by Jeff Young
- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
What is the importance of journalism? Many students walk through their lives blissfully unaware of most of the events and issues going on in the world outside of their daily lives. As most of my students give little thought to the role the news media plays in our society, one of my early goals in teaching journalism is to get them to understand how an independent media is important in a democracy. They should know that one of the media's major roles is as a watchdog that keeps the people informed.
I try to tackle this through a quickwrite which asks the students "Why is the news important, and is the news important to you?" This is designed to lead to a conversation with the class about journalism's importance. I try to include recent examples, as most students do not know about Watergate, of times when the media performed its watchdog role. What surprised me when I first started teaching Journalism was how much background I had to teach. Many of the students simply did not know what I had assumed that they would. For example, I found that I had to give mini-lessons on what a democracy is.
Sifting Facts From Opinion
Students often have a lot of difficulty separating fact from opinion. They often miss opinion that is embedded in a factual statement and will put their own opinion into their news writing. A student of mine recently wrote, “In a desperate need to avert terrorism and the continuation of illegal immigrants [sic], Congress passed the Real ID Act on May 11, 2005. Trying to help students separate opinion from fact can be difficult and is an ongoing battle. I could yammer on endlessly and give worksheet after worksheet and would only see slow change. If I, however, go through the students’ own writing, pull out examples of opinions they have written disguised as fact, pull out some examples of sentences containing fact, put them on an overhead and discuss them individually or as a whole class, they seem to grasp the concept much more quickly. These mini-lessons on fact vs. opinion provide an excellent opportunity to discuss credibility and its importance to a journalist and a news organization.
Back to Basics
Students at an early age are taught the 5Ws and H and when asked, can quickly rattle off: who, what, when, where, why, and how. I discuss with them that these questions are the building blocks of the news articles that they are to write. Giving middle school students note taking paper already divided into six blocks, one for each W and H, can help them both learn basic note taking and also help them when it comes time to organize their notes for writing. I use this time to discuss with the class which W or H is most important. Obviously that depends on the article’s topic, but after discussing what the students like to read about in magazines or discuss as gossip, they come to see that, usually, “who?” and “what?’ are of most interest to readers. From here we jump into the basic structure of a news article and the importance of leads.
Differences in Design
Straight news writing uses the inverted pyramid structure: writers must organize the facts in the articles by order of importance or interest and not chronologically. Students are very quick to get the concept in theory, but find it hard to put into practice. Much of the writing that they have been asked to do in school calls for a much more chronological structure so most students need a lot of practice writing in this format.
To give them that practice, and not bury myself in pages after pages of articles, I keep the first attempts relatively short. The students read very short stories or watch a short video, I try to vary what I use and try to keep it light and fun to hold student interest. What I look for are videos or scenes from movies that are very short, packed with information, and will have the students sitting rapt with attention.
During the readings or videos, the students take notes on the prepared paper and then number their facts in order of importance or interest. We will then move to a whole class format, share notes on the board, number them as a class, and write a whole-class article.
Once the students have the hang of the process, they can move on to longer works, such as The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, or 15-20 minute videos such as the Wallace and Grommit shorts. What I find happens for many students when they begin to write these longer articles is that they begin in the inverted pyramid structure and then drift back to chronological. This means rewrites and reminding the student to focus on their notes as they rewrite and should help middle school students begin to see the relationship between good note taking and the finished product.
The Importance of Style
Just as I give the students rules for the structure of a news article, I give them guidelines as to style. We discuss using strong active verbs, using active and not passive voice, and keeping their sentences shorter while still varying their length. I have noticed that many students, especially those who write very well, have trouble staying away from writing long, convoluted, flowery sentences. With practice, however, they usually become quite good at writing in a more concise style.
The one aspect of journalism that students shy away from is the dreaded interview. Few students relish the idea of making an appointment with the principal or an adult whom they do not know. I want all students to interview adults for their articles because, aside from being necessary for some articles, it gets them out of their comfort zone. It gives them practice communicating with authority figures. In order to increase their comfort level with interviewing, we start slowly. At first they interview each other about small topics. Here is where I stress the importance of writing the interview questions in advance and, at first, it is important to help them get started writing questions. Later, checking their questions and giving feedback is also important. We also discuss followup questions and the importance of active listening. After that they may be interviewing a parent, grandparent, or favorite teacher. Then we move on to individual news writing assignments.
Putting It All Together
One of the more difficult aspects of assigning news articles is coming up with enough article ideas for the class. Individual, group, and class brainstorming help a great deal; when the students are the ones who create the ideas, they feel more ownership of the articles and often work harder. While the teacher may need to help students set up interviews, pass on interview questions for students, or even still help craft the questions, it is important to let them work through their problems, ask probing questions and give students feedback on their drafts. Through this process the students should end up with quality articles that they can be proud of.
Jeff Young currently teaches Journalism and Photography at Montgomery High School in San Diego, California. Jeff is the advisor for the award-winning student newspaper, the Moctezuman and was named Advisor of the Year in 2003 by the San Diego Union Tribune.