Bias in Mainstream and Historically Black Newspapers in Covering the Long Sixties (by Anika Arvanitis)



Bias in Mainstream and Historically Black Newspapers in Covering the Long Sixties


“Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.”

“Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.”

“Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.”

“Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event of issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.” (Most prominent in this lesson plan)


The main goal of this lesson is to allow students to engage with and explore media bias and rhetoric through the lens of the Black freedom struggle.  Students will learn to recognize bias in diction, tone, and paragraph order as well as in omitted topics. They will improve their rhetorical analysis and critical reading skills and learn how to place small events into a larger historical or political context.  After the lesson, students should be better able to think critically about the news they consume today and about any primary sources they read. This lesson is a simple way to introduce students to reading primary sources or to help bolster confidence in students who have already interacted with primary sources, as newspaper articles are a familiar source type and written to be easily readable.  Furthermore, in the current political climate, most students will be aware of ‘fake news,’ social media bubbles, and media bias. This lesson will allow them to connect the political tension today to tension during the 1960s, which will make the history more accessible.

In order to achieve these goals, students will first discuss two articles about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, one biased towards her 70% marginal tax rate, one biased against.  From there, groups of students will read pairs of newspaper articles about one of three events in the Black freedom struggle: the sit-ins, the freedom rides, or the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  Although both newspaper articles focus on the same events, one is written by the Chicago Defender, a historically black newspaper, and one is written by the New York Times, a mainstream newspaper.  By comparing the two articles and sharing their findings with other groups, students will be able to connect historical bias to the media bias they no doubt see today.


Students will gain an understanding of the role of the black and white press during the Black freedom struggle and relate the idea of critical reading and media bias to news and social media today.


How did the black and white press report differently on the same historical events and for what rhetorical purpose?

What were the sit-ins, the freedom rides, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party?

What do we mean when we say ‘black press’ or ‘white press?’

How can a news report be both truthful and biased and how can readers tell?

How is media bias today similar to media bias during the 1960s and how is it different?


The Chicago Defender: The Chicago Defender is a historically black newspaper.  It was founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, who was disappointed with the bias in the white press.5

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE): CORE was an organization dedicated to bringing about equality for all people.  In 1961, it spearheaded the first freedom rides.7

Freedom rides: The freedom rides were organized by CORE in 1961.  Their goal was to make interstate buses desegregate, as the Supreme Court had already ordered them to do in Morgan v. Virginia.  The first freedom riders were airlifted out of the South by the federal government, and subsequent riders were often beaten by white mobs.  Within a year, in response to the freedom riders, the president ordered the ICC to enforce desegregation on interstate buses.7

Media Bias: Partisan or political bias in printed, radio, online, or television news, either explicit or implicit. This includes not only how events are portrayed in the article itself but also the choice of which stories to publish at all.10

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP): The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was founded by Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964.  At the time, many majority Black districts in Mississippi were represented by white legislators, and the Democratic Party refused to disavow racism, and racist Democrats, in the South.  The MFDP occupied the 1964 Democratic National Convention in an attempt to raise awareness of the difficulties many southern Black citizens had when trying to register to vote and force the Democratic Party to confront its perpetuation of racism.6

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): The NAACP is the organization that brought about such legal victories as the desegregation of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education.  In the 60s, it was considered a more centrist organization compared to SNCC.18

The New York Times: The New York Times is a mainstream American newspaper, founded in 1851.  It is the second most read newspaper in the United States.17

Rhetoric: Using spoken or written words to persuade an audience.  Effective rhetoric includes an analysis of who the target audience is and how best to reach them.  Written rhetorical choices include which words to use when, the emotional tone of the piece, and any figurative language.11

Sit-ins: The sit-ins were a spontaneous act of civil disobedience started by Joseph McNeil, Izell Blair, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond, four students at a predominantly black college. On February 1st,1960, they sat at a whites only bar in Greensboro and requested service.  By the end of the week, hundreds of black students had expanded the protest across North Carolina. The sit-ins spread across the South in the coming weeks and eventually led to the founding of SNCC.3

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC): The SCLC was founded in 1957 by Reverend Martin Luther King Junior after the Montgomery bus boycotts.  Its purpose was to coordinate nonviolent direct action to desegregate buses in the South.12

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): SNCC (pronounced “snick”) was an activist group founded in 1961 as a response to the sit-ins.  It was composed of college students of all races.3


The Black freedom struggle was a subset of the civil rights movement.  As part of the Black freedom struggle, Black Americans tried to dismantle white supremacy, have their humanity and rights recognized by governmental institutions, and enshrine those rights into precedent and law.  One of the most famous events in the Black freedom struggle was the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech to an audience of thousands.1 Another familiar event is when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, which led to a wide scale boycott of the Montgomery bus system.15

While it is appealing to assume that the March on Washington and Rosa Parks were two spontaneous events, there was intense organizing before both and many people working behind the curtains.  Furthermore, while public opinion today tends to be positive towards the “I have a dream” speech and Rosa Parks, in the 1960s, mainstream opinion was often less complimentary. In this lesson, we will use newspaper articles written in the 1960s as a time machine to public opinion in the past.  Half the newspaper articles were published by the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper.  The other half were published by the New York Times, a mainstream newspaper.

