How Can Journalists Become Better Teachers?

What would America’s news consumers look like as a class of students?

Some seats would be filled by news junkies who do all their homework. Some students might be interested in current events, but unmotivated to learn more. Another group, maybe sitting in the back row, would be disengaged, distracted, or checked out from the news entirely.¹

Knowledge gaps would vary widely. And there would be a lot of misconceptions.²

In discussions, some students would always raise their hands. Others might want to participate, but feel intimidated, unwelcome, or maybe even excluded. Distrust would be a big challenge.³

What if journalists thought about their audience in the same ways that great teachers think about their students?

In the broadest sense, journalists and teachers share a mission to help their respective audiences become more informed consumers, more engaged citizens.

The difference is that teachers have a range of pedagogical practices that they use which align with evidence-based learning principles. The best ones design active learning experiences, build relationships, and help students see the relevancy of what they’re learning to their real lives.

How Can Journalists Become Better Teachers?

What if the construction of news were modeled on specific evidence-based teaching and learning practices? What would a news story look like if it were modeled on evidenced-based learning design?

To grapple with some of these questions, I want to highlight examples of journalism through the lens of four evidence-based learning principles.⁴

  • Learning activation: Practices that grab your attention, surface misconceptions, and establish “learning objectives.”
  • Knowledge building: Content that is clearly organized, multimodal, inclusive and welcoming, and aligned to learning objectives.
  • Community: A learning environment that is inclusive, welcoming, and civil.
  • Reflection and application: Approaches that promote reflection, discussion, retention, higher-order analysis; and civic engagement.

Here are three examples of journalism that promote research-based learning principles.

1. True or False Quizzes

Learning Activation

Activating prior knowledge is a teaching strategy to help students take stock of what they already know about a topic. It’s an opportunity to surface misconceptions and knowledge gaps, which is a motivator for the brain to fix mistakes and fill gaps.⁵

Screenshot from Washington Post/Philip Bump quiz about election fraud

The University of Texas at Austin’s Faculty Innovation Center lists a few different ways to activate prior knowledge in a classroom context, like creating concept maps or facilitating small-group discussions. Here’s the one that stuck out to me:

Quick Inventory: This method can be as simple as listing a series of statements and having readers identify whether the statements are true or false.

This is what Philip Bump, a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, was doing when he created this voter fraud quiz while covering the 2020 Presidential Campaign. (Click here if the quiz isn’t working.)

Bump created it to help readers make better sense of the election integrity issues surrounding this year’s unprecedented presidential election. We have seen a spate of local stories about apparent election process mishaps and blunders. Ballots that have been “taped shut” and “thrown in trash cans.” Bump turned these scenarios into a set of 12 true/false questions. As you answer each question, you can read about why it is or isn’t fraud with links to extra reading for each question.

Screenshot from Philip Bump’s “Is This Fraud?” quiz.

Even if you’re closely following election news, it can feel overwhelming to parse through the mountain of information, disinformation, and misinformation coming in every day, especially when so much of the worst parts are coming from President Trump and his allies. A quiz like this is a low-stakes entry into the topic. It’s more about identifying what you don’t know than it is about getting a perfect score.

Tip: Use Google Forms to create and publish quizzes featuring a range of question types.

2. Videos to Build Relationships

Community

Virtual learning poses enormous challenges in the wake of COVID-19, and they cannot be overstated. Building relationships, establishing community, and informal personal connections are such important pieces to learning. Recreating that dynamic online, amidst a pandemic, might be the biggest obstacle for educators as they rapidly transition to online learning environments.

Building online relationships is actually a discipline where teachers can learn a lot from digital journalists and other influential content creators.

Sophia Smith Galer, a digital and video journalist for the BBC World Service, is one of TikTok’s most well-known journalists. In August, Smith Galer announced to her 120,000 followers that she was working on a documentary about how TikTok could influence the outcome of the US election. She didn’t stop there. In subsequent videos, she asked followers to suggest sources and interviewed them en masse.

The hourlong BBC documentary, The TikTok Election, aired last week.

From an online learning design perspective, getting on camera to connect with students is incredibly important, according to Kansas State University Professor Mike Wesch. In his video, Make Super Simple Videos for Teaching Online, two of the reasons Wesch offers that I believe are especially relevant in journalism are that 1.) video humanizes you and 2.) video helps build relationships.

Smith Galer’s videos are a way to welcome viewers into her life as a reporter, and invite them to actively participate in her storygathering process. While these digital outreach efforts are often cited as best practices from a reporting process, they also serve to cultivate a sense of community.

3. An Email Newsletter With Multiple Modalities

Knowledge Building

Screenshot from Quartz’s Weekly Obsession

In teaching, lectures have been going out of style for years. They assume that professors possess all of the knowledge and that listening to them talk about it for 50 minutes is the best way for students to learn. There is no research that supports this, and there is widespread acknowledgment among educators that lectures do not help their students learn.⁶

Moving beyond the lecture, the best teachers design “multimodal” learning experiences that expose students to related concepts and information in different ways.

In journalism, the conventional 800-word article is maybe the closest thing there is to a “lecture.”

It remains a default model for disseminating news, but innovators in digital journalism and communications are also shifting away from tradition, through multimedia and interactive tools.

An example is Quartz’s Weekly Obsession. Every week, a three-person production team picks a topic and designs a comprehensive explainer that covers seemingly every angle. They’re all unique, but typically present information in a few similar modalities. Let’s take a look at a recent one, Post-Election Chaos. This one included:

A punchy and clear introduction that usually includes a provocative quote

A stat-heavy, “By the digits” section

Interactive components that include one-question quizzes and surveys

Screenshot from Weekly Quartz Obsession Newsletter: Post-Election Chaos
Screenshot from Weekly Quartz Obsession Newsletter: Post-Election Chaos

Links to multimedia, including a video explainer

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Geoff Decker

Geoff Decker

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Curious storyteller, writer and reporter currently exploring journalism through teaching and learning.