How to Teach Journalism in 2019

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 29 of 100.

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A NOTE TO EDUCATORS: I have provided a list of tools and techniques that I use in teaching journalism to high schoolers in the age of new media at the end of this article. (CLICK TO JUMP THERE NOW.)


Don’t get mad, but I was kind of excited about the whole horrible Covington High School mess. I’m not a think-piece person, nor do I delight in potent I-was-right-you-were-wrong moments from either side of the aisle. It wasn’t the actual event that engaged me; it was the discussion of how the media handled it, or should have handled it, or might handle such a thing in the future. And I wasn’t excited about that because I had a strong opinion — in fact, I was excited because I DIDN’T have one. I wasn’t really excited for ME at all. I was excited for my students.

I teach high school journalism at a terrific public arts high school in Chicago. The school itself amazes me constantly, and its students amaze me more. But best of all is the actual job of teaching journalism to an unusually diverse cross-section of 18-year-olds in the 21st century. Our classroom is tiny, but the school provides each kid with their own MacBook computer outfitted with the Adobe Cloud and Microsoft Suite. That’s really all you need to make journalism in 2019 — well, that plus an internet connection and the little camera-computers 100 percent of high schoolers keep in their pockets 24-7.

My students did not walk into my classroom last August particularly interested in journalism. Last spring, they had to decide whether to take this class with me (a relatively established teacher at the school), or a literary magazine class with a new teacher they didn’t know yet. I’m guessing they picked the teacher they knew more than they picked the subject matter. Over the past semester, though, I’ve watched a love of journalism blossom in them; I have seen them take on more and more ambitious stories; I’ve noticed them growing more engaged with the news at large. Also, lest this dewy-eyed assumption go unchecked, several students have straight-up TOLD me that they weren’t into journalism even the tiniest bit until this year.

The Covington High School story was interesting because it got at the very center of what I think is the most important thing with which a room of young journalists should grapple. Here are some of the questions that came up for me as I was reading and reading and reading about this story:

  • What is the truth? How do we tell it?

  • How can we be sure that we have all the details we need?

  • What is context? How much context is necessary?

  • What does the Covington High School story tell us about citizen-driven video reporting?

  • What stories most need to be told, heard, learned, and understood; and why?

I know some of those questions seem pointed, but I assure you I don’t know the answers to them. I had some answers to these kinds of questions ten years ago, but — and I think this is, for the most part, wonderful — the answers are rapidly changing.

In 2001, I was excited to grow up and become a journalist — the career I’d chosen for myself at age seven. Journalism at my own Portland, Oregon high school was a daily class: 50 minutes seven days a week devoted to all things newsworthy. Within the first week of school, we learned about the inverted triangle, why the word “lede” was spelled like that, and how to use the marvelously thick Associated Press style handbook. The newspaper office had those boxy early Apple computers that had blue or green back halves, making them look more modern and hip than the boring gray behemoths we all had at home. The computers came with a design program called Quark, which was what we used to lay out the paper. 

The students did everything: We had class jobs; we assigned stories; we wrote and edited articles; we laid it all out; we sent it off to the printer. There were roughly 50 (journalistically eager) kids in the class. The teacher, Mr. U, took attendance and read through the articles to make sure there were no egregious errors or offensive language. For the most part, we took the journalism class seriously, because everyone read the school newspaper, and newspapers were cool, and we wanted our newspaper to be great. 

When I started teaching journalism, I ordered for my students individual copies of the Associated Press style handbook. They also got copies of “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. I had fond memories of looking up the appropriate way to include a title or a number in the style manual. In writing, so few things are mathematical; it’s satisfying to have something in language where there is a right and wrong way of doing things. But my own students were intimidated and insulted by such a book. Surely this was on the internet somewhere, they said. (It is; but, I asked, isn’t it so nice to flip through the pages? To smell the binding glue? The students said definitely no.) 

“The Elements of Journalism” is an exceptional book that picks apart with great detail the philosophical groundwork of journalism. The gist is this: tell the truth; and the news belongs to the people (as opposed to, say, the government). The authors claim that there are actually ten core principles, but they all basically boil down to those two integral ideas — ideas that I completely love and fundamentally agree with. 

