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Teachable moments in journalism


As we discuss fake  and alternate news and work them into our classroom and newsroom activities, we should also look at journalists’ social responsibilities to their communities.


Take, for example, this lead sequence from a New York Times article:

Warm welcome for Syrians in a country about to ban them

CHICAGO — On Friday afternoon, a group of suburban synagogue members clustered at O’Hare International Airport, waiting to greet one of the last Syrian refugee families to be accepted in the United States, to give them the warmest possible welcome to a country that no longer wanted their kind.

In Washington, the presidential limousine was already speeding toward the Pentagon, where President Trump would sign a paper officially slamming the door shut on Syrian refugees. But here the volunteers had yellow roses, more warm coats than the newcomers would need and, a few miles away, an apartment ready with a doormat that said “welcome” in 17 languages.

“Welcome to chicag Hope you make your selfs at home” said a sign made by one of the youngest members of the group….

What are the ways we can critique the lead and the accompanying story (some might be great, some not so great)?

  • A when lead
  • Localization
  • Lack of identified sources for the first six graphs
  • Good observation of what the reporter saw
  • And more in journalistic style.

Because we always look for additional exercises using commercial reporting, we might say, “How do you avoid the when lead and ask students to rewrite the lead (I’ll leave that to you).

We might also ask students to look at the headline: “Warm welcome for Syrians in a country about to ban them”.

What points might we expect students to note:

  • The head does not repeat the lead
  • Is the head neutral?
  • What has been added in the head that the lead does not have?
  • And more.
  • How might they rewrite the head and why?

We might also ask students to look at the photo and the cutline: “Volunteers from the Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe, Ill., waited on Friday at Chicago O’Hare International Airport to greet one of the last Syrian families to be accepted in the United States.”

What points might we expect students to note:

  • Does the headline contain all the needed information?
  • Does it reflect the information and intent of the photo? What might they change or add?
  • And more.

As summary questions, we might ask:

  • Does the package of head, lead, story photo and cutline present a complete story?
  • What, if anything is missing? What might be added?
  • And more.

In taking all these steps would we have captured the essence, the social responsibility of the reporting?

To me, all this information lacked something: an approach to capture the reader into the context and essence of the story that came with my New York Times news alert on my phone to tease me to link to the story:

One of the last Syrian families to enter the US found flowers, volunteers and a nation about to bar people like them.

We can still discuss various elements of this teaser:

  • Is it objective?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Does it capture the reader?
  • Does it reflect the social responsibility of the media?
  • Does it make use of multiple platform approaches to tell a cohensive story?

And so much more.

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