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Sloppy news reporting lessons


In the era of the fight against fake news, we believe journalists must be aware of the social climate surrounding the work they do. The attacks and delegitimization of the news media on a national scale shouldn’t make us question the work we do.

We must be able to educate ourselves and our audiences about the role and mission of a 21st century journalist.

We’ve created this set of tools for educators to promote discussion about truth and credibility in the media we access as makers, sharers, consumers and evaluators.

Sloppy reporting

The first lesson explores ethical decision-making about what to publish and the importance of verification in that process. It is a case study that puts students in the role of an editor as they walk through a hypothetical story pitch and consequences of publishing an unverified story. The activity ends with a class reflection about best practices for verification and accountability. This lesson works best after teachers have already discussed how their schools are affected by state and federal laws (see SPLC First Amendment rights diagram) so students are familiar with their First Amendment rights as student journalists.

The second lesson builds on the activity from the day before by discussing the purpose of skepticism during the reporting process by looking at a real-life situation where a professional journalist was duped. It also examines the balance between healthy skepticism and unhealthy cynicism.

• What happens when a journalist gets it wrong?

Inaccurate reporting is not the same as fake news, but it can carry the same consequence. What are the forces at play which compel journalists to strive for accuracy? How do media organizations stay accountable for the work of their journalists? What happens when a journalist makes a mistake, and what happens when a media outlet loses the trust of their audience and/or advertisers.

Why, and how, can two people be exposed to the exact same news story and interpret it differently? Why should this matter to journalists? People interpret the news differently depending on their cognitive schematic structure, or prior experiences. It’s important for journalists to understand this process so they can better understand how their audiences are interpreting the content they produce, and so they can ultimately use that information to help shape their content.

Fake news may just be incomplete news if it doesn’t provide the audience with enough context to really tell the story. That can happen with alternative story forms if they just add visuals and fluff but little real information. As The Poynter Institute’s Vicki Krueger describes them, these are “charticles, non-narratives, storytelling devices, ASFs and alts, among others. Some stand alone as a story, and some are supplemental: forms that clarify, complement and explain information in a traditional news story.” In her 10 ways to engage readers with alternative story forms, she offers guidelines for their use. However, a staff’s first decision is when and why to use them. Note that these are to CLARIFY and EXPLAIN INFORMATION to avoid misinforming the audience. While alternative story forms can add visual variety, their main purpose is to accurately convey information.

Critics accuse the news media of only reporting bad news, but journalists must investigate and report on problems. One alternative to reporting solely on the problem is to report on how people and communities are seeking to solve those problems. This form of investigative journalism is called “solutions journalism.” This lesson provides an introduction to solutions journalism and encourages student reporters to generate ideas about how they could use this approach in their own reporting.

The community gets information about what is happening at school through different publications, but not all of these publications are journalistic. In this lesson, students will differentiate between student reporting and school public relations by comparing and contrasting student publications with school public relations content such as newsletters, school-created magazines or school websites created and maintained by adults in the community.

To go to another of the fake news categories in Tools of Truth:



Deceptive news



Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE

John Bowen, MJE

Maggie Cogar, CJE

Michael Johnson

Lori Keekley, MJE

Jeff Kocur, CJE

Kristin Taylor, CJE

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