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Help Students Think Critically About "October Surprises" and Their Impact on Elections

Teach students how to recognize and analyze this curious election season phenomenon.

Paul Barnwell | September 24, 2019

While most students aren't yet of voting age, it's still important for them to recognize and analyze news events leading up to elections. One key election season phenomenon is the "October surprise," a bombshell news and media event that dominates discussion and debate in the last fast-paced weeks -- or days -- before November elections. Students must consider October surprises critically: Are these late-breaking headlines calculated political ploys, legitimate news events, or somewhere in between? How can we contextualize this news and determine its veracity and importance? What role does the news media have in perpetuating this phenomenon, and what responsibilities do they have when covering them?

The term has been around since the 1972 presidential race when Nixon's national security adviser Henry Kissinger declared "peace is at hand," signaling that the unpopular Vietnam War was close to being over. Kissinger's bold declaration (which was thought to have had "little basis") helped provide Nixon with a late boost -- and subsequent victory -- in the election. Since then, most election cycles have followed this template of last-minute "news" that could reshape public perception of the candidates. In October 2016, FBI director James Comey sent Congress a letter stating that the FBI was reopening an investigation into Hilary Clinton's email servers. This story quickly dominated the news cycle, and many pundits believe it helped to swing the election in Donald Trump's favor. 

Are these late-breaking headlines calculated political ploys, legitimate news events, or somewhere in between?

Recommended for:

Grades: 8-12
Subjects: ELA, Social Studies, Newspaper/Media, Digital Citizenship

Prep for teachers

In the classroom

Hook (10 minutes):

  • Before screening the video, provide students with an essential question to focus their viewing: "In your own words, what's an 'October surprise,' and why is it important to understand?"
  • Show this Vox video: "Why every election gets its own crisis." Content warning: Contains strong language and sexual references. Here's an alternative.

 

 

Class-wide brainstorm and discussion (20 minutes):

(1) Generate:

  • Ask students to generate a list of words or phrases to this prompt: "Why do people vote for a specific candidate?" You might provide them with a couple of examples, like "trust" or "climate change." Note: You might have students write their answers on sticky notes and attach them to the board, collaborate in a Google Spreadsheet, or raise their hands and then you write their answers on the board.
    • Possible responses: Media coverage, family, debates, political party, looks, marketing, fear

(2) Sort:

  • Create two columns on the board labeled "Might be swayed..." and "Probably not swayed..."
  • Have students sort their list of reasons for voting for a candidate into the columns. For example, would someone motivated by fear be influenced by an October surprise? If students think yes, have them put "fear" in the "Might be swayed..." column, and so on.

(3) Connect:

  • Choose an October surprise for this portion of the activity. You can use an example from the video you screen, from the Smithsonian Magazine article, or from a more recent example, like the migrant caravan incident from the 2018 election. 
  • Remind students of the event or explain it to them. 
  • Ask students to write a response to this prompt: "Which of the words or phrases from the 'Might be swayed by an October surprise' list most connects to this October surprise? Why?"

(4) Elaborate:

  • Ask students to think quietly about the following question for one to two minutes: "Are October surprises news? Should they be covered by the news media? Why or why not?" 
  • After some thinking time, ask for a few volunteers to share their thoughts.

Student handout (3-5 minutes): 

  • Send out or hand out this list of fact-finding resources. Explain to students that they can refer to and use this throughout the year whenever they need to process breaking news.

Possible follow-ups

  • Teach or adapt a lesson from our Digital Citizenship Curriculum on breaking news, hoaxes and fakes, or confirmation bias to help students better critique election season coverage.
  • Ask students to poll/interview family members about October surprises. Have they remembered any examples from past election cycles? Are they aware of the phenomenon? Do they feel their voting has been affected by last-minute election news coverage or controversy?
  • Task students with researching and analyzing the veracity and impact of an October surprise using the credible sources in the handout or other sources they find. They can then present their findings by writing a post for a class website or blog, recording a video or podcast, or giving a presentation.

Top photo credit: Darron Birgenheier and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Editor's note: This resource is part of a monthly series that helps teachers facilitate classroom discussions about trending and timely issues in the news and media. For more, browse our library of news and media literacy articles.