Amnesty: More Than A Word

Amnesty: More Than A Word


Ever yelled “fire!” in a really crowded theater? Don’t. It’ll probably get you arrested. Because language can inspire emotions (panic!) in addition to conveying information (the building is on fire), we have to be careful not to let words do our thinking for us. This lesson will teach students to identify when emotive terms, in this case “amnesty,” alter their perceptions and obscure the facts. Students will examine two advertisements, both of which claimed a 2007 immigration reform bill would provide “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. Students will also analyze polling data that show how the word “amnesty” affected public perceptions.


In this activity students will:
  • Assess how the use of emotive terms like “amnesty” can influence a person’s thinking.
  • Practice neutralizing expressive language in groups and independently.
  • Research a bill and check the accuracy of advertising claims.
  • Write their own, accurate advertisement for or against the Senate immigration bill.


On June 18, 2007, a new version of the controversial immigration reform bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate. Two conservative groups, and Citizens United, produced television ads that claimed the bill would grant “amnesty” to millions of illegal immigrants. The Citizens United advertisement went as far as to claim the bill would “put millions of people who are in our country illegally, including potential terrorists and gang members, on a path to U.S. citizenship,” among other assertions.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “amnesty” as “a general overlooking or pardon of past offenses, by the ruling authority.” Based on this definition, the bill would not grant “amnesty.” Illegal immigrants, in order to acquire a temporary visa and move forward on a path to citizenship, would be forced to pay penalties, submit to background checks, and return home to wait before they could become permanent residents and ultimately citizens. The bill would also deny convicted felons and actual terrorists the right to enter or remain in the United States, and it would deem them deportable.

This lesson plan gives students the opportunity to explore how the word “amnesty” can be used to do the thinking for an unsuspecting viewer of these political ads. Students will examine polling data that reflects the power of the word “amnesty” in the immigration debate. Students will then research the bill’s provisions and craft their own political advertisements using accurate language to describe the bill’s provisions. They will also have the option of completing a take-home assignment in which they will analyze an ad that misleadingly uses the word “assault weapons.” This optional lesson will allow them to practice, on their own, the skills they learned in the classroom.


Make copies for each student of the storyboards of the ads, the Don’t Be Fooled guide to avoiding deception and the Emotive Language Handout. Also, determine how many packets of the remaining materials you’ll need for small groups of 3 to 5 students and make enough copies for the groups. (Note: Even if you are able to show the video of the ads in class, you will probably want students to have the storyboards as backup.) Explain to the class that they will be examining some claims made in June 2007 about the Senate immigration bill, along with evidence that may support or contradict those claims. Explain that they should apply the five steps outlined in the Don’t Be Fooled guide. Have them refer to their handout on this. Specifically, they should:

  • Keep an open mind. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a claim is correct just because it fits your biases.
  • Ask the right questions. Look for the conclusion of the argument and then ask yourself what reasons you are being given for that conclusion. Examine each factual claim and ask what evidence would prove it right or wrong. Then ask whether the premises logically support the conclusions.
  • Cross-check. Look for more than one source of evidence before making up your mind.
  • Consider the source. Think about which sources of information are most trustworthy.
  • Weigh the evidence. Do the facts support the ad’s message?


1. Advertisement #1:
2. Advertisement #2: Citizens United.
3. Advertisement #3: (for the optional activity).
4. Storyboard #1: Advertisement.
5. Storyboard #2: Citizens United Advertisement.
6. Storyboard #3: Advertisement (for the optional activity).
7. Research Materials: United Advertisements (Project Vote Smart).
8. Research Materials: United Advertisements (
9. Research Materials:
10. Polling Questionnaire.
11. Pew Polling Results (pages 1-4).
12. Don’t Be Fooled Guide.
13. Emotive Language Handout.


Exercise #1 – Keeping an open mind

To the teacher: Emphasize to students the need to keep an open mind in their research and analysis. People tend to accept any information that supports what they already believe and reject information that conflicts with those beliefs. Many of the words advertisers use have an emotional impact that can sway inattentive viewers. We call these “emotive” terms or phrases.

