How Newspapers Framed
the U.S. History Standards Debate

 

Patricia G. Avery and Theresa Johnson

…whoever tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time has effectively assumed the cultural role of parent and school.…teaching us most of what we know in common about life and society.

—George Gerbner, Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania1

 

The first volley in the controversy over the National Standards for United States History was tossed six days before their official release. On October 20, 1994, an article entitled “The End of History” appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Lynne V. Cheney, former director of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and paradoxically, the person who appointed the panel to write the standards, wrote this commentary. Cheney lambasted the standards for highlighting minor, “politically correct” figures and themes, relegating traditional United States heroes to the background, and focusing on the negative aspects of U.S. history (for example, the McCarthy Era). If the standards are adopted, Cheney warned, “much that is significant in our past will begin to disappear from our schools.”2

From the outset, the U.S. history standards represented to many people far more than curriculum goals, guidelines, or recommendations; the standards were transformed into our history, our past, ourselves. Cheney’s essay was the first of a succession of editorials, commentaries, and news articles that would alternately castigate the standards as a “denigration of America’s story”3 or laud them as “the beginning of a national effort to transform history into the exciting, immensely important school subject it should be.”4

This article describes the results of a study that analyzed the way in which the U.S. history standards debate was conveyed to the public in selected newspapers. Specifically, we looked for who was quoted in articles about the standards or, put another way, what individuals and groups were effectively given a place in the public dialogue on the worth of the standards. French scholar Michael Foucault believed that those individuals whose messages are heard are the same people who possess the power in a society.5 In understanding the debate over the U.S. history standards, it thus becomes essential to know who was given a voice in the media, how these voices shaped the debate, whose voices were missing, and of what significance was this omission?

 

Method

Content analysis is a research methodology used to analyze written or spoken communication. Researchers systematically examine content for the frequency of specific words, phrases, or themes. In this study, we looked for articles related to the National Standards for United States History and noted the frequency with which individuals or groups were quoted in these articles.

Relevant newspaper articles were located using Newspaper Abstracts, an online database containing the citations and abstracts for newspaper articles printed in more than 25 national and regional newspapers from 1989 to the present. Using the search phrase “history and standards,” we identified articles on the U.S. history standards written between October 1994 and December 1998. Our study was concerned only with descriptive articles, defined here as articles in which the writer’s primary purpose is to present the facts associated with a story and not to persuade the reader toward a particular point of view. These articles were particularly interesting to us because the public often perceives them to be free of bias. As opposed to opinion pieces (editorials, commentaries, and letters to the editor), the author’s perspective in these articles is implicit rather than explicit.

We chose the time frame to cover major events associated with the U.S. history standards: their release, the ensuing controversy, the agreement of the authors to revise the standards, the U.S. Senate denunciation of the standards, a call for revision by an independent panel, and the release of a revised version. Thirty-seven descriptive articles from 10 newspapers were deemed relevant to the study (see Table 1).

The unit of analysis, or recording unit, in this study was the name of an individual or group either quoted, or to whom a comment was ascribed, in relation to the National Standards for United States History. Quotations were defined as a unit of speech attributed to an individual or group, and could be either direct or indirect. In the following two examples, the first involves a direct quotation, and the second, an indirect quotation.

 

Lynne Cheney… said the new standards “present a very warped view of American history.”

 

Mr. Nash said the standards were designed to reduce the emphasis of dry textbooks and memorization of names, dates and places.6

 

Citation length varied considerably, with some citations including only a few words and others continuing for several sentences. The end of the citation was marked by the introduction of either more descriptive information or ideas presented by another individual. Thus, individuals could be cited numerous times in one article.

Each of us reviewed 80% of the articles as a means of checking the identification and delineation of the persons/groups cited. Interrater agreement was 85% across the articles, with disagreement usually centering on whether a statement reflected a journalist’s description or the sentiment of a person/group. Consider the following example:

 

The debate has been heated and critics have suggested that the nation’s very soul is at stake.7

 

Because the statement does not include quotation marks, it is clearly not a direct quotation. However, the very nature of newspaper writing, wherein space and time are both limited, results in a high percentage of indirect quotations. If we limited our study to those statements that include quotation marks, we would omit the majority of sentiments expressed by others within descriptive articles. We therefore determined that if the word “said” could easily be inserted into the statement, we would categorize it as an indirect quotation. The preceding example thus became part of our list of citations, with “critics of the standards” as the group/person quoted.

