Media Literacy and Political Campaigns

Political campaigns provide a perfect opportunity to plan cross-curricular lessons and activities in language, social studies, psychology, and economics.

A recent article in New York underscores the need to educate media literate students in a cynical political environment. Joe Hagan’s “The Coming Tsunami of Slime: How Super-PACs, vulnerable candidates, and armies of mercenaries will converge to create the ugliest campaign ever” provides a glimpse into what the smoke-filled rooms of past political bosses have become. The article focuses on negative campaigning and its political necessity in an age of super-PACs and unlimited campaign contributions.

Some of the techniques used in today’s TV ads are familiar propaganda devices: repetition, quotes out of context, insinuation, ad hominem arguments. They may be old methods but they are still effective, and big money and modern technology are making them more so. What is particularly disturbing in Hagan’s article is the cynicism of the pollsters, researchers, and ad-makers, the minions of the super-PACs – what Hagan labels the presidential-election-industrial complex. “We’re not in the ‘cause’ business,” said one ad-maker. “You’re in love with whoever’s paying you.” These strategists are mercenaries with shifting loyalties. And no political party is without sin.

NOTE: Hagan’s article has some strong language, but this reflects the mindset of those interviewed. For a condensed and less colorful discussion, Hagan was interviewed on Fresh Air. “How SuperPACs Are ‘Gaming’ The 2012 Campaign” runs about 21 minutes.

A New York Times article “Hollywood Techniques at Play in Politics” looks at how the documentary form has been adapted to political propaganda. It specifically addresses the film When Mitt Romney Came To Town (28:07). This video would make a artifact to analyze.

Presidential campaigns have often been dirty. “Persuading the People: Presidential Campaigns” will furnish  historical perspective, but broadsheets and newspapers slow to travel. The reach of today’s media removes the boundaries of space and time. What a candidate says now travels the world quickly, and given the ubiquity of Twitter and other social media, quickly may soon become instantly.

Two tools for studying media and political campaigns are the companion website for Wisconsin Public television’s The :30 Second Candidate television program and “The 30 Second Candidate: A Tool Kit for Analyzing Campaign Advertising.” Teachers will find PDFs and video examples with the tool kit.

The following lessons will help students become more savvy media consumers.

In “Propaganda & Persuasive Techniques: Do You Buy It?” students in grades 5-12 learn about, collect examples, and share examples of basic persuasive techniques used in advertising. Then, they create their own product commercials. Political candidates are products.

In “Winning Campaigns Lesson Plan” students in grades 6-8 develop media-literacy skills as they evaluate various Election 2008 campaign materials and create their own campaign posters.

In “Propaganda Techniques in Literature and Online Political Ads” students in grades 9-12 identify examples of propaganda techniques used in clips of online political advertisements and explain how the techniques are used to persuade voters.

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