A note to educators: At the end of this article, I have provided a list of tools and techniques I use in teaching journalism to high school students.
Don’t get mad, but I was kind of excited about the Covington High School mess. I’m not a think piece person, and I take no delight in potent I-was-right-you-were-wrong moments from either side of the aisle. It wasn’t the actual event that engaged me, but rather the discussion of how the media handled it, or should have handled it, or might handle such a thing in the future. I wasn’t excited because I have a strong opinion. I wasn’t really excited for me at all. I was excited for my students.
I teach high school journalism at a terrific public arts high school in Chicago. The class meets once a week for three hours. The school itself amazes me constantly, and its students amaze me more. But best of all is the job of teaching journalism to an unusually diverse cross-section of 18-year-olds in the 21st century. Our classroom is tiny, but the school provides all the kids with their own MacBook outfitted with the Adobe Cloud and Microsoft Suite. That’s really all you need to make journalism in 2019 — well, that plus an internet connection and the little camera-computers 100 percent of high schoolers keep in their pockets 24–7.
My students did not walk into my classroom at the beginning of the school year particularly interested in journalism. Last spring, they had to decide whether to take this class with me (a relatively established teacher at the school) or a literary magazine class with a new and unknown teacher. I’m guessing they picked the teacher more than the subject matter. Over the past semester, however, I’ve watched a love of journalism grow and blossom in my students, I have seen them take on more and more ambitious stories, and I’ve noticed them growing more engaged with the news at large. Also, lest this dewy-eyed assumption go unchecked, several students have straight up told me that they weren’t even a tiny bit into journalism until this year.
The Covington High School story was interesting because it got to the very center of the most important thing with which a room of young journalists should grapple.
The Covington High School story was interesting because it got to the very center of the most important thing with which a room of young journalists should grapple. Here are some of the questions that came up as I was reading (and reading and reading) about this story:
- What is the truth? How do we tell it?
- How can we be sure we have all the details we need?
- What is context? How much context is necessary?
- What does the Covington High School story tell us about citizen-driven video reporting?
- What stories most need to be told, heard, learned, and understood, and why?
I know some of those questions seem pointed, but I assure you I don’t know the answers. I had some answers to these kinds of questions 10 years ago, but — and this is, for the most part, wonderful — the answers are rapidly changing.
In 2001, I was excited to grow up and become a journalist, the career I’d chosen for myself at age seven. Journalism at my own high school in Portland, Oregon, was a daily class: 50 minutes five days a week devoted to all things newsworthy. In the first week, we learned about the inverted triangle, why the word lede was spelled that way, and how to use the marvelously thick Associated Press Stylebook. The newspaper office had the boxy early Apple computers with blue or green backs that made them look more modern and hip than the boring gray behemoths we had at home. They came with a design program called Quark, which we used to lay out the paper.
The students did everything. We had class jobs, we assigned stories, we wrote and edited articles, we laid out the paper, and we sent it to the printer. There were roughly 50 journalistically eager kids in the class. The teacher, Mr. U, took attendance and read through the articles to make sure there were no egregious errors or offensive language. For the most part, we took the class seriously. Everyone read the school newspaper, newspapers were cool, and we wanted our newspaper to be great.
When I started teaching journalism, I ordered individual copies of The Associated Press Stylebook for my students. They also got copies of The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. I had fond memories of looking up how to include a title or a number. In writing, so little is mathematical; it’s satisfying to have a right and a wrong way of doing certain things. But my students were intimidated and insulted. Surely this was on the internet somewhere, they said. (It is, I said, but isn’t it so nice to flip through the pages? To smell the binding glue? They said no.)
The Elements of Journalism is an exceptional book that picks apart with great detail the philosophical groundwork of journalism. The gist is this: Tell the truth, and remember that the news belongs to the people (as opposed to, say, the government). The authors claim that there are 10 core principles, but they basically boil down to these two ideas, both of which I completely love and fundamentally agree with.
