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Covering sensitive topics — Exploring media coverage of race cases


This lesson explores news editorial coverage of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases by looking at editorials printed by major newspapers during the cases and grand jury investigations. The lesson begins by asking students what they already know about the Brown and Garner cases, and then pairs of students are assigned an editorial to read and analyze. Students then contribute to a collaborative document about how the media covered these events.

Note: If your students are unfamiliar with the purpose and role of editorials, consider first completing the lesson on editorial writing


  • Students will discuss news editorial coverage of recent controversial events.
  • Students will articulate the purpose and role of news editorials.
  • Students will compare and contrast media coverage from a variety of publications.
  • Students will analyze factors that might contribute to differences and similarities in media coverage.
  • Students will evaluate the overall tone and message of specific media content.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3 Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.


One 50-minute class


Handout: Covering sensitive topics: links to coverage (note: this may be something you’ll want to put in a Google doc and provide access to students as they work).

Rubric: Covering sensitive topics journal

Class Internet access (if using an online collaborative space)

For each pair of students in class, provide one copy of a different editorial (linked in “Covering sensitive topics: links to coverage”)

Collaborative space (like a Google doc or even a whiteboard)

Highlighters for each student pair

Lesson step-by-step

1. Introduction—10 minutes 

Prior to class, create a K-W-L chart on a white board. Ask students to also keep this chart written down in their own notebook for later reference. For the first five minutes, ask students to raise their hands and tell you what they know or want to know about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. While you don’t want to give them too much information (since they’ll do some reading later), you might need to correct or clarify information as they offer up their ideas. Leave the “L” column blank:

What do you KNOW? / What do you WANT to know? / What did you LEARN?

Explain to students that they are going to read some media coverage regarding the very sensitive cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (depending on your class makeup, this might be the time to remind students of class discussion rules or set ground rules for respectful discussion and contribution). Tell students that often, when there are controversial issues covered in the press, many readers often begin to think that the media has a collective, shared mind (or opinion) regarding those issues. By looking at media coverage today, we’ll be able to better evaluate whether the media, indeed, covered these tragic cases in exactly the same way.

2. Media evaluation—20 minutes

After the initial K-W-L brainstorm, break students into pairs (be sure there is a strong reader in every pair), and hand out one copy of a Brown or Garner editorial to each pair.  Ask students to do an initial read of the editorials together. Once they are done, they should discuss with each other by asking each person to summarize the point of the editorial (this will help ensure the readers actually comprehend what the editorial argues). Then, ask the students to do a second close-read in which they annotate the text in the following way:

  • highlight the main argument the editorial makes
  • underline specific facts used to support that argument
  • circle the main sources of information provided
  • put any specific figurative language or notable use of tone/descriptive language in brackets

While students work, create a google doc with four columns that represent the four types of annotations they are making (or, create a spreadsheet on a white board without erasing your K-W-L chart).

Publication Main argument Specific facts Main sources Notable use of tone or figurative / descriptive language
Washington Post
Daily News

As pairs finish up, ask students to contribute their findings to the spreadsheet (either by going into the collaborative document or going up to the board).

When each pair is finished, ask the class to spend a few minutes examining the spreadsheet.

3. Class discussion—10 minutes

As a class, come to a consensus on what different editorials wrote/expressed that was different, and what was the same among certain publications. Were the sources relatively similar? How about the facts used? Was the main argument the same across most media?  For the ones that were very different, ask students to consider why their sources/facts/argument were so different.

Was it because of the audience? What about the people who wrote the editorials? What kind of publication was it? How did the tone change between editorials regarding Brown, the first case, and Garner, the second case? Were you surprised by how similar/different the coverage was? Why? What did you expect?

4. Student reflection—10 minutes

Ask students to spend the next 10 minutes writing a response to this prompt, which you can read aloud: “Based on your reading and our class findings, how might you change your K-W-L chart? What did you learn about the way the media covered these cases? What else do you still need to find out to better understand how the news media perceive such sensitive topics?”

5. Assessment—after class

Grade student reflections according to standard news literacy unit rubric provided.


For students with additional reading/comprehension needs, keep them paired up for the entirety of the lesson with a student who is a stronger reader. Have this pair complete a combined reflection and updated K-W-L chart.


Ask students to find another example of how media has discussed the sensitive topic of race and police brutality. This time, however, encourage students to expand their search beyond news media. How have celebrities responded via social media? How have musicians incorporated these social issues into their song lyrics and performances? How do artists or political cartoonists create visual representations of these issues? The document of links provided in the original materials can provide a starting place for this exploration.