Pages Navigation Menu

A lesson on truth and obligation in journalism


As a teacher, I know how valuable it is to exchange ideas with colleagues about what works in the classroom and what does not.  To that end,  here’s a lesson idea we thought might be worth sharing.  This is a lesson I use to segue into my unit on the First Amendment, student press law, and media ethics.  Because many students struggle with grasping the scope of the First Amendment itself, this lesson builds off a related yet sometimes more tangible idea: that journalists have an obligation to report the facts so that we may come to our own conclusions—our own truth—about what is happening in our world. 

 Whether the media does this, and whether the media helps or hurts our society when they don’t do this, is also part of the discussion. To that end, we also watch part of this clip of Jon Stewart on Crossfire. We often watch it at the end and generally get through six minutes or so—enough for them to get Stewart’s message. (As an aside, it might be interesting to note that Crossfire didn’t survive much longer after Stewart appeared on the show).

I hope you find this lesson useful, and if you have anything to add/suggest/change, feel free to let us know.

-Megan Fromm

Truth and the Marketplace of Ideas

Outcome: The goal is help them to understand that “truth” as they know it, and “fact” as is provable and researchable, are not necessarily the same thing.  As a journalist, it is our responsibility, indeed, our obligation to provide fact—these facts are the contexts that let us build our individual and societal truths.

Materials: Dry erase board, marker. Students will need pencil and paper.

Time: 45 minutes

Part 1: Intro

  • Start out by writing a dot in the middle of the dry erase board. I literally just dab the tip on the board.
  • Point to it, and ask students: “What is this?”
    • You’ll get everything from “a period” to “a dot” to a “circle.”  Play devil’s advocate. Ask them why they think that.  How do they know? What else could it be?  How would I find out? Are all the things people are mentioning “true?”  If so, can it be all these things? Why did different students have different opinions on what it might be? What sorts of things shape they way we process information?
    • After they’ve exhausted most of the things it could be, I ask them to think of the most basic thing they know it is.  What is it made out of? Ink.  It may be a dot, it may be a period, it may be a UFO.  At this point, there is no way to tell. At this point, it is ink on a board.

Part 2: what is truth?

  • Now we segue into the idea of discussing “what is truth.”   I tell them that as journalists, we must deal in the realm of provable fact—the things we can research, discover, prove, and verify.  I can prove that this is ink on the board.  We do not live in the realm of inference—that is, we don’t guess what something is just because we think we understand.  It might be a circle, it might be a period, it might be a black hole.
    • How many of you felt like you were taking random guesses when I asked what the ink dot was?  How would you feel if journalists did this when they wrote their stories?  It probably wouldn’t make most of us feel very comfortable with how accurate their stories were, and this is why it is so important to let facts build truth.
    • There is a theory in journalism and politics called the “marketplace of ideas.”  This theory suggests that your community, or a society, is a marketplace in which ideas and thoughts float or are traded around from person to person, often through the media or some other form of mass communication.  According to this theory, there are so many ideas in this marketplace that by encountering all these ideas, those that are true will be passed along more readily and will rise above all the other false ideas.
      • I write this quote on the board: “Let truth and falsehood grapple, and truth will prevail.” –John Milton
      • Ask: Do you think this is what happens? Does truth always prevail?
      • Look at our school as a marketplace of ideas. When you’re walking down the hallway, and all sorts of bits of information are flying around (what’s for lunch, whether there is practice after school, is there really a test in Doc’s class?!), how do you know which ones to believe? Do you think in our school marketplace that truth always rises above?
      • What about in our society as a whole? Do you think truth always rises above? Why or why not? Do have examples you can think of?
      • When you’re not sure what is “true,” what do you do?
      • We discuss this for a minute, and then I ask them about some “universal truths” that they hear on a regular basis in their life.  I get answers like “College is the best option” or “President Obama is awesome/awful” or “the war in Iraq is bad” etc.  I write these truths up on the board, and we pick one to talk about and dissect. For example, if we picked “college is the best option,” I would ask them to provide provable facts that support this “truth.”  We list the facts under that “truth,” and they tell me how they would prove those facts.

Part 3: Apply

  • After this activity, I ask students to write down 5 personal truths that they believe to be true. These won’t be shared with the class, so I ask them to think as personally as possible and to put whatever comes to mind. They should leave five spaces under each truth.
  • After giving them time to write their truths, I ask them to write underneath each one what sort of facts they would need to show in order to prove that truth to someone else. For example, if I put that “my parents are the best parents ever,” what facts would I use to prove/support this personal truth?
  • Then, we discuss how easy or hard it would be to prove our truths.
  • Finally, I tie this back to journalism by asking them how easy or hard they think it must be to be a journalist and try to get facts right all the time.  I tell them that because this process, this journey of finding facts, is so important, the founding fathers protected our right to do it in the Constitution itself.  This protection is given to us by the First Amendment, which we will explore in greater detail in the next class.
    • Note: this is also when I discuss the idea of watchdog journalism, or journalism as the 4th estate. I usually do this during the next class period and we look at the Pentagon papers and other instances in which journalists had to use research and facts to get out the truth.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.