But this book could not have been written by two whiter, more intellectualized men. These dudes are writing about journalism being at the center of freedom and revolution — but their audience is wearing suits and getting into a car with leather seats; their audience gives generously to NPR every year and has a summer home on the coast. The people who are at the forefront of revolution in pursuit of freedom look and sound nothing like the authors of “The Elements of Journalism” — and so, no matter how valiant and subversive its ideas may be, this book won’t ever find its way into the hands of the people who need it. It’s a sort of “Purloined Letter” situation: my students literally had this book in their backpacks, and the ideas inside it could help them be the great activists they want to be, but they’ll never read it so long as it looks and sounds like it belongs in the briefcase of someone named Robert.

I still make the kids read this book. I have them read it in class (because trust me: no one is picking this thing up off their bedside table), and I assign the reading alongside a quiz so no one will fall asleep. The quiz is designed to be fairly easy, highlighting the most important points the writers want to make. My students do not like taking these quizzes, but every time they do someone new comes up after class to say, “This is actually a kind of radical book; did you know that? These ideas are low-key amazing.” I did know that. But now we need to figure out how to get more Gen Zers to learn them.

A few things to note about Generation Z. A recent study (cited in Forbes) showed that for people born between 1995 and 2012, the average attention span is eight seconds. (That’s compared to 12 seconds for a Millennial.) That is at least partly because Gen Zers look at more screens at one time than any previous generation: on average, according to the same study, they might pivot between five screens at one time. The first time I saw this fully in practice, my mind was utterly blown. A student in my class had her iPhone, iPad, and laptop all playing different video files, and she was typing an assignment while she bounced between different devices to listen to and watch different screens. She finished the whole writing assignment that way. It’s not like it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of writing — but it wasn’t bad.

The biggest misconception that people seem to have about this generation (and, frankly, about my generation too) is that the selfies and videos and screen addictions are indicative of narcissism. I am sure about this: Generation Z is not a narcissistic generation. When displays of compassion, empathy, and selflessness don’t look the way they have historically looked, people have trouble seeing them. I’ve never seen kindness manifest as clearly as it does among my students. I can also see how painful it is to be shackled to a device; how much anxiety, fear, and confusion is amplified by access to constant virtual connection and communication. My students suffer a lot; and they know each other’s suffering intimately. They take care of each other in ways that are largely unknown to other generations. 

Gen Zers are also not ignorant to the ways that their devices cripple them. In all my classes, the language that I use that I find most effective for getting kids to put their phones away is: “Your phone is a little anxiety-producing monster that sucks up your time, energy, and happiness. It isn’t your fault that you are constantly being forced to know 30,000 things at one time; keeping track of all your notifications and connections is a major burden for you. It is a gift you give to yourself to put your phone all the way away. Nothing terrible will happen in the next three hours. I give you permission to focus on just one thing at a time in this class, to take care of your own self and your own mind for a change.” My students react to that kind of statement with gratitude and understanding. Those of us who didn’t grow up with smartphones can’t fully grasp how much of a requirement they seem to be. They aren’t always — or even usually — conducive to pleasure. The students understand that very often their phones are a source of great but seemingly necessary pain.

All of these realities offer implications about how we have to start teaching journalism. If attention spans are short, it will be hard to get kids to read longform articles. Gen Zers aren’t clicking over the The New York Times or the Washington Post the same way Millennials still do. So even if those sources (which have significant financial resources) invest in interactive news delivery systems, they don’t know how to get young people (the intended audience) to navigate to them. And, crucially, when a million things are flashing and blinking and lighting up all at one time on a single smartphone, it’s increasingly (and terrifyingly) difficult to get kids to recognize and steer clear of fake news.

Just because a task is difficult does not mean it is impossible. But our lesson plans need to change to accommodate the values and realities of an increasingly digital generation. That does not mean that we should eliminate or even minimize thorough, well-written, substantial reporting. My students are enraptured with excellent articles. The key is to get kids to understand the purpose and value of good journalism first, and then to ask them to own the work of bringing it to one another.

