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Draper Journal

Local youth historians to compete national competition

Jun 23, 2021 01:41PM ● By Julie Slama

Draper Park Middle School’s William Harrison wrote a 2,112-word paper titled, “The Power of Television: How Televised Presidential Appearances Have Shaped American History” to win Utah’s History Day contest and qualify him for nationals. (Photo courtesy of Suzanne Harrison)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

It started as a class assignment, but with an interest in politics, Draper Park Middle School eighth-grader William Harrison’s paper became a passion to relate how presidential races use television to communicate throughout history.

The 2,112-word paper begins, “From press conferences to town halls, board meetings to prime-time debates, communication is at the core of politics. Candidates who can most effectively communicate with the public beat out those who can’t, and incumbents who artfully persuade their constituents are the ones who stay in office.” That statement directly correlates to the History Day’s theme, “Communication and History: The Key to Understanding,”

In his paper, William illustrates that with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, quoting PBS, “According to PBS, ‘Before the debate began, public opinion polls showed a close race between the two men. But the television cameras changed that.’” 

Nixon was recovering from surgery while Kennedy looked youthful and photogenic; Americans believed that and it helped Kennedy win the election, he said.

“I focused on how the difference in appearance influenced the perception of the debate,” William said.

The middle school student also examined Ronald Reagan, who was a former radio host, actor and television star before his political career.

“Reagan was able to emotionally connect with the audience, bringing large swings in his approval ratings,” William wrote, including many examples of how he reassured the nation with televised speeches. “In 1983, President Reagan gave a televised address on the situation in Lebanon, in Grenada, which at the time had been an escalating situation. He had made some important policy decisions that were controversial.” 

Reagan, for his ability to be charismatic and relate to his audience, was nicknamed, The Great Communicator. 

William included Reagan’s thoughts: “I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries.”

William also showed how George W. Bush’s approval rating soared 35 to 40 points higher after the 9-11 terrorists’ attacks. 

“In his speech, he consoled the nation, through statements such as, ‘Today, our nation saw evil—the very worst of human nature—and we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could,’” he wrote about the 43rd president.

“I talked about the rally around the flag effect and how Bush managed to unite Americans behind him in a time of crisis,” William said.

He said that much of his research he was able to do on the J store database, where he could obtain 100 free articles per month. He also read books, speeches, debates and newspaper coverage.

William said his first paper for class wasn’t “particularly great, but I managed to improve it a bit for the regional competition and then, much more after” for state. “I went more in-depth. I found new research to add, and I added analysis as to how it is that presidents can use television to influence public opinion. I went into the fact that it’s very important for presidents to try to form an emotional connection with the viewer and appeal to the intuition of who’s the audience.”

He hopes to improve his paper more before nationals.

“What I want to do is contrast the classical uses of television with unsuccessful ones. I was thinking perhaps show Reagan and then contrast that with Jimmy Carter, who is not very good on television,” he said.

This year, History Day Fair competitions were held virtually to ensure the safety and health of student competitors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

William said that it was important that he picked a topic that interested him.

“If you don’t, you will have a lot of difficulty motivating yourself to research it,” he said, adding that writing a paper set him at ease versus other choices of delivery method. 

That was the key to a trio of Union Middle School girls, Allie Murray, Sara Russell and Ellie Glover, who researched and created a group exhibit that illustrated their findings about women’s suffrage. They said they picked a topic that interested them and wanted to learn more about it as well as an exhibit style they were comfortable with presenting. Their group exhibit, “Women’s Suffrage,” won the state title and advanced them to nationals.

Their classmate, Isabella Toledo, shared her heritage with “Quipus,” a way Incas communicate in South America, and was crowned state champion in the individual performance category. She also will compete for the national title.

In the senior division, Jordan High’s Elsie Grow will present her paper, “For the Advancement and Betterment of Humanity: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage at Utah’s Constitutional Convention.” Grow was honored with special awards at state, including the American West Prize and the Glen & Caroline Miner Prize in Utah History.

Other state prize winners include Midvale Middle School’s Aeris Lau, Cody Su, Jacob Nelson, Kimiya Mavaddat and Max McFarland for their group documentary, “The Pony Express: The Most ‘Note’able Men” and Union Middle School’s Hannah Cecil and Maile Gonzalez for their group documentary, “Pony Express.”