But this book could not have been written by two whiter, more intellectualized men. These dudes are writing about how journalism is at the center of freedom and revolution, but their audience is wearing a suit and getting into a car with leather seats; their audience gives generously to NPR every year and has a summer home on the coast. The people at the forefront of revolution in pursuit of freedom look and sound nothing like the authors, so no matter how valiant and subversive the book’s ideas may be, it won’t ever find its way into the hands of the people who need it. Instead, it’s a purloined letter: My students literally had this book in their backpacks, and the ideas inside it could help them be the great activists they want to be, but they would never read it because it looks and sounds like it belongs in the briefcase of someone named Robert.
I make my students read the book in class (trust me: no one is grabbing it off their bedside table), and I assign the reading alongside a quiz so no one will fall asleep. The quiz is designed to be fairly easy, highlighting the writers’ most important points. My students do not like taking these quizzes, but every time they do someone else stays after class to say, “This is actually a kind of radical book. Did you know that? These ideas are low-key amazing.” I did know that. But now we need to figure out how to get more Generation Zers to learn them.
A recent study (cited in Forbes) showed that for people born between 1995 and 2012, the average attention span is eight seconds, compared with 12 seconds for millennials like me. This is at least partly because Gen Zers look at more screens at one time than any previous generation. On average, according to the same study, they might pivot among five screens at once. The first time I saw this in practice, my mind was blown. A student had her iPhone, iPad, and laptop playing different video files, and she was typing an assignment while she bounced among the devices, listening to and watching different screens. She wrote the whole assignment while doing this. She didn’t turn out a Pulitzer Prize–winning piece of writing, but it wasn’t bad either.
The biggest misconception about this generation (and about mine, too) is that the selfies and videos and screen addictions are indicative of narcissism. But Generation Z is not a narcissistic generation. When displays of compassion, empathy, and selflessness take a different form, they can be hard to recognize. I’ve never seen kindness manifest as clearly as it does among my students. I can also see how painful it is to be shackled to a device; how much anxiety, fear, and confusion is amplified by access to constant virtual connection and communication. My students suffer a great deal, and they know each other’s suffering intimately. They take care of each other in ways that are largely unknown to other generations.
All these realities offer implications about how we have to start teaching journalism. If attention spans are short, it will be hard to get kids to read long-form articles.
Gen Zers are also not ignorant to the ways that their devices cripple them. In my classes, I use this language to get the kids to put their phones away:
Your phone is a little anxiety-producing monster that sucks up your time, energy, and happiness. It isn’t your fault you are constantly being forced to know 30,000 things at one time; keeping track of all your notifications and connections is a major burden. It is a gift you give to yourself to put your phone all the way away. Nothing terrible will happen in the next three hours. I give you permission to focus on just one thing at a time in this class, to take care of your own self and your own mind for a change.
My students react with gratitude and understanding. Those of us who didn’t grow up with smartphones may not grasp how much energy they require. They aren’t always — or even usually — conducive to pleasure. The students understand that their phones are frequently a source of great but seemingly necessary pain.
All these realities offer implications about how we have to start teaching journalism. If attention spans are short, it will be hard to get kids to read long-form articles. Gen Zers aren’t clicking through the New York Times or the Washington Post the same way millennials still do. Even if these sources— which have significant financial resources—invest in interactive news-delivery systems, they don’t know how to get young people (the intended audience) to navigate to them. And, crucially, when a million things are flashing and blinking and lighting up all at once on a single smartphone, it’s increasingly (and terrifyingly) difficult to get kids to recognize and steer clear of fake news.
Just because a task is difficult does not mean it is impossible. But our lesson plans need to accommodate the values and realities of an increasingly digital generation. That does not mean we should eliminate or even minimize thorough, well-written, substantial reporting. My students are enraptured with excellent articles. The key is to get kids to understand the purpose and value of good journalism, and then ask them to own the work of bringing it to one another.