 

Results

The study found 174 direct or indirect quotations across the articles, with the number of citations per article ranging from 0–15. A total of 50 different individuals or groups were cited. Table 2 presents those individuals or groups cited five or more times across the articles. The nine sources cited in the table account for almost two-thirds (65%) of the total number of citations. In descriptive articles in newspapers, the controversy surrounding the standards was thus conveyed through a small number of people/groups.

Because our primary purpose was to identify the roles of individuals/groups cited in the controversy, we reviewed the list of sources numerous times and then developed a category scheme of three primary roles: Academicians/Educators, Government/Public Officials, and Conservative Spokespersons/Groups (see Figure 1). All but three sources (2%) could be placed in one of the three primary categories. A few individuals could be placed in more than one category. For example, Diane Ravitch is a professor of history at New York University (Academician), has been an assistant secretary in the
Department of Education (Public Official), and is considered by many to be a conservative spokesperson. In such cases, we looked at how the person was described in the articles; when Ravitch was identified as a “former assistant
secretary in the Bush administration,” her role was categorized as that of a public official. In the two instances in which she was identified as an “education scholar at NYU,” she was categorized as an academician. Our interest, then, was in classifying the person or group as represented in the news article.

Two of the three primary categories were then divided into subcategories. All of the “Academicians/Educators” could be further classified as school teachers (K–12), administrators (K–12), college/ university professors, and education groups (e.g., American Federation of Teachers, “authors of the standards,” review panel). The primary category of “Government/Public Officials” could be subdivided according to level of appointment/service: national or state. The pie chart in Figure 1 shows the distribution of sources according to the three primary categories, with extended analysis of two categories presented in Figures 2 and 3.

Of the primary categories, it is not surprising that “Academicians/Educators” was the largest (48%), given that the standards are an educational tool. Each of the individuals or groups cited in this category had a role in the K-university educational system. However, when one looks more closely, only 6% of the Academicians/Educators cited were K-12 teachers (see Figure 2). And, of the 174 total citations in the study, only five were attributed to classroom teachers—all of whom taught secondary social studies. Thus, in a debate that bears directly on teaching history in the schools, the voices of social studies teachers were virtually absent. Were teachers lacking in opinions? Or did journalists not consult them?

The study found that Government/Public Officials played a very significant role in the debate as it was conveyed in the news articles. It was, after all, the federal government that initiated and funded the U.S. history standards. The subcategorization in Figure 3 indicates that public officials at the national level were especially prominent in the controversy, indicative of the trend toward greater federal involvement in educational policy during the past half century.

Conservative spokespersons or groups account for nearly one of every five citations. Their strong presence is interesting in itself, but it is particularly noteworthy in the absence of any balance from parallel liberal voices.

Finally, we noted the absence of another group—ironically, the group that would be most affected by the standards. Not one descriptive news article included an interview with students, the young people for whom the standards were written. And, if it was thought that student views might be represented by the people who work most closely with them, it has already been observed that teachers themselves had little voice in the debate.

 

Discussion

Newspaper production is a business with interests similar to those of other big businesses.8 The need to make a profit, conduct transactions with other businesses, and meet production schedules shapes the way news is produced. For example, the timely manner in which newspapers must be produced may mean that opinions of “powerfu#148; people will be cited more frequently. Turning to people whose credibility has already been established, such as a government or corporate source, can save time and money.9 A number of researchers have found that ordinary people have a difficult time gaining access to the media and rarely have their opinions represented among those cited in newspaper articles.10

The small number of social studies teachers quoted in the articles we analyzed may reflect our society’s general lack of respect for the opinions and expertise of classroom teachers. The fact that university professors (particularly historians) should become the spokespersons for K–12 teachers suggests the higher status accorded to them, their greater accessibility, and their stronger ties to the media. Berliner and Biddle contend that teachers are a “relatively passive group, often from working- or middle-class backgrounds, who have an embattled professional status and who are also likely to be women—a traditionally unempowered group.”11 If teachers want to play a more prominent role in future educational debates, they would do well to be proactive in developing ties with the press.

