The Power of Images | Facing History & Ourselves
People hold hands in prayer in the parking lot of convenience store that was looted and burned after Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo.

The Power of Images

Students examine how identity and biases can impact how individuals interpret images and experience the challenge of selecting images to represent news events, particularly connected to sensitive issues.


One 50-min class period


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

Sometimes a single photograph can have a far greater emotional impact than words alone could. This emotional potential makes photography a prime candidate for interpretation based on confirmation bias. 

As illustration, this lesson includes an interview with St. Louis Post-Dispatch photojournalist David Carson in which he describes a photograph that was interpreted entirely differently by two groups of people. In a separate activity, students step into the role of news editor to choose the lead image that will run on the front page, based on a different scenario faced by the Post-Dispatch.

  • How do identity, life experience, and point of view shape the way we “read” and respond to photographs and other images?
  • What factors should be considered when selecting images associated with a news event?
  • Students will be able to recognize that any one image can be interpreted differently depending on a viewer’s point of view, life experiences, and biases. 
  • Students will be able to describe the challenges in selecting images to represent news events, particularly in connection to sensitive issues.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities 
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout
  • 1 reading
  • 1 extension activity

Some of the imagery used by the media as part of their coverage of Ferguson was itself the subject of debate. On August 14, just days after Michael Brown’s death, the New York Times published the article “Ferguson Images Evoke Civil Rights Era and Changing Visual Perceptions.” It included an example that shines a spotlight on a key challenge associated with selecting images as part of news coverage of fast-changing stories:

The Philadelphia Daily News was a case in point in the speed with which 21st-century image parsing can occur. In the wee hours of Thursday morning—in response to readers’ comments on Twitter about a photo the newspaper had planned to run on its front page, showing an African-American protester in Ferguson about to hurl what looked like a firebomb—editors changed their minds and instead used a photograph of an African-American woman standing in front of police officers, holding a sign urging answers in the death of the teenager, Michael Brown.

An assistant city editor wrote on Twitter to those objecting to the first picture that they would be able to understand the whole story, in a “sympathetic treatment,” if they opened the paper. But a reader responded, “Yes, in ten-point font I can see the fine print, which is completely overwhelmed by the picture.”

Images capture moments; they are seldom comprehensive or entirely representative. They are also seen through the biases of the viewer. In the example from the Philadelphia Daily News mentioned above, the protester was not about to hurl a firebomb but in fact was throwing a tear-gas canister back at police. However, many people would not realize this without reading the caption. 

While text can provide broader and deeper context, as this article excerpt indicates, many more people see the pictures associated with news reports than ever read the corresponding article or even the caption that accompanies and explains the image. In most instances, images have more power than the accompanying text, rendering the decisions that news organizations must make about images—especially the choosing of one or at most two lead images—particularly difficult.

Save this resource for easy access later.

Save resources to create collections for your class or to review later. It's fast, easy, and free!
Have a Workspace already? Log In

Lesson Plans


David Carson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was among the journalists on the ground taking pictures of the protests, police, and unrest in Ferguson. In the following video, he describes a powerful photograph that he took and the ways it was interpreted by different groups.

  • Project this image of a Police Officer in Ferguson and give students five minutes to explore it using the Analyzing Visual Images strategy. Ask students to share how they view the image. What is the narrative? What story might the photographer be trying to tell? What questions does it raise?
  • Screen the video “How We Respond to Images.”. Pause the video when it reaches the reflection question, “How do you think different members of the community reacted to this image when it was published?”
  • Have students respond to the prompt in their journals and then discuss their response with their neighbor before reconvening as a class. Ask students to share ideas from their conversations. Ask: What do you think Carson means when he says people view the image through personal biases? How many possible interpretations of this image can you think of?
  • Play the rest of the video. Ask students: Were you surprised by the different responses to the photo? How could confirmation bias play into these interpretations? Do you agree or disagree with Carson that this is a highly successful photo? Do you think it was a good one to put on the front page of the newspaper? Why or why not?

Students now have an opportunity to play the role of news editor by revisiting an actual scenario that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch faced on the night of August 10. Students will decide between two images—Peaceful Protest in Ferguson and Looting in Ferguson—for the front page of the paper.

  • First, have students read the article Day of Protests, Night of Frenzy to provide context for the decision they will be making.
  • Tell students that they will be deciding what the lead image should be in the next day’s newspaper. Let them know that four main factors tend to drive these kinds of news judgments. News judgment is the process of determining what should be reported in a given news cycle. News judgment is subjective but necessary, and it is typically driven by four main criteria: whether events and issues are timely, interesting, unusual, and important. Ask students whether they think there are other criteria or factors that should be included in deciding what image to use.
  • Share the two photos students will be choosing between: one of a peaceful protest and one of looting, included in the Materials section. Students will need to decide which photo should be the lead and be able to justify their decision. They can use the Which Lead Photo? graphic organizer to record their thoughts.
  • In order to capture the range of viewpoints and structure the conversation, consider using the Barometer teaching strategy, with each photo serving as one of the two ends. During the discussion, encourage students to be as explicit as possible about their reasoning. As you facilitate, you may want to tease out the implicit assumptions students are making about how the press should operate—and how it actually operates—in American society.
  • After the discussion, ask if any students would like to change their position. Let students know that the paper used the peaceful image as the lead image on the front page of the early edition, and, given that the looting broke out later that same day, the editors used the second image of looting as the lead in the late edition. What do students think of that decision?

You may want to hold a summative debrief using the Four Corners teaching strategy. Have students consider these questions: Should news organizations decline to run an image if it has the potential to reinforce stereotypes? Should media outlets always run the image that they think their audience would find most interesting? Should they always lead with the most recent image, or should they choose the one that editors deem most important?

Ask students to think about iconic images from historical or more recent events and reflect on the lasting impact of these images. What roles have these images played in the legacy of the events? How do they affect how students think and feel about these events?

Extension Activities

To further explore the power of images and the editorial choices made by different news agencies, have students compare the images and headlines featured on the front pages of a number of newspapers from August 15, 2014. What lead image and headline is used in each case? What is similar and what is different among the approaches and their impact?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

The handouts below are used in this lesson.

Download the Files

Get Files Via Google

You might also be interested in…

Unlimited Access to Learning. More Added Every Month.

Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif