My Journalism Students Don’t Know How to Edit

And yet they put out a newspaper every week.

By Gary Moskowitz

My journalism students at California State University, East Bay aren’t really journalism students. They’re “communication” students, who can, if they choose, take a few journalism courses and, if they so aspire, work for the campus newspaper, which I advise.

Because the concepts and complexities of journalism are lumped alongside courses in subjects like public relations, public speaking, marketing, and media analysis, our students can’t devote their full attention to full-on journalistic pursuits (which is an entirely different discussion and debate worth having). Some of the contributors to our newspaper have never taken a journalism course (another great discussion to have). The ones who have received journalism insruction are not typically given access to rigorous, advanced — albeit essential — journalism curriculum, like content editing.

Despite this, my students fearfully put out a newspaper — and maintain a website and active social media feed — on a weekly basis. So when they came to me recently and said “We don’t know how to edit. Show us how,” I jumped to it. But I wanted the concepts of content editing to feel tangible and task-oriented, not ambiguous and vague. Or subjective.

So I came up with four things:

I asked them to think of themselves as scavengers, bricklayers, hole-finders, and fact-checkers.

A scavenger doesn’t just READ stories, they aggressively seek out rampant bias, lazy reporting, confusion, and vagueness. They fix what they can, and flag major issues for the whole team to see.

Bricklayers? You rigorously determine if our story is laid out in the proper sequence. Are questions are being answered in a rational, meaningful order? Are we getting from Point A to Point B in the most most astute way possible? Is our story interesting and informative from start to finish? Does each paragraph convey one key point before moving on to the next paragraph? Identify structural issues and fix them. Rearrange things as need be. Make sure we’ve built something solid.

Hole-finders have an insatiable appetite for gaps in stories — small and large, unanswered questions, unsubstantiated statements of fact or opinion, missing evidence, and weak or false claims of causality or correlation. They find these issues and make sure everyone knows where the hole is. Then they work together to fill it.

Fact-checkers? Pretty self-explanatory, but absolutely essential, and a skill most of my students have not been properly taught. A colleague once told me, “Your mother says she loves you? CHECK IT OUT.” Anyone can copy and paste. We must connect every statement of fact to a primary source whenever possible.

Our new approach is working. My students are filling story gaps and reassembling stories on their own. Editing sessions have become much more purposeful. So have story pitch meetings. Our paper is improving. Readership is rising, and our social media impact has increased exponentially.

Why is it working? Because they’re being asked to read news media with a strict sense of purpose — news media that they themselves have created — rather than just look for mere typos. By critiquing stories as things that are built rather than written, our editing process is becoming more hands-on.

Teaching journalism in the 2010s is a bit like running a race: a strange, exciting, chaotic race in which there is no start line and no finish line for those involved in the learning — and teaching — process.

Why is there no start line? Because we don’t have time to go all the way back to the beginning and reflect upon the advent of the printing press and the history of pamphlets and early newspapers. We need to hit the ground running and jump into the fray, rough and ready.

Why is there no finish line? Because there is no such thing as being “done” learning journalism. Technology keeps changing they way we produce it, assemble it, share it, and interact with it. Even seasoned pros can be taught new skills, new methodologies. And, public perception about what journalism is or should be, or what it should look like or sound like, fluctuates. Journalism students must be savvy about these changes and come up with their own definitions. How they answer those questions can largely determine how they edit.

Why is journalism education exciting, strange, and chaotic? It’s exciting because of the endless storytelling possibilities and evolving platforms, including Medium, the one I’ve shared this story on.

But journalism education is strange and chaotic in 2015 largely due to the internet. And, because so many facets of journalism are subjective. What truly makes a “good” headline good? What makes someone a “great writer?” Do readers want truth, or do they want a “good” story? Can readers trust Wikipedia? Wikileaks? Is Buzzfeed helping or hurting journalism? Do readers want the writer to inflect their narrative with “I” and “me” or do they prefer the fly-on-the-wall approach? Do they want unfettered opinion, straight up, every time? Plenty claim to know what readers want, but those same readers can quickly change their minds. And who says the reader is always right, anyway?

I don’t know the definitive answers to those questions: they’re elusive and constantly changing. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to turn my aspiring writers, reporters, and editors into scavengers, bricklayers, hole-finders, and fact-checkers. We’ve got a newspaper to put out, a website to maintain, and a social media feed to curate. We’re not just writing, reporting and editing: we’re paying attention to every single word we type, every paragraph we build, every visual element we construct, and every story we assemble. We’re aiming to get as close to the truth as possible.

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