Conservative voices were clearly accorded an important place in the debate, as demonstrated by the newspaper articles we analyzed. If the standards were indeed a reflection of the “cult of multiculturalism,” as one critic stated, then what accounts for the lack of voices from such liberal groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Organization for Women (NOW), or People for the American Way? One possibility is that the U.S. history standards did not reflect the level of multiculturalism alleged by conservatives, or that the type of inclusiveness was perceived by liberals as more superficial than substantive.12 Some liberal voices distanced themselves from the standards movement altogether, claiming that it diverted attention from more important issues, such as the unequal distribution of educational resources.13 Whatever the reason, the debate in the newspaper articles we examined essentially took place in the absence of identifiable liberal voices.

In the broader political and cultural context, the history standards controversy might be described as an “example of the culture wars of the last decade of the twentieth century.”14 The debate over the history standards parallels other public controversies of the 1990s, including how to celebrate the quincentenary of the Columbus expeditions, how to represent the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, and who to picture on the Legends of the West postage stamps. At issue in each of these controversies was how we want to view ourselves as a nation and as a people, and whose voices will be heard in the stories we tell our children.

 

Conclusion

In terms of their potential to change the content and teaching of history in our classrooms, the National Standards for United States History—even in their revised form—may represent the most significant effort in social studies education since the New Social Studies of the 1960s. Because how our nation’s history is understood plays a pivotal role in shaping national identity, we can expect that the study of history—particularly in school as opposed to college classrooms—will always be somewhat controversial. In our analysis of descriptive news articles about the U.S. history standards, we found the standards to be typically presented as controversial. We were struck, however, by who was and was not invited to take part in the debate as presented in the press. The conservative voice was heard without its liberal counterpart, and the voices of university academicians were preferred over those of classroom teachers.

Does it matter? Very much, because public issues are socially constructed, and those with greater access to the media have a better chance to shape the course of public debate, and ultimately, to determine educational policy. This study suggests that in the debate over the U.S. history standards, it was the voices of university educators, government officials, and conservative critics that were “in,” and the voices of liberal spokespersons, classroom social studies teachers, and students that were “out.” But the voices of teachers and students especially might have shifted this debate away from some of its more trivial aspects, and toward the central question of how students come to understand history and appreciate its value in connecting the events of the past with their lives and actions today.

 

Notes

1. Scott Stossel, “The Man Who Counts the Killings” The Atlantic Monthly (May 1997): 94.

2. Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History,” The Wall Street Journal (October 20, 1994): A22.

3. The Wall Street Journal, “What’s News-World-Wide” (September 5, 1995): A1.

4. Ross E. Dunn, “Teaching the Love of History,” The Christian Science Monitor (September 21, 1995): 19.

5. Martha Cooper, Analyzing Public Discourse (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1989).

6. Associated Press, “Plan to Teach U.S. History Is Said to Slight White Males,” The New York Times (October 26, 1994): B12.

7. Bruce Alpert, “Johnston Stands Alone on Curriculum Vote,” The Times-Picayune (January 20, 1995): A2.

8. Roger Fowler, Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press (London: Routledge, 1991).

9. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

10. Cooper.

11. David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1995), 147.

12. Ronald W. Evans and Valerie O. Pang, “National Standards for U.S. History: The Storm of Controversy Continues,” The Social Studies 86, No. 6 (1995).

13. Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Watching a Naked Emperor: A Critique of National Standards Efforts,” Educational Forum 58, No. 4 (1994).

14. Gary B. Nash, “Creating History Standards in United States and World History,” OAH Magazine of History 9, No. 3 (1995), 3.

 

Patricia G. Avery is an associate professor and Theresa Johnson is a graduate student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

 

 

 

 

Newspaper Articles in This Study

 

Bruce Alpert. “Johnston Stands Alone on Curriculum Vote.” The Times-Picayune (January 20, 1995): A-2.

Associated Press. “Plan to Teach U.S. History is Said to Slight White Males.” The New York Times (October 26, 1994): B-12.

