With the U.S. is in the midst of what may be the most contentious election in modern history, the nastiness being churned out in the media, on social networks and during casual conversations has made many educators reluctant to discuss the presidential campaign in the classroom.
But this election provides teachers with some unique teaching opportunities, says Frank W. Baker, author of Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom. Candidates are using media in different ways, Baker explains, pointing to Donald Trump’s habit of calling into television shows and leveraging free air time in ways no one else ever has.
“That brings up the question: Does advertising on television by politicians still have the influence and impact as it once had? I would say that it does,” Baker says.
While many of today's students are media savvy, they aren’t necessarily media literate. They don’t always understand how media influence and persuade. By bringing media into the classroom, students can be exposed to the techniques used to convince consumers to buy a product or citizens to vote for a candidate.
Campaign ads tend to play on four emotions – fear, hope, anger and pride – and they can be overwhelming to teenagers who may not understand the nuances and tricks used in political advertising. Although most teachers might not consider using commercials in the classroom, Baker views them as a teaching tool. The ability to “read” a commercial is a critical skill that leads to more informed decision-making.
To get students on the road to critical thinking about political ads, start by sharing a generic commercial they can relate to, like one for a movie or a product they already use. Then discuss not only the persuasion techniques employed, but also the production methods – the use of color or music as a way to sway the viewer, for instance.
Once students understand the construction of commercials, move on to deconstructing political ads. Then, lead a class discussion on media and politics.
Follow these steps to help students better digest political media:
Ask students where they get their election news; increasingly it’s through social media. Raising this issue opens the door to a discussion about what news sources are reliable.
Have students analyze magazine covers and provide their interpretation. A student who is following the news closely may see the cover differently than a student who has little political interest.
Assign students to watch a newscast, focusing on only one candidate. The following day in class, discuss how the broadcast covered the candidate.
Have students interview sales managers at local television stations to learn how political advertising is bought and aired, particularly how the advertising is targeted to specific groups.
“There are a lot of ways to engage students in media analysis and production without ever having to get into a contentious he said/she said discussion,” Baker notes.