Back to Covington High School. I brought in my lesson plan for the article the Tuesday after the media maelstrom. Everyone who was going to be talking about the subject was already talking about it; Twitter was just beginning to calm down. I asked my students if they’d heard “anything about the Covington High School story.” Three of 16 raised hands. (My students, as I mentioned before, are diverse in almost every sense of the word. I have kids of every race, socio-economic status, gender orientation, and sexual orientation. To be fair, the class skews non-white and female, and its political spectrum is way left of center.) I added, “It was the photo of the boy with the MAGA hat smiling near the Native American man that was all over Twitter”; two more hands came up. 

As a fairly plugged-in Millennial, my social media had been FLOODED with this story all weekend long. You couldn’t get away from it. But my kids aren’t plugged into the same networks. The students who raised their hand had one thing in common: active Twitter feeds. The ones who congregate primarily on Instagram and YouTube were out of the Covington loop. 

This was actually perfect for the lesson I’d planned, because it allowed most students to take in all the information at once and draw conclusions around my big questions (see above). I’d brought in 16 different articles about the story, from all over the lawless internet. There were informational pieces and think-pieces; editorials on the near left, editorials on the far left, and editorials on the right. Each student read a few articles and then worked as groups of four to piece together what they thought had happened and what they thought journalists should have done with this story.

“I’m still having trouble understanding what actually happened,” said one student. “Did the Covington kids start it? Or was it the Black Hebrew Israelites? What IS a Black Hebrew Israelite?”

“I think the point is that we don’t really know what happened,” said another. “Even with the video, it’s hard to tell. There are a lot of versions of the story and even though we can see and hear some things, we still can’t know everything. Even the video can’t tell us EVERYthing.”

“Yeah. I think that some of these op-ed guys have a point — that we shouldn’t leap to conclusions. We’re so quick to judge now. This whole story is all about confirmation bias,” someone offered.

And then this, which was what I hoped would come up:

“But whose voices do we normally hear? And what are the consequences for these different groups? My friend got up in a white protester’s face in California, and that got caught on video, but not the way the white guy had been instigating her. And she got arrested. These guys didn’t get arrested. They’re being celebrated. It wouldn’t have been the same if the groups had been switched.”

Bingo. 

That’s the kind of nuance and careful differentiation that my students have the opportunity to bring into focus. They can challenge the idea that neutrality and truth are synonymous; they can pull identity and privilege into the context, and insist that this become a non-negotiable when it comes to reporting the news.

In every single journalism class, we analyze the news to see whose stories are being told and by whom. Overwhelmingly, decorated journalists are still (STILL!) white and male. Journalism, like (notably) tech and management, needs to reckon with the fact that the long-held “accepted way to do things” may need some tweaking. Our style books may need re-writing; our language could stand for some re-evaluating.

The New York Times is supposedly written at a 10th-grade level, but it’s still written for an academic audience, and it’s hard for some of my 12th graders to understand. This is not because they’re unintelligent or illiterate; it’s because they are MORE literate but in different ways. My students speak more languages — I’m talking about the myriad languages embedded in a fully digital world — with more adeptness and frequency than their generational predecessors could have ever dreamed. 

The purpose of journalism is to bring the truth to the people. This means that we have to (1) have an unfailing, nonpartisan commitment to what is true; and (2) adapt language and communication methods to speak to larger groups of people, not the other way around. Generation Z wants to act; it wants to make the world a better place. All things considered, journalism is an easy sell. If everyone knew what was going on in the world, they would be able to make better and more informed decisions. Governments lie, corporations lie, and regular everyday humans lie. As those entities grow stronger and louder through digital media, it will take courage and tenacity to tell the truth. We can’t rely on old rules, outdated language, and traditional methods of communication to make it happen.

So we have to keep asking the hard questions that will propel our students to act.


