The Teaching Role of Journalism

Earlier this year, I published an article about the intersection of journalism and teaching. The article includes examples of journalism tactics, like surveys and multimodal storytelling, that align to evidence-based learning principles.

This post curates some additional ideas and insights that I’ve come across while researching this. Some of the topics include:

  • Service journalism
  • Explanatory journalism
  • Learning outcomes + assessment
  • Cultural competencies and “news literacy”
  • Plain language
  • Transparency journalism

“Information that People Can Use to Better Manage Their Lives”

In my article, How Can Journalists Become Better Teachers?, I wrote about the shared civic mission that drives the work of journalists and teachers. Both professions are, in theory, oriented around audiences. In both cases, the work is about helping people become more informed consumers, more engaged citizens. Jeff Jarvis writes about this kind of shared value in a chapter from his e-book, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News:

“If what you do doesn’t carry information that people can use to better manage their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.”

That last part [I bolded for emphasis] is interchangeable. The same could be said about other civic-minded professions that Jarvis writes about in the chapter–organizers, advocates, teachers.

Service journalism, Jarvis writes, is a good example of a model that teaches “readers how to accomplish what they want — to get a new job or a mortgage, to use a new technology, to understand an issue.” Thanks to the emergence of digital tools that create more effective and authentic loops, Jarvis writes, can help us measure if this kind of work is advancing knowledge and having an impact.

Establishing Learning Outcomes in Journalism

A foundational piece of learning design begins by asking a couple of basic questions about an intended audience of learners: What will they know? What will they be able to do?

In teaching, being able to effectively answer these questions is necessary to establishing powerful learning outcomes. It sounds straightforward, but it’s not. Getting them right can help teachers in at least three ways:

What does any of this have to do with journalism?

Andy Mendelson writes about learning outcomes and assessment in the context of a “citizen-learning model for journalism.” Although foundational to learning design, these elements are largely missing from conventional news construction.

Good news coverage may be enough for some of the most motivated news consumers. But as Pew Research’s American News Pathways project has shown, U.S. adults have significant knowledge gaps in politics, especially among news consumers who aren’t closely following the news.*

(*You can test your own political knowledge here. I’m a “middle political knowledge” guy.)

There are some tools that loosely align with the idea of learning outcomes:

  • Bullet points and sidebars can signal what’s most important to focus on in an article.
  • Explainer journalism goes a step further, aspiring to help readers understand why something is important and relevant to them. As Vox’s Dave Roberts writes:

“People want to know how the world works….They don’t stop wanting to learn when they get out of school. So journalism is inevitably shifting.”

But they tend to fall short without more of an explicit and intentional connection to learning outcomes. Mendelsohn imagines a news product that is oriented around the audience’s learning experience, and that such an orientation would compel news outlets to establish “key learning outcomes” that can be used to:

  • Guide reporters as they cover stories.
  • Communicate with audiences about what they learn or be able to do with a news story.
  • Assess knowledge and understanding of a news topic or over time.

Accessibility and Cultural Competencies

Journalism and education both rely on distorted measures of cultural competency. Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editorial director at the Texas Tribune, made this connection in a CUNY Newmark J-School webinar on Sept. 3 that compared traditional journalism practices and mindsets to the hidden biases of standardized testing, and of education at large.

By design, standardized testing questions are written to measure, at scale, the general knowledge, intelligence, or grade-level math and reading skills of students. By design, they make certain assumptions about students’ prior knowledge that can be biased against minority groups that can break down along socioeconomic, racial, and cultural lines.

In journalism, Ishmael said, we make similar assumptions about what news consumers should know when they read an article.

“We have a tendency to say that, if people read past the headline, they should be able to know what’s going on.”

We get frustrated if people read too much into a headline or skip over important context toward the end of an article. We assume people understand sourcing and attribution or why we’ve chosen to highlight certain voices and quotes in a story.

We call it “news literacy” but it’s a mindset that puts the burden on the audience and makes news less accessible.

Journalism, Ishmael added, needs more transparency and alternate approaches for how we structure and publish. The Transparency Project is one such example of an attempt to open up the reporting process to engender more trust with audiences.

Plain Language

Another example for increasing accessibility is plain language, which is “writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly, easily, and completely as possible.” While conventionally intended for individuals with intellectual and development disabilities, ProPublica has begun to translate its investigative articles into plain language text, according to NiemanLab. Check out ProPublica editors’ plain-written note for an example of plain language text.

Becca Monteleone, a professor of disability studies, makes a broader case to NiemanLab for plain language and clear communications.

“When you write things down in plain language, more people have access to the same information.”

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Geoff Decker

Geoff Decker

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