Illustrating Essential Questions Using the TV News

Essential questions ask students to consider the “big picture” of a topic. Answering an essential question is not easy, or quick, but these questions encourage students to explore wider and deeper. Information must be gathered, analyzed, and synthesized to construct quality answers.   Therefore, students must also be able to answer the “just the fact” questions.

In these times of remote learning, teachers can illustrate this important critical thinking process using examples from a source almost every student can access: the evening television news. Journalists are charged with asking their own questions when tasked with a story, which are the 5 W’s . . .

  • What happened?
  • Who was involved?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why did it happen?

Who, what, when, and where are “just the fact” questions. Why asks the bigger, essential question. Answering why an event occurs takes time and careful analysis. Unreliable information must be identified and questionable sources rejected. The spin or bias of various people and groups must be critically analyzed before a solid why answer can be formulated.

Using the chart below, ask students to analyze the daily edition of a typical evening local and national network television news show broadcast:


The story topic WHAT happened? WHO was involved? WHEN? WHERE? WHY? Did the report compare this event to similar events or examine the relationship to bigger, wider, long term issues?
Story 1
Story 2
Story 3
Story 4

Students will quickly discover that most evening television news reports only relate who, what, when, and where. But often, the last and most important question, the essential question – the WHY is not addressed and must be inferred. The reports don’t relate single incidents of crime or political actions or government policies to wider trends. Put together, the brief stories just capture what has happened now, not how today’s events are related to previous instances or how they might impact the future. Why do television news reporters often fail to explore why?



Why is why often not addressed?

In our modern times, television news must complete with short and instant “news” on social media. Therefore, television station owners feel the pressure to cut the costs associated with in-depth coverage. They employ fewer reporters who have less time to investigate. The television news industry must move on to the next breaking news story; exploring a topic in-depth is just too expensive. The typical local TV news story is just 41 seconds; the typical national network story is just 2 minutes and 23 seconds.  The bigger questions, the whys, are often left unanswered.

A recent study demonstrated the content of national cable news channels has also shifted away from live event coverage (who, what, where, where) and in-depth factual reporting (why).  The majority of programming (between 46% to 85%) of the “news” programming is now opinion/commentary interviews. Studio interviews are quicker and cheaper than sending reporters to remote locations to gather and carefully gather and analyze information. Those interviewed may or may not be reliable, unbiased sources, requiring a new level of critical analysis by the viewer.



How is the classroom like the TV newsroom?

Teachers often feel the same pressure as television news reporters. Pushing students to gather the facts as well as analyze, synthesize, and evaluate those facts to formulate an answer as to the why of a question is time-consuming. “Time is money” for teachers as well as television broadcasters. With so many students at home having access to news coverage, take advantage of the opportunity to teach students how to ask and answer the essential (or why) questions as part of your remote learning curriculum. Teach them that just knowing the who, what, where, and when covered in the news does little to solve the bigger problems in the world.

NOTE:  National Council for the Social Studies refers to essential questions as compelling questions and the “just the fact” questions as supporting questions.

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Cynthia W. Resor is a social studies education professor and former middle and high school social studies teacher. Her dream job? Time-travel tour guide. But until she discovers the secret of time travel, she writes about the past in her blog, Primary Source Bazaar. Her three books on teaching social history themes feature essential questions and primary sources: Discovering Quacks, Utopias, and Cemeteries: Modern Lessons from Historical Themes Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies and Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies.

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