October 18, 2020

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I consider myself a dog person, which is kind of silly, since I will ooh-and-ahh over any sentient creature, and I will generally try to pet/stroke/touch anything that moves, whether it’s covered with scales or fur. I once saved a garden party by personally escorting a harmless rat snake out of the area — but that’s a story best told over drinks that we’ll no doubt have together one day When Normal Returns.

A cat has made itself a part of my routine by appearing at the same spot in the neighborhood during my daily walk. I stop for a few moments and scratch Kitty behind the ears, ask about its day and move on. (He or she? We haven’t reached the point yet in our relationship where I feel comfortable checking.) That cat is a bright spot. It’s what I’ve been encouraging you to actively look for — to serve your students with a full vessel because you’ve taken the time to re-sugar your own teacup. It’s not much, but it brings me a totally unexpected joy.

I’m willing to risk my relevancy to you this week by skipping the personal and economic disasters in our worlds and industries to tell you a small story from my life. I feel like you get those headlines elsewhere, anyway.

(If you do expect me to connect you with ongoing bad news, I will say that I’ve been so impressed by The Chronicle for Higher Education’s coverage of coronavirus on campus that I’ve subscribed to them. You can get their daily briefing here. Here’s their running headlines blog. And their senior editor Andy Thomason is a must-follow on Twitter.)

I hope you find something worth stopping and petting this week, something that takes your mind off the world’s stresses and that puts you in a place that makes you smile. You deserve it.

Class discussion idea

This week I saw some legacy media companies actively marketing efforts to be “transparent” — but what we ought to remind ourselves is transparency simply means that we’re explaining our business practices to citizens, a practice of which I’m a huge fan.

As misinformation continues to plague our digital landscape and creep increasingly into our real-life conversations, there’s an opportunity for us in journalism to preach this gospel of transparency and increase trust. How do we begin to infuse that into our fundamentals? Check out these examples below.

There’s this live video event from the Los Angeles Times, How did we make our 2020 election endorsements? Ask our Editorial Board, the latest in the paper’s Ask A Reporter series, in which journalists explain how they operate. The Washington Post has a similar video series, How to be a Journalist. And recently in The New York Times, executive editor Dean Baquet offered his support to “The 1619 Project” and explained legality and decision-making with An Editor’s Note on the Trump Tax Investigation.

More recently, Katelyn Polantz of CNN offers this Twitter thread “walk through” (highlighted because I love her phrasing) of documents that led to this Exclusive: Feds chased suspected foreign link to Trump’s 2016 campaign cash for three years.

I will keep banging this drum: This kind of transparency and pointedness is necessary for the public to understand journalism’s role in democracy. As civics education continues to erode and misinformation flourishes, these kinds of explanatory, behind-the-scenes peeks are critical and laudable.

Two take-aways here: Student editors would be wise to get into the habit of letting their fellow student readers peek behind the curtain. And professors might consider assignments that include a “How We Did It” component for students to turn in with their work, or engage in a class discussion about issues that audiences might be confused about.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What’s a news media practice or habit that you’ve always wondered about? (How do death notices and obits come into newsrooms? How do journalists know where to show up for tragedies? Who writes headlines — writers or editors?) How would you find out the answers?
  2. Have your students explore the Newsroom Examples section of Trusting News. Find some examples that resonate. Discuss what the journalists did, and why. Did you like the way the journalists explained the issues? What sort of voice did they use? Can you envision a project or product you’ve created that would have benefited from such a treatment? Discuss.
  3. Would knowing you’d be required to explain your actions and work for every future piece you created change your process at all? Why or why not, and how?

Thanks, New York Times!

Five student journalists got bylines in The New York Times last week when the paper asked them to report on the state of their campuses. “To find out what life is really like at colleges that tried to squelch socializing and slow the virus’s spread, we enlisted journalists from five schools to tell the story,” says Reporting Live From Quarantine U.