MY STRATEGIES FOR THE CLASSROOM


  • 20 minute uninterrupted reading time. I read longform articles all week long, picking and choosing the most interesting and well-reported pieces. Then I PRINT the articles out (five copies only of each one — scarcity is attractive) and present the various stories to the class “Reading Rainbow”-style. Phones have to be put away for this period; it’s the only time in my class where that rule is hard and fast. Students each choose an article that interests them and focus on this one thing for twenty minutes — reading their article and potentially annotating it for discussion. (It’s important for it to be on paper to over students some linearity and focus. Digital articles have too many distractions for this exercise.) Small groups talk about the articles and discuss what’s compelling — or not compelling — about the writing. The purpose here is to get the kids to fall in love with reading longer pieces of writing, so they’ll want to do it on their own in the future. (I challenge them to take home the extra articles to give to their friends or hand out on the train. They usually do.)

  • Differentiating fake news. I have students bring in stories that they think might not be totally accurate gathered from their social media feeds throughout the week. I bring in stuff, too (and the New York Times has a fairly substantial archive of examples for when I can’t find anything). We analyze everything about the piece of news. How can we tell this is true? Or isn’t true? Who would benefit from seeing this piece of information published? Where does this piece of news come from? Who is financing the distribution of this news story? Why do you think they’re doing it? What about the language might suggest objectivity or non-objectivity? Whose voices are being heard? Whose voices are missing?

  • Twitter literacy. I teach a few lessons about Twitter, since many of my students are plugged into it and seem to be interested in getting their news and information that way. We have a class Twitter feed for our student newspaper and kids take turns posting to it while also analyzing how other news organizations and individuals are posting about the news. 

  • Noticing anger. An early journalistic writing exercise has novice reporters make lists of everything they consider themselves to be experts in and use the list to create possible news writing topics. I also have students make lists of what angers them most. They already know their side of the argument, so I ask them to set up interviews with people who will disagree with them. This is very difficult and usually takes several weeks to get through, because we (and I’m lumping in other generations here, self included) are terrified of people with whom we do not see eye-to-eye. My students talk a lot about confirmation bias — or finding ideas and facts that back up what you already believe, and ignoring the rest. It’s hard to talk to someone you’ve bad-mouthed or felt angry with. But it’s also the job of a journalist to be able see all the angles — whether or not you decide to use them in your reporting. 

  • Deconstructed lessons on interviewing. In general, interviewing is the most difficult thing for my students to learn how to do and do well. When I was in high school, it was sort of a throwaway lesson, but talking face-to-face (or phone-to-phone) is a skill that is not nearly so normalized with this generation. So much happens via text that having a conversation — particularly one that’s on the record for a piece of writing — is profoundly hard for a lot of high schoolers. But this is a crucial part of journalism: It is absolutely necessary that we actually physically talk to one another so we can get a sense of the moment-to-moment complexities of any given situation. In my class, we practice interviewing each other, interviewing teachers and students from other classes, and making phone calls to organizations. We practice writing questions and transcribing brief recordings. Everything about the interview process has to be broken down into pieces. Even if the future doesn’t necessitate writing as its primary journalistic outlet, it will always be integral that we as humans who want to understand what is true are able to talk to one another. 

  • Hyperlocalism. Local news outlets are suffering, and student journalists can fill an actual void where our institutions are failing. Learning about the history of local and hyperlocal news can lead high school writers to report on their specific communities. When students are out in the world, I ask them to notice what they are noticing. Who’s riding the bus? What establishments are being torn down or built in our school’s neighborhood? What kind of graffiti do they see or recognize? What are people talking about when they’re waiting in line at a bodega? Even if students aren’t ready to professionally report local news stories, it’s valuable to talk about why a story about a neighborhood might be important. Who stands to benefit from stories staying untold? And what might happen if a particular local story came to light?

  • Encourage outreach. I don’t know what the future of journalism is going to look like, but I urge my journalism students to talk to their friends about the news they read about in my class. I see them getting excited about it. I know they care about the news for the three hours they are with me every week. That excitement and interest has to be able to spread. If students don’t care or know why to care about journalism, they won’t pursue it in any kind of meaningful way. I am not going to be the person to figure out how to engage Gen Z kids with the news, but one of my students might be. So the more they talk about it with the people in their lives, the better.