In this case, the word “amnesty” has such an effect. When used, the word has been shown to produce an intense reaction from voters. But the word “amnesty” is not an accurate description of the immigration reform measure. The word “amnesty” can be replaced with more accurate, informative terms that serve to provide the viewer with precise, applicable information.

Using the 2007 immigration reform bill as an example, the lesson will introduce students to a useful and reliable polling source, The Pew Research Center for The People and The Press. The lesson also will give students an opportunity to see firsthand the effect misleading, emotive words can have on their own opinions. This exercise will allow the teacher to gauge the extent to which students are affected by the language in these ads.

Have the students view both the and Citizens United advertisements. Then hand out a copy of the Polling Questionnaire to each student. Have students fill out the questions anonymously and bring their completed questionnaires to the front of the class. Shuffle the stack of questionnaires and split it into equal parts. Have teams of students tally the responses and convert the total numbers into percentages.

After the students have finished tabulating the responses, hand out the results of the actual Pew poll and conduct a class discussion around the following questions:
  • How closely did the class’ response mirror the Pew poll results?
  • What did you know about the bill before you watched the ad?
  • Based on the ad, did you have enough information to make a decision? What additional information do you think you needed, if any?
  • Where would you go if you wanted more information?
  • Did you believe the ad was accurate? Why or why not?
  • Can you think of other advertisements that use emotive language to obscure or mislead?
  • Were there particular words or phrases that influenced your decision one way or another?
Exercise #2 – Asking the right questions

To the teacher: Encourage students not to accept claims at face value. Rather, have students test claims by asking a few questions. Who is speaking, and where are they getting their information? How can I validate what they’re saying? What facts would prove this claim wrong? Does the evidence presented really back up what’s being said? If an ad says a product is “better,” for instance, what does that mean? Better than what?

Arguments consist of sentences that use language informatively. But, of course, not all sentences are informative. Some are emotive, which means they use language in a poetic fashion. Emotive language is intended to express feelings and attitudes. In the case of these two advertisements, the emotive function is meant to trigger a certain reaction in viewers. The word “amnesty” could inspire a sense of injustice. Other emotive terms, such as “Washington politicians,” could prompt viewers to feel impotent or powerless, while the euphemism “tragic day” and the blanket label “terrorists” could be used to inspire fear.

Emotive language can keep viewers from realizing that key facts are missing and leave them open to accepting misleading statements. For example: The Citizens United ad, after it rekindles the fear of 9/11, claims the bill would put “potential terrorists…on a path to U.S. citizenship,” which is both vague (”potential terrorists”) and inaccurate since it implies the bill would allow actual terrorists to become U.S. citizens.

Have students view the and Citizens United advertisements and review the storyboards (, Citizens United). Give each student a copy of the Emotive Language Handout. Allow students to pick out the expressive words/phrases in the ads as well as any claims they believe may be misleading. Their list should include the following:

Organize the students into groups of 3 to 5. Instruct them to discuss their findings and answer the following questions:
  • Do any of these words serve two functions? In other words, are there any words that are both emotive and informative?
  • Where else have you seen these words used?
  • What emotions do these words convey?
  • Do these words obscure or reinforce the factual statements? If so, how? If not, why?
  • How reliable is the source of the information in the ad? What is the source?
  • What information do we need to keep someone else’s choice of words from doing our thinking for us?
Keep students in their small groups and have them go through the Citizens United ad and remove the emotive and misleading terms and phrases. Their final product should look something like this:

Newt Gingrich: _______________ were in the United States illegally. Today, more than five years since that _________, our borders remain open ______________. ____________, the new McCain-Kennedy immigration plan _______ millions of people who are in our country illegally, including __________ and ________, on a path to U.S. citizenship. This bill_______even _____________ to be deported. That’s ________. The United States is a __________. The ________ should be nonnegotiable. But our ___________ was built upon a _______________. _____________ makes our laws __________ and ________ millions more to cross the border illegally – making the problem _________. Not ________. The new McCain-Kennedy immigration plan ____________ our borders, and it ________. Don’t let the _________ compromise our security. _________________.

After students have removed the emotive and misleading terms/phrases, have them replace the words with neutral terms/phrases. When they are done, hold a class discussion. Ask the students if they found the assignment to be difficult or easy, and how they think the ad has changed.