This lesson focuses on three specific events during the Black freedom struggle: the sit-ins, the freedom rides, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  The sit-ins and freedom rides were explicit attempts to desegregate public spaces–restaurant counters and interstate buses, respectively–and the formation of the MFDP was an attempt to grant Black Americans the right to vote and a place in the Democratic Party.3 6 7

During the sit-ins, Black people sat at white bars in restaurants and politely requested to be served.  Service was often refused, and the activists were mobbed by angry white people telling them to get up and leave.  Despite this, students participating in the sit-ins strove to remain nonviolent, and eventually, the sit-ins led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which enshrined nonviolence in its very name.  Although SNCC was created with the help of older activist Ella Baker, it was filled with and governed by college students.3 The sit-ins were successful in desegregating lunch counters throughout the South.

During the freedom rides, Black and white people got on interstate buses and refused to sit in segregated seats.  They also refused to segregate at bus stops and in bus stations. As they traveled south, they were met with mobs of angry and violent white people.  Freedom riders were beaten, hospitalized, and jailed. The first freedom riders were airlifted out of the South before they could complete their full journey.  Like the sit-ins, freedom riders were dedicated to nonviolence and received training in how to remain nonviolent under duress before the rides began. Despite the fear tactics used by southern whites, within a year, the federal government started to enforce the desegregation of interstate buses, which had been enshrined as federal law in the Supreme Court decision Morgan v. Virginia in 1946.7

Finally, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was a branch of the Democratic Party formed by SNCC activists in 1964 during Freedom Summer.  The goal of Freedom Summer was to get more Black southerners registered to vote, a difficult task. Bureaucrats intentionally made it difficult for Black people to register and charged fees throughout the process.  Landlords threatened to evict, employers threatened to fire, and white people threatened to hurt or kill Black people who registered to vote. Frustrated by the Democratic Party’s support for racist and discriminatory southern Democrats, SNCC activists formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and occupied the Democratic National Convention that year, demanding more support for Black voters in the South.7

The sit-ins, the freedom rides, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party are all examples of events in the Black freedom struggle that are often hailed as heroic today but were seen in a different light as they happened. By comparing newspaper articles about the same events, but published by different papers, students can come to understand how politics and activism were seen by people during the 1960s and how news articles can paint the same event in completely different ways.


This link contains the six newspaper articles the students will need for this assignment:

Sit ins: “Sit-ins Attract White Support”, Chicago Defender and“Rivalries Beset Integration Campaigns: Differences in the Protest Movement Tend to Stir Confusion but Center on Methods, Not Goals”, New York Times

Freedom rides: “Chicagoans Empty Pockets in Support of Freedom Rider Forays through South”, Chicago Defender and“N.A.A.C.P.: Differences on Rights Tactics”, New York Times

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: “No MFDP Asked Negroes to Refuse Draft”, Chicago Defenderand “Freedom Party Head Disavows Plea to Negroes to Dodge Draft”, New York Times


Begin the lesson by pulling up two news articles8 19 on the projector, or handing students printed copies.  These articles are both about a prescient topic: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes’s 70% marginal tax plan, which the students may have heard of.  Even if they haven’t, ask the students to compare the two headlines and the summaries under them. Without even reading the body of the article, ask the students what each author wants the reader to think of Ocasio-Cortes’s plan.  Do these articles portray the plan as good or bad? How can you tell? Why might each news source want to portray the same plan in such different lights?

After the initial 5-10 minute discussion, transition to the Black freedom struggle.  If this is the first unit on the Black freedom struggle, give some historical context.  The “introduction” and “glossary” contain important details to include in a summary.

Next, draw a connection between the two biased articles about Ocasio-Cortes and news bias during the Black freedom struggle.  Media bias isn’t a new invention but has been happening for centuries. In fact, the Chicago Defender is a historically black newspaper that was founded with the explicit purpose of diversifying the mainstream news.  The New York Times, on the other hand, is a mainstream newspaper that, especially during the 60s, had a distinctly white and moderate bent.

