The Press Office: A Presidential News Conference Simulation


Download this lesson plan (including handouts) in PDF format.

Overview

Topics: Civil Rights; Cold War; International Relations; Space; The Job of the President; Persuasive Writing and Speaking

Grade Level: 9-12

Subject Area: US History

Time Required: 1-2 hours

Goals/Rationale

President Kennedy was the first US president to hold live televised press conferences. During his years in office he held, on average, one every sixteen days.

In this lesson, students act as members of President Kennedy’s Press Office with an assignment to prepare a briefing for the president on topics that may come up in a specific press conference. To fulfill this assignment, students explore the Kennedy Library website, using both primary and secondary sources. As a culminating activity, students participate in a simulated press conference either virtually or in class.

Essential Question: How might a president address the public about important issues?

Objectives

Students will:

  • discuss major events that occurred during President Kennedy’s administration.
  • discuss the role of the presidential press secretary and press conferences.
  • conduct web-based research.
  • analyze primary source documents and web-based materials.
  • create press briefing materials for selected press conference dates.
  • write appropriate and accurate press conference questions and answers.
  • present orally their questions and answers for the press conference.

Preparation

Historical Background and Context

Although presidential press relations date back to George Washington, the emergence of television fundamentally changed presidential relations with the press. President Eisenhower was the first to permit television equipment to record press conferences. James C. Hagerty, Eisenhower's Press Secretary, edited the films from these conferences before releasing them to the public..

The press secretary's central role continued in the Kennedy administration. JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, handled the flow of news from the entire executive branch of government as well as from Kennedy’s office. One of Salinger’s responsibilities was to prepare the president for his televised press conferences.

The day before each press conference, Kennedy's press office would agree on the twenty to thirty questions they believed would be asked by correspondents. Pierre Salinger noted in his memoirs that the public information officers were excellent at anticipating questions. For questions "in sensitive areas," the staff would provide a background briefing and a suggested response.

Salinger would provide the president with briefing papers the evening before the press conference. The next morning, at breakfast, the president would meet with Salinger and other White House staff members or cabinet officers to practice. Kennedy usually would require more facts for six to eight questions and, after the morning meeting, Salinger would work on researching the requested information. An hour before the 4:00 PM press conference, Salinger would go over the new information with Kennedy.

In this lesson, students act as members of President Kennedy’s Press Office with an assignment to prepare a briefing for the president on topics that may come up in a specific press conference. To fulfill this assignment, students explore the Kennedy Library website, using both primary and secondary sources. As a culminating activity, students participate in a simulated press conference either virtually or in class.

Materials (Full lesson plan available in downloadable pdf.)

  • The Presidential Press Office web page
  • President Kennedy's Press Conferences
  • "John F. Kennedy: Launching into the Sixties" (included in downloadable pdf)
  • Press Conference Worksheet handout (included in downloadable pdf)
  • August 10, 1961 press conference briefing paper (included in downloadable pdf)

Procedure

  1. Distribute the "John F. Kennedy: Launching into the Sixties" article. Ask students to read the handout and answer the questions in class or as homework. This will provide them with some background information about the time period.
  2. Ask students to read the web page The Presidential Press Office in class or as homework. Discuss the extensive preparation by Kennedy and his staff for each press conference.
  • Why might Kennedy have chosen to participate in so many press conferences during his tenure in office?
  • Why might Kennedy have spent so much time preparing for these press conferences?
  • Should a president have frequent press conferences? Why or why not?
  1. Distribute the Press Conference Worksheet handout. Divide students into groups of two to five and give each group a press conference date from the seven selected dates. Each group must research events that occurred within two to three months before their press conference date. (The range of dates are noted on worksheet.)
  2. Have students complete the worksheet, either in groups or individually from their homes using the Kennedy Library website for their source material. Remind them that they need to use at least one primary source available on the website as part of their background information and cite all their sources. They should not use Kennedy's actual press conferences as a source.
  3. Ask each group of students to meet separately to go over their findings and select a topic which they would like to use in the press conference. In their groups, students should then develop one question Kennedy might be asked on that press conference date and the answer to that question.
  4. Have students choose someone in their group to be President Kennedy and another person to be a reporter.
  5. Have each group give their question to the reporter in another group.
  6. As a full class, facilitate a simulated press conference with each reporter asking each President Kennedy a question.
  7. Work with the class to correct any factual errors that students may have included in their press conference responses after each President Kennedy speaks
  8. After each President Kennedy answers a question, have students consider the information provided by the president and create a potential newspaper headline based on the presentation. This can be a headline found in a more "serious" daily newspaper, or a tabloid-style headline. This task can be done individually by students or as a group.
  • If done individually, the student will create their individual headlines to share with the class.
  • If performed as a group, a spokesperson in each group will share their headline with the entire class.
  1. Award a point to the individual or group that you determine has the most creative headline for each press conference. Tally the points at the end and identify a winner.

Assessment

The assessment for each group will be based on the appropriateness of their press conference question and the accuracy, appropriateness, and depth of the answer provided by the President Kennedy in each group.

Extensions

  1. Have students read the transcripts from President Kennedy’s press conference for their assigned date. Assign them to write a report on the actual questions asked at the press conference and whether or not one of their questions and/or answers matched those of President Kennedy. Was there a particular focus of the questions asked by reporters? Were students surprised by the issues raised or questions asked? If the issue the students raised in their simulated press conference matched one in the actual press conference, how closely did Kennedy’s answer match their own? How might they have strengthened their answers?
  2. Have students use their completed worksheets to create a formal press briefing document that includes (a) a potential question Kennedy may be asked on their press conference date, (b) a “current situation report,” and (c) “suggested points for the president’s reply.” They should follow the form of the August 10, 1961 press conference briefing paper.
  3. Have students research any additional information that they did not find on the Kennedy Library website that would have been useful in developing an answer to the press conference question they created.

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards - US History, Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s

  • Standard 2: How the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam influenced domestic and international politics.
  • Standard 3: Domestic policies after World War II
  • Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties
     

World History, Era 9: The 20th Century Since 1945: Promises and Paradoxes

  • Standard 1: How post-World War II reconstruction occurred, new international power relations took shape, and colonial empires broke up.

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 9-10 and 11-12

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 1 - Developing questions and planning inquiries
  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History)
  • Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

National Council of Teachers of English: Standards 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • USII.T3: Defending democracy: responses to fascism and communism
  • USII.T4: Defending democracy: the Cold War and civil rights at home
  • USII.T5: United States and globalization
  • WHII.T5: The Cold War Era, 1945–1991

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language