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Building foundations for great journalism

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by Kristin Taylor

Inevitably, my intro journalism students have one question: “When do we get to start writing?” Their impatience is understandable — they joined my class to become reporters, and they are eager to start that work — but I believe it is critically important to build a solid foundation in law and ethics before sending them out for that first assignment.

I want them to see the bigger picture — to get a sense of why journalists pursue stories and how they make difficult decisions during that process. I want them to understand their own rights and the role of a free press in a democracy. I also want them to have a sense of the laws affecting them — for example, what libel is and how to avoid it and what constitutes “invasion of privacy.”

It’s heavy stuff, so my goal is to keep them engaged during those first few weeks as we talk about journalistic ethics and break down how the First Amendment, state laws, libel laws and court cases affect them.

Here are some strategies I’ve developed that I hope will help other advisers build those crucial foundations without losing students’ interest:

• Make it concrete. Rather than just giving them a list of journalist ethics, ask them to apply those ethics to situations they could face in the year to come. For example, what does it mean to “be    independent” as sports reporters? Share coverage of a professional sports team and ask why the reporter doesn’t end with “Go [sports team]!” at the end. How does that impact their own sports reporting?

• Use case studies. Give students “what if” scenarios based on real situations or scandals and let them discuss and problem-solve. Provide relevant laws or guidelines for students to use as resources. Once they’ve come up with their own approaches, reveal the real situation and explain what happened.

• Have a debate. To introduce important court cases such as Hazelwood, split the class in half and let them debate each side, giving them enough information that they can see each perspective. At the end of the debate, share the actual outcome, discuss their feelings about the case and what they learned about its impact.

• Don’t talk too much. Too often when presenting this kind of information, we slip into lecture mode while our students drift away. Don’t talk for more than 5-6 minutes straight; get your students to think about the information, turn to a neighbor to discuss it and then share takeaways with the class — or — break up longer lectures with multiple choice games like Kahoot so they can compete to check their understanding. Kahoot is also a great way to start class to review previous learning.

• Look for multimedia. You can often find short videos to explain foundational knowledge rather than talking about it yourself. The Newseum Ed site — register for a free teacher teacher account —has great video resources about topics ranging from the First Amendment to fake news.

• Co-teach. New students, especially younger ones, look up to the older editors and advanced writers. Let them co-teach these crucial foundations with you. Your newbies will listen to them much more than they listen to us. You could also bring in local adult journalists.

• Reflect.  I believe this is the most important part of instruction, yet we often run out of time and skip it. Leave time at the end of every class to reflect on what students have learned and why they are learning it. Why is it important? How does it affect them as student journalists? As future members of society? Also, don’t forget to reflect on your own instruction. Ask students for feedback on how the class went and use that feedback for future instruction. If they feel like you’re all part of the same instructional team, they are a lot more likely to invest in their learning.

Whatever approach you take, this is the time to build the foundations to make your media program strong. Don’t let them skip “the boring stuff” — prove how important and exciting it can be.

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