Newspaper headlines: A lesson for Middle Schoolers

Frequently, during the middle school years, students will participate in a civics class. According to the Center for Civic Education and the National Conference of State Legislature (1996), the goal of civics class is to increase students’ knowledge of American government and develop civic participation in society. An effective way to remain up-to-date on current affairs is by reading newspapers. A newspaper subscription is often made available for each student to promote this essential civic activity.

According to Fico and Freedman (2001), “Agenda-setting research has established that news media attention to issues subsequently influences the public’s assessment of the importance of those issues” (p.1). An important lesson for middle school students includes learning that the media has an influence over how the public interprets news. Students should realize that a news organization cannot be completely objective (Curriculum Corporation, n.d.). Editors try to influence people in subtle ways to show what news stories are more valuable than others. Students need to think critically about how an editor’s decisions will affect how people interpret the news and participate in society.

First, have students look at the front page of the newspaper. Ask them what stands out, or what looks different from story to story. A common practice for news organizations is to print each story headline with a different font, font size, or boldness (Curriculum Corporation, n.d.). Ask students why they think this is the case. This is a conscious decision made by the editors to encourage the audience to rank the stories as their attention shifts down the pages. Explain to students that the more prominent stories are at the top with the largest headlines. As your eyes move down the page, the headlines become smaller, though importance is still differentiated by even just a slight boldness of the headline.

Explain that photos can help an article grab the reader’s attention and therefore seem more important. Placement on page also helps the editor to delineate which news stories are most important. Stories printed at the top of the front page are more significant that those at the bottom. This is true of stories in the entire newspaper. Typically, newspaper articles that appear closest to the front page or within the first section are those that editors consider to be the most important and relevant to their readers.

If possible, obtain another newspaper from the same day for the students to compare how two news organizations chose to present the news (Curriculum Corporation, n.d.). Have students note differences and similarities. Is the main article the same? How do the headlines compare? Have students question if they agree with the editor(s). Do students consider the stories that the editor chose for the front page the most important? Why do they think the editor choose them? How might the editors’ decisions affect how people think about society?


Center for Civic Education, & National Conference of State Legislatures (1996). We the People… Project Citizen: A Civic Education Project for Grades 6 through 9.

Curriculum Corporation (n.d.). Stop press! Newspaper headlines. Retrieved from:

Fico, F., & Freedman, E. (2001). Setting the news story agenda: Candidates and commentators in news coverage of a governor’s race. J&MC Quarterly, 78(3), 437-449.

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