THE daily newspaper is an important factor in the life of a modern civilised community. As such, it cannot be excluded from the schools: teachers must acknowledge its existence, make use of the valuable material it contains, and show their pupils how to use it intelligently. Of late years, most schools have recognised in practical ways its value as a source of general and specialised information about the world of to-day and have used it to stimulate and maintain the child's interest in the ever-changing environment in which he will shortly have to shift for himself. The school library is not complete without at least one daily newspaper. Every class-room should have a board on which newspaper cuttings of general interest can be displayed; and teachers will encourage pupils to make cuttings themselves on specialised topics relevant to their lessons, and to paste them into their own note-books or journals, or to contribute them to a common store from which at intervals a selection can be made and kept in files for permanent reference.
Such constructive uses of the informatory material that only a newspaper can provide can be made at all stages in the regular school curriculum. But in the later stages some opportunity should be found, possibly as part of a course in Citizenship or Current Affairs, to train children to look at the newspaper as a whole from a different angle, to read it with discernment and discrimination, and to adopt a detached and critical attitude in appraising it.
Pupils should begin by making themselves familiar with the usual contents and lay-out of some of the best known London and provincial journals; they should learn their way about them and when and where to look for regular or intermittent features. Their next step should be to analyse the contents and to classify them under headings. The class under the teacher's guidance can decide upon some standard system of classification for regular use. Each pupil can then be asked to measure by inches or columns the actual space devoted in one newspaper to each item in this classification and work out on a percentage basis the relative space occupied by each.
The information thus gained should be pooled and set down in parallel columns for comparison, together with other particulars such as price, circulation figures, weekday or Sunday publication, etc. A general class discussion may naturally follow on the proper function of a newspaper and the fare it ought to provide. Such a discussion will not get very far before it is realised that each newspaper is designedly catering for a different type of reader. Members of the class can be asked to account for their own individual preferences, and to ascertain the reasons for the family choice of daily or Sunday papers. Answers to such questions are often significant and sometimes startling. One boy once said to me: "We take the —: mother reads the women's page, the serial and the advertisements; father reads the sporting news and thoroughly enjoys fulminating against its politics.''
Discussion is then likely to range on the general subject of 'reader-appeal,' and after drawing conclusions based on the comparative importance attached in different papers to different topics as measured in terms of space, the class can try to discover the principles underlying the selection of news-items, and to account for the relative prominence accorded to them.
The ingredients of that mysterious quality 'news-value' will need to be distinguished, and among them national, topical, and human interest will be accorded a prominent place. But it will also be interesting to discover the comparative importance attached to the value of a piece of information itself and the authority from which it emanates or the celebrity of the persons concerned in it. It will be pointed out how when an insignificant fire breaks out at the flat of a film star it is news, but when the cottage of Tom Jones of Tonypandy is burnt out it is not news; how a constructive suggestion by a person of little note will be dwarfed or neglected to make way for a platitudinous utterance from the lips of a cabinet minister; and how news-value makes the opinion, say, of a racing motorist or a skating champion on Unemployment acquire an importance altogether disproportionate to its intrinsic value as a contribution to the solution of that problem.
Other factors in the selection of news-items and of matter for editorial comment will become apparent after an examination of a newspaper over an extended period—the general policy of the paper and its proprietors, its political colour, its championship of some particular cause. Opportunity should be taken here to stress the psychological effect on the reader of constant reiteration, and pupils should be told something of the human susceptibility to the influence of suggestion and of other secrets of successful propaganda. At this point also they should be given some verifiable facts about the ownership of newspapers, and they should know what different papers are controlled by the same owner or by the same trust or combine; so that they may not forget that if they see the same point given equal prominence in different newspapers, it does not necessarily mean that it is a significant coincidence or that it thereby acquires a multiplied importance.
The responsibility of the Press to the Public is an issue that is bound to crop up and it must be faced; and the pros and cons of private ownership and public control should be elicited from the class and carefully weighed by the teacher. The economics of newspaper production can also usefully be touched upon at this stage and attention drawn to the possible connection between advertising revenue and general policy.
