Using clips from the film High Tech, Low Life, students will look at the work of two very different bloggers to understand the techniques and principles that distinguish journalism from other types of storytelling. They'll also explore why the distinction matters.
The two bloggers depicted in the film live in China, where they are subject to government intimidation and censorship. This lesson plan is appropriate for use in courses in a variety of areas, including global studies (especially related to understanding China's emphasis on "social harmony"), business ethics (specifically the impact of China's market reforms and rapid industrialization) and U.S. government, civics and history (covering the content of the First Amendment, the role of a free press in a democracy and the history of shield laws in the United States).
One 50-minute class period, plus homework to prepare
- Be able to use a nine-point summary of journalism standards to assess whether or not a blog is journalism
- Be able to summarize the role of a free press in a democracy
- Read and summarize an informational text
- Take notes on video clips from a documentary
- Write an evidence-based opinion in the form of a blog post
- Internet access and equipment to show the class online video
1. In preparation for this lesson, make sure that students are familiar with the basic steps involved in practicing journalism (e.g., fact-checking). As homework (and an opportunity for students to practice reading an informational text), assign them to read and summarize the nine principles of journalism from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. To facilitate comprehension, you might consider requiring students to summarize each of the nine principles as a tweet. Ask them to bring their summaries to class.
2. Post the nine principles of journalism so everyone can see them and ask students to take out their summaries to reference during class. After the lesson you may want to collect the summaries as part of your assessment. Briefly review the list to ensure that everyone understands the principles.
3. Tell students they are going to use the principles to determine whether or not two different bloggers are journalists or not. They should take notes as they view, jotting down specific evidence that the blogger is either following the principles or is not. Briefly introduce the film clips by giving an overview of High Tech, Low Life (summary available at pbs.org/pov) and the two bloggers it profiles, Tiger Temple and Zola (not their real names).
4. Show the clips featuring Tiger Temple. After the clips, invite students to pair up and share their notes about whether or not Tiger Temple is using the techniques a journalist uses to gather and report information. Briefly solicit a few opinions (including the evidence on which they are based). Repeat this process with the Zola clips. If time allows, invite students to comment on other facets of the clips that piqued their interest.
5. Begin the wrap-up by asking students to compare the two bloggers' motives, methods and outcomes. They should notice that Tiger Temple has explicitly political motives, while Zola is motivated by a desire for fame. Discuss whether or not a journalist's motives matter.
6. Help students think about why it might be important to know whether reporters meet journalistic standards or not by asking them to consider the role of the press in a democracy. Introduce students to this explanation from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in the 1971 case New York Times Co. v. United States, which regarded the legality of publishing the Pentagon Papers: "The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people." Discuss how this statement differs from the principles of journalism.
7. Assess students' understanding by asking each of them to write a blog post responding to Tiger Temple or Zola (their choice). In addition to their comments on the specific stories that the blogger covers, students' posts should include either recognition that the chosen blogger is a journalist or suggestions for what the blogger would need to do to be considered a journalist. In either case, students should cite specific evidence supporting their conclusions about the blogger's status relative to journalism. Invite students to share their posts on a class wiki or blog.
1. Explain the Chinese doctrine of "social harmony." Have students contrast and compare this doctrine to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as the basis for policies determining what journalists can and can't do. Discuss why some states in the United States have granted journalists special protections (i.e., so-called shield laws) while China restricts the scope of acceptable journalism. Consider including discussion of historical examples of moments when freedom of the press has been limited in the United States.
2. Have students investigate the official Chinese government view of the country's market reforms and rapid economic development. Compare and contrast official accounts with the bloggers' reports from the film.
3. Share with students the results of a survey of high school students on the First Amendment. Findings from the 2007 survey of approximately 5,500 students include the following:
- Nearly 1/3 (32%) said the First Amendment goes too far.
- Only 54% said newspapers should be allowed to print freely without government approval.
- One in three (33%) said the press in the United States has too much freedom.
- Assign students to use examples from the High Tech, Low Life film clips to write persuasive letters to their peers about the importance of freedom of the press. To add a research component, invite students to administer the survey to students in their school and compile and analyze the results.
4. Help students create their own blogs. Require them to read and sign a blogging ethics policy like the one here.