Exercise #3 – Cross-checking / Weighing the evidence

To the teacher: Be sure to tell students not to rely on one source or one study, but to look to see what others say. Not all sources are equal.

Now that students have parsed through the ads and identified the emotive and misleading terms/phrases, it’s important that students learn to seek relatively unbiased information from competent sources. Point out to students that they must keep an open mind and actively look for facts in order to counteract the sometimes erroneous conclusions that can be made based on deceptive terms and phrases. In order to combat the effects of emotive language, viewers have to be ready and willing to discover the facts on their own, while using reliable, impartial sources.

In this case, students will be given a article and a summary of the immigration bill’s provisions from Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that gathers and organizes information on candidates for political office. Using these sources, students should be able to check the phrases in the ad and determine if they are indeed accurate.

Keep students in their small groups and distribute the and Project Vote Smart research materials. Instruct students to read through the sourcing and answer these questions:
  • What is the definition of “amnesty”?
  • Were the 9/11 terrorists in the United States illegally?
  • Who are “potential terrorists” and how many people would that account for?
  • Would the bill put actual terrorists and gang members “on a path to U.S. citizenship”? ? Would the bill allow convicted criminals to be deported?
  • Would illegal immigrants be punished for breaking the law? If so, how?
  • Can accurate statements about the bill be conveyed in an ad without using emotive terms/phrases? What would the ad look/sound like?
During this exercise, encourage students to follow the five steps outlined in the Don’t Be Fooled handout.

Exercise #4 – Using informative language

To the teacher: The ability to research the facts and then substitute descriptive language for inappropriate emotive language will improve students’ ability to discuss the issues and make them less likely to be taken in by misleading ads in the future.

Have students in their small groups refer to their copies of the Citizens United storyboard. Have them rewrite the script using accurate text. Let them use as many words as they need, regardless of the length of the ad. Encourage students to read the ad aloud to see how much time the ad would take if it were to go on the air. When they are done, allow one student from each group to read their version of the ad to the class. Then have each group explain its word choices and make sure they are not merely replacing one emotive term/phrase with another.

Here is an example of what the ad could look like:

Newt Gingrich: Mohammad Atta and several other 9/11 hijackers entered the United States legally but overstayed their visas or duped immigration authorities with fraudulent documents. Today our borders remain porous.

The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill would require the government to improve security along the border and would call for illegal immigrants to meet a number of conditions before they could become citizens. But there’s no guarantee this bill, if it became law, would be properly enforced. And I don’t think the requirements in this legislation are sufficient.

The Senate immigration bill would order illegal immigrants to pay penalties, submit to background checks and fulfill other requirements before they would be given a temporary visa. But is that enough? I don’t think so. To learn more about what this bill would and would not do, read the Congressional Research Summary on the Library of Congress Web site.

Here are some questions that may facilitate a class discussion following this final exercise:
  • Why did you choose the words you used in the ad?
  • Were you able to rewrite the ad without changing the position of the speaker?
  • Can the skills you learned be applied outside of neutralizing the emotive effects of advertising? What other aspects of life are these skills applicable to?

Optional Activities

Optional activity #1

To the teacher: This exercise will encourage students to strike out on their own with new material. Take this opportunity to tell students that this exercise, while similar to what they did in class, will more closely mirror reality since, more often than not, students will be viewing and processing these ads on their own. For more on the term “Death Tax,” see the lesson plan titled “John McCain’s Tax Stand Misrepresented.”

In an effort to sway the viewer, a advertisement on the assault weapons ban uses emotive terms and images to convey a misleading message. The ad asserts that President Bush would let the “assault weapons ban expire,” while “John Kerry, a sportsman and a hunter, would keep them illegal.” However, the guns shown in the ad are fully automatic weapons, which have been illegal since 1934 and would not be made legal even if the assault weapons ban expired. The assault weapons ban merely prevented the import and manufacturing of certain semiautomatic weapons. The ad’s use of images and words such as “assault weapon” obscures the facts.

