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Using Primary Sources in the Classroom:
World War I Unit

Lesson 1: The Power of the Press

Background Information for Teachers

 

World War I began in August 1914 between the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the Allied Powers of Russia, France, Great Britain, Japan, Serbia, Belgium, and Montenegro. As the Great War spread to encompass much of the world, the United States under President Woodrow Wilson strove to remain neutral. The American public was split on which side to support since its population consisted of many different ethnic groups with conflicting allegiances. A majority simply wanted to stay aloof from a war far away where the issues were often difficult to decipher.

 

German actions against the interests and citizens of the United States finally decided the issue in favor of the Allies. Repeated submarine attacks by German U-boats took the lives of Americans, events that increasingly stirred the press to demand action to avenge America's honor. Public opinion, already tending toward support of Britain because of historical ties, became convinced that the United States must enter the war "to make the world safe for democracy." The final inducement to intervention came when newspapers published an intercepted message from the German foreign minister. He offered Mexico land in the American southwest in return for attacking the United States. Stirred up by the sometimes rabid prose of the journalists, the public overwhelmingly supported the American declaration of war on Germany that came in April 1917.

 

Learning Objectives

 

Upon completion of this activity, students should be able to:
  1. Identify an editorial.
  2. Identify propaganda.
  3. Discuss the differences between a weekly and a daily newspaper.
  4. Analyze the needs of rural and urban newspaper audiences and discuss how those needs are met.
  5. Evaluate the possible power of the press and the importance of multiple views concerning events.
Suggested Activity
  1. Make copies of the newspaper accounts of the sinking of the various vessels for each student.
  2. Divide class into six groups.
  3. Each student must read each article.
  4. Each group has a specific question or point to address for the benefit of the class.
    1. Group A: After reading the articles, be prepared to describe the nature of each writing. Define the term editorial. Are these articles reports of events which have occurred, or are they opinions concerning the events which have occurred? Why is it important to know the difference between those articles which are fact and those which are opinion?
    2. Group B: Read and describe the newspaper accounts of the sinking of the Lusitania and the Gulfight. What are the dates of the attacks according to the newspaper articles? Why are both events covered in the May 13 edition? What are the similarities and the differences in the attacks? Locate this county on a map of Alabama. Where is Chatom located in relationship to the larger cities of Alabama? Describe the audience of this newspaper.
    3. Group C: Define the term propaganda. Read the account of the sinking of the Deutschland. Is the language in which this article is printed significant? Why or why not? Does this article contain propaganda? Why or why not? Compare the sinking of the Deutschland with the destruction of the Lusitania. What do these events have in common? How are these events different? Describe the audiences of the two newspapers.
    4. Group D: Read the account of the sinking of the Missourian. Is this a significant event? Is there a relationship between the sinking of the Missourian and the United States Senate's vote concerning the declaration of war? Why or why not? Describe the audiences of these newspapers. Is there a difference in coverage between the weekly newspaper and the daily newspaper?
    5. Group E: Examine the coverage of the sinking of the Lusitania with the coverage given to the sinking of the Missourian. What do these events have in common with each other? How do these events differ?
    6. Group F: Read and discuss the coverage of the Zimmermann note discovery in the Huntsville Daily Times and the Washington County News. Describe the situation as it was explained by the newspapers. What are the dates for these reports in the newspapers? According to the newspapers, on what date was the note actually intercepted? The U.S. declared war on April 6, 1917. Was the Zimmermann note important to the declaration of war? Why or why not? Are these articles based upon fact or upon opinion? Are editorial remarks made in the articles? Present examples from the articles to prove your positions.

Documents

  • Document 1: "1,200 Perished on Lusitania" and "Discuss Gulfight." Washington County News, 13 May 1915, 1. Newspapers, Micro #455, Alabama Department of Archives & History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Document 2: "Germans Sink Two More Ships." Washington County News, 6 May 1915, 4. Newspapers, Micro #455, Alabama Department of Archives & History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Document 3: "Was the Accident to the Deustchland Really an Accident?" Alabama Staats-Zeitung, 9 December 1915, 1. Newspapers, Micro #448, Alabama Department of Archives & History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Document 4: "American Rights Clearly Violated." Cherokeer Harmonizer, 8 March 1917, 1. Newspapers, Micro #302, Alabama Department of Archive & History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Document 5: "U.S. Steamer Missourian Sunk Without Warning; Crew Saved" and others. The Huntsville Daily Times, 5 April 1917, 1. Newspapers, Micro #300, Alabama Department of Archives & History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Document 6: "United States in War with Germany" and "Unarmed Steamer Sunk." Washington County News, 12 April 1917, 1. Newspapers, Micro #455, Alabama Department of Archives & History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Document 7: "Germany Stirs Washington by Proposing Tripple [sic] Attack on U.S. with Mexico and Japan." The Huntsville Daily Times, 1 March 1917, 1. Newspapers, Micro #300, Alabama Department of Archives & History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Document 8: "German Plot Against U.S. is Revealed." Washington County News, 8 March 1917, 1. Newspapers, Micro #455, Alabama Department of Archives & History, Montgomery, Alabama.