November 2nd, 2010
In Eyewitness to the Past, author Joan Brodsky Schur examines primary sources like letters and newspaper articles to examine how throughout history people expressed controversial and conflicting interpretations of events. In this week’s Quick Tip, Joan shares a classroom simulation activity that shows students how the same events can be reported in multiple ways.
A Classroom Simulation for Teaching Point of View
I like to teach about the eyewitness perspective by holding a brief simulation in the classroom. Th is is an activity my high school teacher Carole Losee used in the 1960s, and it made such an impression that I never forgot it. She arranged a staged commotion during class by asking two older students and a fellow teacher to simultaneously barge into the classroom.
The teacher argued with Ms. Losee while the students rummaged about looking for lost items and picked fights with other students. We thought it was all happening for real. I was shocked to see mild-mannered Ms. Losee turn red with anger and hear her shout vociferously at the intruders. When I do this same activity with my classes my students often feel a bit embarrassed to be duped. “You mean you staged the whole thing?” they ask. After the intrusion is over I ask students to write an account of the “historical event.” We read aloud what they have written, and we compare their accounts. Invariably no single student is able to capture everything that went on in the same few minutes; what each student experienced varies depending upon where he or she was seated and with whom they interacted. How then to get an accurate depiction of everything that occurred simultaneously? After we discuss the simulation my students agree that historians must wade through the evidence, assessing the reliability of each witness. By noticing which accounts are corroborated by other eyewitnesses, historians can begin to draw conclusions.
This simulation makes an important point: just because someone is an eyewitness to an event, it does not mean he or she knows more about it than historians.
Following the simulation, I ask the class to imagine how hard it must be to figure out what happened in the immediate aftermath of a major battle. We discuss how reporters’ sympathies for one side or the other might affect how they interpret what they witnessed. A helpful analogy for students is to compare a battle like Antietam to a high school football or basketball match against a rival team; your emotional take on events is very different depending on whether you are the home team or the visiting team. In this hypothetical case no one can dispute who won—the score board tells us—but how often does the losing side put the blame on an unfair referee rather than on his or her teammates?
Apart from inadvertent bias in news reporting, the deliberate slanting or falsification of the news is often encouraged during wartime, and publication of the whole truth is sometimes prohibited. One justification is that bad news is bad for morale. In “The Southern People Undeceived,” which also appeared in the March 18, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly, the author aims to bolster Northern confidence and resolve while attempting to persuade Southerners to jump ship.
The Southern People Undeceived
Why should the rebel leaders wonder that the people around them no longer trust them? Th e Southern people are rapidly discovering that they have been fooled by men whose aim was their own aggrandizement, not the welfare of the whole. These men cry frantically to their followers to stand fast. But why should they? Don’t despond, says General Lee. But why should they not? Have the results of the war or its conduct been such as to teach them confidence?…The Richmond Examiner despairingly exclaims: “If Richmond be held but another six months the fate of the Confederacy will have been favorably decided.” This was on the 27th of February, 1865; but in February, 1861, just four years before, Jefferson Davis said in Stevenson, Alabama: “Your border States will gladly come into the Southern Confederacy within sixty days, as we will be your only friends.”…Do the rebel chiefs suppose that the men to whom they appeal have no sense of memory?…No wonder that half the rebel army has deserted. (Harper’s Weekly 1865a)
The author cleverly uses Jefferson Davis’s earlier predictions about the course of the war and proves them empty. The article also uses hyperbole, thereby distorting facts—the rebel army certainly had deserters, but what evidence is offered to back up the claim that half the rebel army has deserted?
This article reverberates for us today as some Americans question whether they should trust President George W. Bush’s assessment of progress in the war in Iraq. What should be the role of the press in whooping up patriotism during wartime? Is it unpatriotic or the role of good journalism to report the facts as they are? Under what circumstances does reporting the facts endanger troops on the front line? These are the kinds of questions I love to pose to students in class. In fact, I view it as my job to come up with really good questions and then to let students do the talking. If I have anything to add, it is not my own opinion but historical examples that will help clarify issues and show students what history has to teach us about events today.
To make the point about conflicting news accounts hit home, students can go online to find editorials that both support and question the president’s record today (on the war or other issues). In “Using Comparative Online Media to Study the Iraq War,” an article published in Social Education (2004), Jana Sackman Eaton suggests:
Compare online reports of an event related to the Iraq War from media sources in a country that supported the war, a country that opposed the war, as well as a conservative and a liberal U.S. online publication. What perspectives and worldviews are reflected by the word choices, such as the adjectives and adverbs, in these reports? Which appears to be the most objective of the reports? Why? Which cite sources and appear to be the most “language neutral”? (190)
This assignment is a useful one as students begin to write their own newspapers set in the past.