Now that the students know the necessary historical context and can see the connection to consuming media today, it’s time to start the class activity.  Separate the students into three groups based on where they are sitting or some other criteria. Give each group the following: two newspaper articles, one from the Chicago Defender and one from the New York Times, and a piece of paper that briefly describes the event those two papers focus on (the freedom rides, the sit-ins, or the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party).  Descriptions can be copied from glossary (above) or written by the teacher to make more explicit connections to what has been done in class already, whichever is easier.

Explain to the students that they will have 20 minutes in their groups to read both newspaper articles and find examples of both explicit and implicit bias in the headlines and the bodies of the articles.  They can look not only at word choice but also the order in which topics are presented, the way people are introduced, and what information is omitted. When time is up, they will each give a brief (~3 minute) presentation to the class about what they discovered.

Allow the students time to work, but be available to answer any questions or encourage more in-depth discussion.  If the groups seem to be finished early, presentations can begin early as well.

After the presentations, allow for students to comment on the discoveries of other groups in a 5-10 minute discussion.  For instance, what were some similar bias techniques between groups? How did the nature of the events change how they were reported?  Were there any observations in one group that can be applied to another?

After that discussion, bring the students back to the present by asking how these skills can be applied to modern life.  Especially applicable topics include the proliferation of ‘fake news’ and how news is portrayed on social media versus through media organizations.  Students will probably have thought about these topics quite a lot and are likely more media literate than many adults give them credit for. Allow them to lead the discussion to topics they find most interesting, but be ready to to spur discussion if necessary.  Consider asking: how has media bias changed since the 60s and how has it stayed the same? how does the media (e.g. television, radio, print) change the rhetorical strategies of directors and writers? what are modern examples, like the Ocasio-Cortes one, that students have seen of media bias and how did they get enough information to create a more accurate mental account?

Before class is dismissed, encourage students to be more conscious and critical in reading the news but also in reading books and articles assigned for class.  Because everyone has a point of view, everything has a specific bias to it, even if some are harder to spot than others. If students have any questions, feel free to answer them after class.


Bernard Goldberg, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

Derek Catsam, “I’m Riding the Front Seat to Montgomery This Time”: The Students Take Control,” in Freedom’s Main Line (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 191-207.

Freedom on my Mind, directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, (1994; United States: Clarity Films, documentary), online.

Freedom Riders, directed by Stanley Nelson, (2010; Santa Barbara, CA: PBS, documentary), online.

Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us about the Art of Persuasion, (New York City: Random House, 2007).

Rebekah J. Kowal, “Staging the Greensboro Sit-Ins,” Drama Review 48, no. 4 (2004): 135-154.

Victoria M. Olds, “Freedom Rides: A Social Movement as an Aspect of Social Change,” Social Work 8, no. 3 (1963): 16-23.



1 Bass, Patrik. Like a mighty stream: the march on Washington, August 28, 1963, (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002). 2 Benjamin, Philip. “N.A.A.C.P.: Differences on Rights Tactics.” The New York Times, July 16, 1961. 3 Carson, Clayborne. “Sit-ins.” In In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994. 4 “Chicagoans Empty Pockets in Support of Freedom Rider Forays through South.” The Chicago Daily Defender, June. 24, 1961. 5 “Chicagoans Empty Pockets in Support of Freedom Rider Forays through South.” The Chicago Daily Defender, June. 24, 1961. 6 “Freedom on my Mind.” Directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford. (1994; USA: Clarity Films, Online) Video47. 7 “Freedom Riders,” directed by Stanley Nelson, (2010; Santa Barbara, CA: PBS, documentary), online. 8 Lea, Brittany. “Why Ocasio-Cortez’s 70% ‘soak-the-rich’ tax may fail.” Fox Business, January 8, 2019. 9 “No MFDP Asked Negroes to Refuse Draft.” The Chicago Daily Defender, August 7, 1965. 10 Oxford English Dictionary. “Bias.” Oxford English Dictionary, 11 Oxford English Dictionary. “Rhetoric.” Oxford English Dictionary, 12 Sandoval, Tomas. “The Roots of the Black Freedom Struggle.” CH HIST25.1 in Crookshank, Claremont, CA, January 29 2019. 13 “Sit-Ins Attract White Support, Open Doors.” The Chicago Daily Defender, October 17, 1961. 14 Reeds, Roy. “Freedom Party Head Disavows Plea to Negroes to Dodge Draft.” The New York Times, August 4, 1965. 15 Robinson, Jo Ann. Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, (Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1989). 16 Sitton, Claude. “Rivalries Beset Integration Campaigns.” The New York Times, December 24, 1961. 17 “Top 15 U.S. Newspapers by Circulation,” Agility PR, July, 2018, 18 “What is the mission of the NAACP?” NAACP, 19 Yglesias, Matthew. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is floating a 70 percent top tax rate—here’s the research that backs her up.” Vox, January 7, 2019.