conditions and corrupt practices by citizens and companies. 

            Plaque at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
            Plaque at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine, by Captain Tucker, licensed under CC0 1.0

            Recent Examples of Investigative Journalism and Whistleblowers

            In recent decades, the work of reporters and writers demonstrate the enormous impacts that investigative journalism can have in society:

            In recent years, the #MeToo Movement has exposed widespread sexual misconduct toward women by prominent men in business, the media, and government (visit How investigative journalism sparked off the #MeToo movement).  

            The Digital Radicals of Wuhan

            In early 2020, a group of digital whistleblowers made the world aware of the coronavirus-19 outbreak in China (The Digital Radicals of Wuhan). 

            The Pandora Papers

            In October 2021, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released its Pandora Papers report, a massive study of more than 11.9 million financial documents showing how elites around the world secretly hide billions of dollars in offshore accounts to avoid taxes, investigators, and accountability. Offshore accounts are havens for money outside a person's home country.

            Those involved included 130 people listed as billionaires, leaders of countries on every continent, and 14 currents heads of state or government, including Jordan King Abdullah II, four African nation presidents, and the Presidents of Ukraine, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador.

            The Facebook Files

            Also in October 2021, the Wall Street Journal released the Facebook Files, its investigative report on the social media company's exploitative business practices that emphasized profit over privacy and truth. The report detailed how Facebook engaged in "whitelisting," where high-profile users were exempt from the rules governing everyone else on the platform. The company ignored evidence that Instagram's promotion of ideal body types is harmful to the self-images of teenage girls. Further, Facebook emphasized the publishing of emotionally charged political material, encouraging extremism of the type that contributed to the January 6, 2021 Insurrection at the nation's Capitol.

            The reporting by the Wall Street Journal was further supported by whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, who appeared before a Congressional committee to add details to the story. Watch Haugen's full opening statement at the Senate hearing below. 

            Watch on YouTube

            Media Literacy Connections: Investigating Greenwashing in the Media

            Practice acting as an investigative journalist and examine how companies use "greenwashing" and other "color-washing" techniques to persuade consumers to buy their products. 

            Greenwashing and the Media

            Suggested Learning Activities

            1. Create a Graphic, Comic, or Poster on the Life of an Investigative Journalist
            2. Design a Statue for an Investigative Journalist
              • A statute for Nellie Bly is planned to be added to Roosevelt Island in New York City. In 2017, the city had 150 statutes of men and only 5 of women.
              • Design a statute for Nellie Bly, or another investigate journalist, using physical materials (e.g., tape, cardboard, paper, PlayDoh), then recreate that design in a 3D modeling program, such as Tinkercad, so it can be 3D printed.

            3. Create a Sketchnote on the History of Whistleblowing  
              Symbol of the Office of the Whistleblower, Public Domain

                  Online Resources for Investigative Journalism and Whistleblowing

                  3. ENGAGE: How Can Every Citizen Become Their Own Investigative Journalist?

                  On June 17, 1972 a night-time break-in and burglary occurred at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. - an event which ended up having immense national and historical significance. The break-in was done by a group of former FBI and CIA agents called the “Plumbers,” all with strong ties to the Republican Party and committed to the re-election of President Richard M. Nixon. The “Plumbers” sought to bug telephones and find political dirt on the Democratic Party.

                  Labelled the Watergate Break-In, the event was revealed through years of investigative journalism by the press, notably reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, and uncovered abuses of power and illegal deeds that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation as President. Nixon is the only man ever to resign the Presidency.

                  Richard Nixon Farewell Speech
                  Richard Nixon Farewell Speech to the White House Staff, August 8, 1974
                  with daughter Julie and son-in-law David Eisenhower looking on.
                  White House Photo Office Collection, Gerald Ford Library, Public Domain

                  Investigative journalism plays an essential role in a democracy, but the work of investigation is long and difficult. It takes time and money to track down sources, verify facts, and locate the truth. Unlike Watergate, not every case of wrongdoing and corruption is exposed; many times the guilty are never held accountable for their actions. The decline of newspapers, locally and nationally, means there are fewer investigative journalists on the job.

                  In today's media-driven society, gossip and celebrity journalism often get more attention than investigative journalism. There are numerous television shows, websites, and print magazines devoted to reporting on celebrities and their lifestyles. While the lives of the rich and famous may be interesting, reporting on those individuals generally does not give "people the information they need to make better decisions about their lives and society" (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2014). 

                  In their book The Elements of Journalism, journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel declared that every citizen must become their own investigative journalist - constantly evaluating all the news and information they receive from multiple sources for reliability and truth. Certainly everyday people cannot function like newspaper reporters whose full-time job is finding and reporting the news. But everyday people, including students in schools, can be what Kovach and Rosenstiel call "journalist/sense makers" who use the information they get from professional media and print journalists to make their own decisions by separating facts from fictions, knowledge from rumor and truth from propaganda and lies.

                  Media Literacy Connections: Investigative Journalism and Social Change

                  Investigative journalists have helped to create social and political change throughout history, from improving worker conditions in the early 1900s (the early muckrakers’ work of Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Upton Sinclair, and others) to releasing the Pentagon Papers (Daniel Ellsberg, 1971) to exposing sexual harassment in the 2010s (#MeToo) to 2021's revelations about Facebook's involvement in the spread of misinformation online. Given journalism's potential to affect social change, what contemporary issues would you investigate?

                  In this activity, you will act as an investigative journalist as you explore a political topic of interest.

                  Suggested Learning Activities

                  1. Engage in Civic Action
                    • Investigate a local community issue - collecting data from multiple sources - and present the findings as an investigative journalist.
                    • Based on your findings, propose action by individual people and local government to create change 

                  2. Set a Plan to Achieve a Personal Goal
                    • What steps are you going to take to be your own investigative journalist? 

                  3. Record a Video or Podcast
                    • Provide ideas and information to inspire other students to become informed and critical readers of the news. 

                    Online Resources about Investigative Journalism and Watergate

                    Standard 7.2 Conclusion

                    In this standard, INVESTIGATE summarized the history of newspapers, the current decline of print journalism, and the rise of digital news. UNCOVER presented the histories of prominent late 19th century and mid-20th century investigative journalists - Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbel, Upton Sinclair, and Rachel Carson - each of whom used newspapers to expose corruption in government and improve society. ENGAGE explored the question, Does Every Citizen Need to be Her or His Own Investigative Journalist? starting with the role of the Washington Post newspaper in the Watergate Scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974—events that have taken on added relevance against the backdrop of Donald Trump's actions related to Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election and the 2019-2020 impeachment inquiry over the withholding of military aid to the nation of Ukraine.

                    This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.

                    Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/democracy/competinginformation.