The time is now ripe for a more detailed and critical examination and comparison of the methods used by different papers in presenting news of the same event. The selection of items for quotation in headlines or for display in bold type, the insertion of this, the omission of that detail should be noted and commented upon. Reports of speeches, or Parliamentary debates, or proceedings at public inquiries lend themselves easily to critical consideration of this kind. It will be obvious that such speeches, etc., cannot be reported verbatim: they must be boiled down. The process of boiling down should be familiar to the class from their own study and practice of precis-writing; they should know that a good precis includes everything essential and nothing inessential, but they should also have realised that essential and inessential are relative terms, and facts cannot be so distinguished except by reference to some standard—a standard reached by an impartial and unprejudiced examination of the original as a whole. It should therefore not be difficult to show them how very often preconceived opinion, with or without deliberate intention to mislead can distort the true perspective of a speech by selecting this or that passage for emphasis or bold display and slurring over or omitting others.
Enthusiasts in the class—and they will not be lacking— should be taken to listen to an important debate in the House of Commons and should then compare the reports in different papers the next day. Or the school authorities might be persuaded to provide a few copies of the verbatim report of a sitting of a Royal Commission (to be obtained from H.M. Stationery Office); these can be compared with subsequent newspaper versions, or, better still, they can first be summarised as part of precis practice, and the summaries of the class compared with the newspaper versions. Occasionally extracts from a speech over the air by some prominent person may be given in the Press: these can be set by the side of the full transcript in The Listener, and the omissions noted and commented upon.
Headlines and placards can be given special attention. The class can be invited to read a full news report and to say whether the headlines and placards give a fair indication of its purport: if not, the moral can be drawn. The teacher can show by concrete examples how easy it is to turn a carefully guarded statement into a sweeping assertion by 'boiling down' and omitting all the ifs and ans; and how a reader can gain a wrong impression of a speech when he reads one sentence detached from its context to make a snappy headline and is too lazy to read the whole.
Pupils should also be warned to distinguish authenticated news from comment, to note the source of news, not to gloss over significant or question-begging introductory phrases such as "Everyone knows," "It is well known," "It is reported," etc., to be quick to detect the intermingling of news and comment, and to note how comment can be inserted in news in the form of paragraph headings. Leaders should be read with close reference to the news on which they may be based. It is also a profitable exercise to compare the English style of leader-writers and news-reporters; to contrast the measured, dignified, and smooth periods of one with the crisp, snappy, staccato sentences of another: to note how the style of the one lends itself to closely reasoned argument, and that of the other to dogmatic assertion. Pupils can be asked- to consider the psychological effects on the reader of blocking out a news page into a large number of miscellaneous news items each headed by bold headlines, and perhaps continued elsewhere, of interrupting news with pictorial insets, and of otherwise disintegrating what should be a continuous and coherent account; and to inquire what purposes these devices are intended to serve.
There are numerous other ways in which a 'newspaper class' can be kept busy. The correspondence columns can be used for collecting and weighing arguments on some controversial topic, and they are often happy hunting grounds (especially during the 'silly season') for examples of prejudice and faulty reasoning. The advertisement pages too may be turned to constructive use: changes of fashion (other than those of millinery and women's clothes) can be noted; the secrets of their appeal can be probed; and pupils can be invited to express their opinions on the defensibility of different methods of approach to potential customers. And lastly, lessons in elementary Economics can be made more live and real by reference to the financial columns of the newspaper.
Generally speaking, the teacher's aims throughout a course of this kind should be to give his pupils guidance and practice in handling the large masses of material a newspaper contains; to get them to realise the immense power that the Press can wield and the vital necessity that such power should not rest unchallenged in irresponsible hands; to be aware of the methods that may be used to exploit his natural weaknesses and prejudices; and above all not to impair or sacrifice the democratic citizen's birthright of the active exercise of his mental faculties for a passive and slavish acceptance of ready-made opinion.
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