Editors at five student news organizations were tapped: The Daily Wildcat at the University of Arizona; The Independent at the University of Colorado, The Bradley Scout at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois; The Grand Valley Lanthorn at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan; and The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I also noticed that in the Times’ navigation under “School Reopenings” is a “College Journalists” section. Let’s hope they keep coming to our students for the real scoop.

On civics lessons

What a great idea for college newsrooms to emulate: The Arizona Republic offered this guide on how local government works to increase understanding about how voting impacts citizens’ lives. If you’re still looking for some election content that is both helpful and informative, use this as a guide. It’s also a great chance to talk about election coverage and civics with your students — do they understand all the races in the area and what the job duties of each entail? Discuss, map it out, and then encourage them to publish it.

A missed opportunity

Alert newsletter reader Mark A. Larson, emeritus professor at Humboldt State University, kindly pointed out that I’d missed an opportunity to further educate my audience (and therefore yours) about the pitfalls of polling. He wrote that faulty polling in the 1948 election resulted in the “Dewey defeats Truman” headline in part because “pollsters used quota sampling (and allowed poll employees to pick their subjects) and stopped WAY too soon.” He linked to this good, quick summary. I was reminded of a recent Poynter column on the same topic: Reporting on polls? Here’s how to do it responsibly.

In-class fact-checking

One last pitch on this: Our MediaWise Voter Project Campus Correspondents have a few spots left before the Nov. 3 election to visit your students synchronously and teach them how to spot fact from fiction online. Several of you have taken Poynter up on this free offer and have reported being really pleased with the sessions. If you are interested, fill out this quick form. This is a great way to fill an hour with timely, relevant content before the election.

From the archives

I’m following with interest the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on its own checkered past as it relates to racism and white supremacy. In reading its journalists’ work, I stumbled onto The Latinos, a series that won a Pulitzer in 1984. According to the Times, “Latino journalists initiated and carried out the project, and presented the Latino community in all its complexity, featuring gang members and wealthy entrepreneurs, priests, police officers, university students and politicians. It examined issues that impeded Latino progress and celebrated improvements.” With the exception of some language choices that feel dated, the series in many ways reads like it could be something launched this week, not 37 years ago. But there are some takeaways for students seeking to examine marginalized communities now, and like any Pulitzer piece, it’s a fascinating read by talented journalists.

College/helpful headlines

Great journalism to share with your students

One last thing

Over the summer I was asked to serve as a judge in the College Media Association’s Pinnacle Awards, which annually honors student media work.

I felt the energy and commitment of a nation of collegiate journalists practically leaping off the screen at me.

My specific involvement and the category assignments are not publicly disclosed, but I had the honor of judging across design and writing categories. One category had 60 entries, and after I read the first two stories, I asked for an extension because it was clear that I needed some time to pop popcorn and dig into this student writing.

My advice to your writing students who want to take home some awards:

  • Your lead and nut graph are critical. Work them until they are perfect.
  • Every word counts — and every word count counts. When you feel like you’re going on too long, so will readers.
  • Pay attention to your word choices. Avoid any kind of -ese. Put things into your own words and make those words common while colorful, helpful while lovely.
  • Last, and most importantly, don’t write for contests. Write for your readers. See why below.

I hope all you advisers will read this to your students: Judging is so arbitrary. Your piece — or your competition’s — can turn on a dime. The difference between second and third and first is sometimes decided by the thinnest of margins — the tiniest word choice, the most basic photo crop, the smallest adjective.

Just because you don’t win doesn’t mean that there isn’t some judge out there anguishing over your work. I just lived through exactly that.

I am so pleased with the breadth, thoughtfulness and quality of our young reporters. Carry on and make me proud — I read every word and I want to encourage you to keep questioning authority and holding power to account. What you’re doing is important and meaningful and it makes this world a better place!

(If you want to inspire your students or find some classroom assignment ideas, here’s a link to this year’s Pinnacle finalists in writing, sports and photography. Winners will be announced at the CMA virtual conference later this month.)

Remember to stop and pet something furry this week, and see if you don’t feel your own ears scratched in return.

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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