Back to Covington High School. I brought in my lesson plan for the article the Tuesday after the media maelstrom. Everyone who was going to be talking about the subject was already doing so; Twitter was just beginning to calm down. I asked my students if they’d heard anything about the story. Three of 16 raised hands. (My students are diverse in almost every sense of the word. I have kids of every race, socioeconomic status, gender orientation, and sexual orientation. To be fair, the class skews nonwhite and female, and its political spectrum is way left of center.) I added, “It was the photo of the boy with the MAGA hat smiling near the Native American man that was all over Twitter”; two more hands came up.
As a fairly plugged-in millennial, my social media had been flooded with this story all weekend long. I couldn’t get away from it. But my kids aren’t plugged into the same networks. The students who raised their hands had one thing in common: active Twitter feeds. The ones who congregate primarily on Instagram and YouTube were out of the Covington loop.
This was perfect for the lesson I had planned because it allowed most students to take in all the information at once and draw conclusions around my big questions. I brought in 16 different articles about the story from all over the lawless internet. There were informational pieces and think pieces; editorials on the near left, editorials on the far left, editorials on the right. Each student read a few articles, and then they worked as groups of four to piece together what they thought had happened and what they thought journalists should have done with this story.
“I’m still having trouble understanding what actually happened,” said one student. “Did the Covington kids start it? Or was it the Black Hebrew Israelites? What is a Black Hebrew Israelite?”
“I think the point is that we don’t really know what happened,” said another. “Even with the video, it’s hard to tell. There are a lot of versions of the story and even though we can see and hear some things, we still can’t know everything. Even the video can’t tell us everything.”
“Yeah. I think that some of these op-ed guys have a point — we shouldn’t leap to conclusions. We’re so quick to judge now. This whole story is all about confirmation bias,” someone offered.
And then this: “But whose voices do we normally hear? And what are the consequences for these different groups? My friend got up in a white protester’s face in California, and that got caught on video, but not the way the white guy had been instigating her. And she got arrested. These guys didn’t get arrested. They’re being celebrated. It wouldn’t have been the same if the groups had been switched.”
That’s the kind of nuance and careful differentiation that my students have the opportunity to bring into focus. They can challenge the idea that neutrality and truth are synonymous. They can pull identity and privilege into the context, and insist that this is non-negotiable when it comes to reporting the news.
In every single journalism class, we analyze the news to see whose stories are being told and by whom. Overwhelmingly, decorated journalists are still white and male. Journalism, like (notably) tech and management, needs to reckon with the fact that the long-accepted way of doing things may need tweaking. Our style books may need rewriting; our language could stand for re-evaluating.
The New York Times is supposedly written at a 10th-grade level, but it’s still written for an academic audience, and it’s hard for some of my 12th graders to understand. This is not because they’re unintelligent or illiterate, but because they are literate in different ways. My students speak more languages — I’m talking about the myriad languages embedded in a fully digital world — with more adeptness and frequency than their generational predecessors ever could have dreamed.
The purpose of journalism is to bring the truth to the people. This means we need to (1) have an unfailing, nonpartisan commitment to what is true, and (2) adapt language and communication methods to speak to larger groups of people—not the other way around. Generation Z wants to act; it wants to make the world a better place. All things considered, journalism is an easy sell. If everyone knew what was going on in the world, we would all be able to make better and more informed decisions. Governments lie, corporations lie, and regular human beings lie. As those entities grow stronger and louder through digital media, it will take courage and tenacity to tell the truth. We can’t rely on old rules, outdated language, and traditional methods of communication to make it happen.
So we have to keep asking the hard questions that will propel our students to act.
