One of the most successful media-related lessons involved an exercise where we compared two media viewpoints. First I showed the first 20 minutes of Control Room, a documentary about Al-Jazeera, the international Arabic-language television network headquartered in Doha, Qatar. Students were shocked by the dead bodies and destruction shown on Al-Jazeera. For many it was the first time they realized that it wasn't just soldiers who died in war.
For homework, students were to find a U.S. newspaper story about the war and summarize it using the Someone-Wants-But-So strategy — a summarizing strategy where students create a string of sentences in order to summarize a text. This strategy requires students to identify the "main player" in a piece of writing (the "someone"), his or her motivation ("wants"), the conflict ("but"), and the resolution ("so"). Summarizing in this way was useful for preparing students for the upcoming exam, where they will have to summarize unfamiliar information in an essay.
In the following class, we discussed how the viewpoints differed. Students found that, understandably, Al-Jazeera was more concerned with Iraqi lives and interests and with opinions in the Arab world. U.S. newspapers, meanwhile, were more concerned with lives of U.S. soldiers and debates within the U.S. government. While a few students thought that the Arab media "showed the reality of the war... things 'us' Americans are not shown by our media," most were reluctant to say that any news source was more or less reliable than any other. As one student put it, "The Arab news shows things that put Americans in a bad light and American news shows things that put Arabs in a bad light. Each news favors their own."
My goal was not for students to decide that Al-Jazeera was either a better or worse news source than the New York Daily News or the Fox Broadcasting Company. Rather, I wanted my students to see that the news we are regularly exposed to is not telling the "whole story" about the war. In retrospect, there were a number of problems with this exercise. One is that each student looked at a different U.S. article on a different topic (Saddam's trial, the death of a U.S. soldier, etc.) while the Al-Jazeera coverage was about the beginning of the war. Also, I did not carefully distinguish between bias (and its connotations of prejudice and distortion) and point of view, which is present in any reporting. In the future, I would be more targeted in looking at information, perhaps taking a specific situation and comparing media coverage from a number of sources.
It was clear from our look at the news media that my students needed additional background information. I adapted an exercise from Whose Wars? Teaching About the Iraq War and the War on Terrorism by Rethinking Schools on the history of Iraq/U.S. relations. I shortened the selection of situations from 10 to six and simplified the language for my ELL students.