Hand out the storyboard, and/or assign students to watch the ad at home. Along with the storyboard, hand each student a copy of the Don’t Be Fooled and Emotive Language Handout. Also give them the research materials they will need to research the ad. Students will rewrite the ad, stripping it of overly emotive language. Students should repeat the steps from Exercises #1 – #3 (that is, they should identify instances of emotive language; research the issue to determine whether or not the terms are appropriate; and then replace the terms, if necessary, with more neutral, accurate language). Ask them to bring to class a copy of their rewritten script along with a list of the emotive words and phrases they believe were used to obscure the facts and mislead the viewer.

Their rewritten version of the ad may look something like this:

Announcer: This is an automatic weapon. It can fire up to 300 rounds a minute. It’s the weapon most feared by our police. In the hands of terrorists it could kill hundreds. That’s why these weapons are illegal. John Kerry, a sportsman and a hunter, would keep them illegal. So would George W. Bush.

On Sept. 13, George Bush will let the assault weapons ban expire. But the assault weapons ban prohibits certain semiautomatic weapons. Fully automatic weapons, like the one featured in this ad, will still be illegal. If you don’t believe me, ask the Department of Justice.

And their list of emotive words may look something like this:
  • assault weapon
  • 300 rounds/minute
  • terrorists
  • illegal 
  • feared
  • keep America safer
In class, have students read their new ad scripts and follow-up with a general class discussion around the following questions:
  • Now that you have identified the emotive words in the ad, let’s discuss the images. How did the images and sounds in the ad mislead viewers?
  • Did the emotive terms/phrases obscure the facts? If so, how? If not, why?
  • Did the type of influence the emotive terms/phrases had over the viewer change when the factual statements in the ad were changed?

Encourage students to discuss colors and sound effects when discussing the ad. The sound of an automatic weapon and the use of black-and-white photographs, white space and the color red contribute to a sense of drama, fear and dread that could sway viewers.

About the Author

Emi Kolawole earned her B.A. in international relations and theater studies from Wellesley College. She has studied at the National Theater Institute in New London, Conn., and the Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris. She joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center in November 2005 after working as a news researcher at Congressional Quarterly on issues of defense, foreign policy, intelligence and homeland security. Previously, she was a production assistant at PBS’ “NOW With Bill Moyers” and worked in the Washington area office of a defense contractor.

Correlation to National Standards

National Social Studies Standards

VI. Power, Authority and Governance Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.

X. Civic Ideals and Practices Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Essential Skills for Social Studies
Acquiring Information
A. Reading Skills
1. Comprehension
2. Vocabulary
B. Study Skills
1. Find Information
2. Arrange Information in Usable Forms
C. Reference & Information-Search Skills
2. Special References
3. Maps, Globes, Graphics
D. Technical Skills Unique to Electronic Devices
1. Computer

Organizing and Using Information
A. Thinking Skills
1. Classify Information
2. Interpret Information
3. Analyze Information
4. Summarize Information
5. Synthesize Information
6. Evaluate Information B. Decision-Making Skills C. Metacognitive Skills

Interpersonal Relationships & Social Participation
A. Personal Skills
C. Social and Political Participation Skills

Democratic Beliefs and Values
B. Freedoms of the Individual
C. Responsibilities of the Individual
D. Beliefs Concerning Societal Conditions and Governmental Responsibilities

National Mathematics Standards
Number and Operations Standard
Algebra Standard
Data Analysis and Probability Standard
Process Standards
Problem Solving Standard
Connections Standard

National Educational Technology Standards
Profiles for Technology Literate Students
Performance Indicators
2.Make informed choices among technology systems, resources, and services.
7. Routinely and efficiently use online information resources to meet needs for collaboration, research, publication, communication, and productivity.
8. Select and apply technology tools for research, information analysis, problem solving, and decision making in content learning.

Information Literacy Standards

Information Literacy
Standard 1 accesses information efficiently and effectively.
Standard 2 evaluates information critically and competently.
Standard 3 uses information accurately and creatively.
Social Responsibility
Standard 7 recognizes the importance of information to a democratic society.
Standard 8 practices ethical behavior in regard to information and information technology.
Standard 9 participates effectively in groups to pursue and generate information.

English Language Arts Standards

Standard 1 Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary work.
Standard 3 Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound- letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
Standard 5 Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes. Standard 6 Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
Standard 7 Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Standard 8 Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
Standard 12 Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).