Ken Burns Classroom

Press Perception of Jack Johnson


Students will:

  • Discuss how the press can shape public opinion of current events and
  • Describe the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension
    of civil liberties in the U.S.



Frequently, sports heroes gain even higher levels of popularity and notoriety based on how they are represented in the press. Modern sports legends are frequently lionized or vilified by newspaper, radio, and television, and that affects fans’ perceptions.

Perhaps no professional athlete was handled more controversially by the press than Johnson. Newspapers in the North and the South tended to use racial slurs and epithets to support white challengers and belittle Johnson during his reign as heavyweight champion.

In this lesson, students will develop newspaper sports pages chronicling aspects of the Johnson’s career. Depending on the amount of technology available in the school, the teacher may elect to do one or more of the following activities:

  • Have students develop poster presentations using poster board to
    provide layout and paste or glue stories and artwork on it.
  • Use word processing software to create the stories and do page layout
  • Use Microsoft Publisher or similar software to publish the sports pages
    as Web pages and have them available online.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Poll the students on the role and influence of the press in present-day America, especially in regard to how the press shapes public perception and opinion about events and issues. (Examples include the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Civil Rights movement and American involvement in Iraq.)
  2. Ask students to speculate on whether the press holds undue influence over the public in regard to agenda setting as well, and whether there should be government control over the press to restrict this influence.
  3. Divide students into geographic groups. Groups should represent the Northern press, the Southern press, the black press and the foreign press.
  4. The groups’ job is to report on Johnson’s fights and his life out of the ring as completely as possible. Students will be tasked with researching Johnson’s life, using research from the film, if available to them, or resources on the film’s companion website, as well as photographs of the champ and his fights. It is the students’ job to determine how to best cover the story, write the story, then create a sports page for the “newspaper,” highlighting the following:
    • An account of at least two fights in Johnson’s career, along with statistical information on who won the fight, “tale of the tape” information (height, weight, reach, etc. of both fighters), and an “eyewitness account” of the fight.
    • An account of the legal trouble Johnson faced, and what the outcome of his legal fight was.
    • Eyewitness statements (quotes) from at least three people who saw that fight and were either quoted in Unforgivable Blackness or in another source.
    • An editorial regarding Johnson's career. Remember that an editorial is an opinion story, and the author is trying to persuade his audience about a particular issue.
    • An editorial cartoon of Jackson, based on the information researched as well as the information from the film.

Note that while newspapers are supposed to be unbiased in their reporting of the news, reporters in Johnson’s time also used many of the same racially charged words in their reporting that would be considered derogatory today, but were commonly accepted in those days. Teachers should instruct students to avoid the use of derogatory or epithetic language.

Extension Activities

Students can:

  • Research recent newspapers for apparent bias in coverage of contemporary athletes and chart examples of perceived bias in reporting.
  • Write an essay either upholding or refuting the idea that the media protects professional athletes.


The teaching activities in this guide were designed to meet curriculum standards outlined below where applicable. However, we recommend that you closely examine the resource content for your individual classroom needs.

American History from the National Center for History in the Schools

  • Era 6. Standard 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.
  • Era 9. Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

Civics and Government from the National Standards for Civics and Government

Standard III. D.

  • The place of law in American society; judicial protection of the rights of individuals.

Standard V. B.

  • What are the rights of citizens; explain the importance to the individual and to society of such personal rights as due process of law and equal protection; freedom of expression and association; how personal rights are secured…by such means as the rule of law.

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel)

  • Social Sciences (Behavioral Studies) Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions.
  • Historical Understanding Standards 1 and 2: Understands how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns; Understands the historical perspective.
  • United States History Standards: Understands issues and perspectives of different groups during the Progressive era; Understands the social and cultural influence of former slaves in cities of the North.
  • Language Arts Standards: Writes persuasive compositions; Understands the philosophical assumptions and basic beliefs underlying an author's work; Uses a variety of criteria; Understands how the type of media affects coverage of events or issues; Understands the ways in which image-makers carefully construct meaning; Understands the role of the media in addressing social and cultural issues.

About The Authors

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.