Sally Streff Buzbee. “Teachers Group Seeks a More Positive Spin to History Standards.” The Boston Globe (October 12, 1995): 24.

Mark Clayton. “A Page Out Of The History-Text Debate.” The Christian Science Monitor (December 1, 1997): 11.

Pamela Coyle. “History Project Debated.” The Times Picayune (March 13, 1995): A-1, A-6.

Doug Cumming. “Standards Issue Raises Questions, Criticism.” The Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution (December 12, 1995): E-3.

Stephanie H. Davis. “National Standards Could Make History.” The Chicago Tribune (April 5, 1996): 2-C.

Hugh Dellios. “Battle Over History May Itself Prove Historic.” The Chicago Tribune (October 30, 1994): 1, 4.

—————. “Conservatives Won’t Give National History Standards Passing Grade.” The Chicago Tribune (April 3, 1996): 10.

Karen De Witt. “Guidelines for Classes on Civics are Issued.” The New York Times (November 16, 1994): B-9.

M. P. Dunleavey. “Hopeful Start for Bringing Social Studies to Life.” The New York Times (January 18, 1995): B-7.

Craig Garrett. “Critics Say New History Books Too Issues-Oriented.” The Detroit News, (July 16, 1997): D1, D4.

Guy Gugliotta. “Up in Arms About the ‘American Experience’.” The Washington Post (October 28, 1994): A-3.

—————. “World History Teaching Standards Draw Critics.” The Washington Post (November 11, 1994): A-4.

Keith Henderson. “Senate Turns Up Heat on Humanities.” The Christian Science Monitor (January 20, 1995): 3.

Tamara Henry. “History by Rote Considered a Dated Approach.” USA Today (October 26, 1994): 1-D.

—————. “U.S. History that Kids Should Know.” USA Today (October 26, 1994): 4-D.

—————. “Educators to Alter Course of History.” USA Today (January 13, 1995): 1-D.

 

—————. “Rewriting Standards for Teaching History.” USA Today (October 12, 1995): 1-D.

Jay Mathews. “Teaching History As A Matter Of Fact.” The Washington Post (March 11, 1997): 1-A.

Jean Merl. “Debate Greets Standards for History Classes.” The Los Angeles Times (October 26, 1994): A-1, A-29.

Reuters. “Reteaching History with the Common Touch.” The Boston Globe (October 27, 1994): 3.

Rene Sanchez. “History Curriculum Guides that Conservatives Criticized May be Revised.” The Washington Post (January 14, 1995): A-12.

—————. “Revised Teaching Standards Shift Historical Emphasis.” The Washington Post (April 3, 1996): A-3.

Nathaniel Sheppard, Jr. “Education Standards Debate Pits U.S., States.” The Chicago Tribune (March 23, 1995): 8.

Robert Shogan. “Dole Calls for Ending Most Bilingual Classes.” The Los Angeles Times (September 5, 1995): A-1, A-12.

Jo Thomas. “A New Guideline on History Looks Beyond Old Europe.” The New York Times (November 11, 1994): A-1, A-22.

—————. “History on the March.” The New York Times (April 5, 1995): B-1, B-9.

—————. “Revised History Standards Disarm the Explosive Issues.” The New York Times (March 3, 1996): B-8.

Kavita Varma. “Revised History Standards Blunt ‘Bias’ Criticism.” USA Today (April 3, 1996): D-1

—————. “New, Not-So Politically Correct, Goals for History.” USA Today (April 3, 1996): D-4.

“What’s News–World-Wide.” The Wall Street Journal (September 5, 1995): A-1.

Laura Wisniewsk. “Critics Object to History Guidelines with Missing Links.” The Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution (November 1, 1994): E-4.

Elaine Woo. “Group Agrees to Revise Guidelines for Teaching History.” The Los Angeles Times (January 13, 1995): A-3.

—————. “History Standards Flawed but Can be Saved, Panels Say.” The Los Angeles Times (October 12, 1995): A-1, A-23.

—————. “Standards for Teaching History Unveiled-Again.” The Los Angeles Times (April 3, 1996): A-1, A-16.

Kate Zernike. “Showdown Looms Over History Test Standards.” The Boston Globe (April 14, 1997): A-1, A-12.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.