My strategies for the classroom
I use the following strategies when teaching journalism to high school students:
- Set aside 20 minutes of uninterrupted reading time. I read long-form articles all week and select the most interesting and well-reported pieces. I print out the articles (five copies only of each — scarcity is attractive) and present the stories to the class “Reading Rainbow”-style. They have to put their away phones; it’s the only time in my class when that rule is hard and fast. Students choose an article that interests them and for 20 minutes focus on reading the piece and potentially annotating it for discussion. (The printouts offer students linearity and focus. Digital articles have too many distractions.) Small groups talk about the articles and discuss what’s compelling — or not — about the writing. The purpose is to get the kids to fall in love with reading longer pieces of writing so they’ll want to do so on their own. (I challenge them to take home the extras to give to their friends or hand out on the train. They usually do.)
- Differentiate fake news. I have students gather stories that might not be totally accurate from their social media feeds throughout the week. I also bring in stuff (and the New York Times has a fairly substantial archive of examples when I can’t find anything). We analyze everything about the pieces. How can we tell this is or isn’t true? Who would benefit from seeing this piece of information published? Where does this piece of news come from? Who is financing the distribution of this news story? Why do you think they’re doing it? What about the language might suggest objectivity or nonobjectivity? Whose voices are being heard? Whose voices are missing?
- Teach Twitter literacy. I teach a few lessons about Twitter because many of my students are plugged in and interested in getting their news and information from the service. We have a class Twitter feed for our student newspaper, and kids take turns posting to it while also analyzing how other news organizations and individuals post about the news.
- Notice anger. An early journalistic writing exercise has novice reporters make a list of everything they consider themselves to be experts in, and then use the list to create possible newswriting topics. I also have students make a list of what angers them most. They already know their side of the argument, so I ask them to set up interviews with people who will disagree. This is very difficult and usually takes several weeks to get through, because we (and I’m lumping in other generations here, myself included) tend to be terrified of people with whom we do not see eye to eye. My students talk a lot about confirmation bias, or finding ideas and facts that back up what you already believe and ignoring the rest. It’s hard to talk to someone you’ve bad-mouthed or been angry at. But it’s also the job of a journalist to be able see all the angles, regardless of whether you use them in your reporting.
- Deconstruct lessons on interviewing. In general, interviewing is the most difficult thing for my students to learn how to do and do well. When I was in high school, it was sort of a throwaway lesson, but talking face to face (or phone to phone) is not a normalized skill for this generation. So much happens via text that having a conversation — particularly one that’s on the record for a piece of writing — can be profoundly difficult. But this is a crucial part of journalism. It is absolutely necessary that we physically talk to one another so we can get a sense of the moment-to-moment complexities of any given situation. In my class, we practice interviewing each other, interviewing teachers and students from other classes, and making phone calls to organizations. We practice writing questions and transcribing brief recordings. Everything about the interview process has to be broken down into pieces. Even if the future doesn’t necessitate writing as its primary journalistic outlet, it will always be integral that humans who want to understand what is true are able to talk to one another.
- Advocate hyperlocalism. Local news outlets are suffering, and student journalists can fill the void where our institutions are failing. Learning about the history of local and hyperlocal news can lead high school writers to report on their specific communities. When students are out in the world, I ask them to notice what they are noticing. Who’s riding the bus? What establishments are being torn down or built in our school’s neighborhood? What kind of graffiti do they see or recognize? What are people talking about when they’re waiting in line at a bodega? Even if students aren’t ready to professionally report local news stories, it’s valuable to talk about why a story about a neighborhood might be important. Who stands to benefit from stories that remain untold? And what might happen if a particular local story came to light?
- Encourage outreach. I don’t know what the future of journalism is going to look like, but I urge my journalism students to talk to their friends about the news they read about in my class. I see them getting excited about it. I know they care about the news for the three hours they are with me every week. That excitement and interest has to spread. If students don’t care or don’t know why it’s important to care about journalism, they won’t pursue it in any kind of meaningful way. I am not going to be the person to figure out how to engage Gen Z kids with the news, but one of my students might be. So the more they talk about it with the people in their lives, the better.