Kristen Alley SwainKristen Alley Swain

Meek School of Journalism and New Media

A journalism professor creates modules for various core courses helping students understand explanatory writing.


Background

The explanatory writing module developed through this grant includes several active-learning exercises and assignments for three sequential core journalism courses: JOUR 102-Introduction to Multimedia Writing, JOUR 271-News Reporting, and JOUR 377-Advanced Reporting. The activities were designed to help students develop explanatory writing skills for different purposes, audiences and media and to help students more clearly and accurately convey complex ideas, concepts, and information to public audiences. The learning objectives for the proposed module were linked to appropriate learning levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Beyond telling the who, what, when and where of stories, students often need more practice effectively conveying the how and why – the context behind the facts. In-class practice helped them learn strategies for selecting, organizing, and analyzing information and authoritative opinions.

Implementation

Three courses: Explanatory writing instruction across the three sequential core journalism courses included the following activities.

  1. JOUR 102-Introduction to Multimedia Writing: Exercises and assignments emphasized the knowledge and comprehension levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, by introducing students to explanatory writing basics, learning interview and source attribution techniques, and by challenging them to explain ideas both visually and in writing. Through producing coverage of a speech or meeting, a slice-of-life photo series shared through Pinterest, a profile feature story, a how-to tutorial video that broke down a process into sequential steps and visualization of instructions, an interview-based informational video story, and an in-depth multimedia news story focusing on a chosen community issue, students applied various explanatory techniques and devices.
  2. JOUR 271-News Reporting: Students learned to analyze and synthesize information from multiple sources, and how to shed new light on a key concept or process. The assignments and exercises promoted learning at the “application” and “analysis” levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Students did short explanatory writing practice based on fact sheets. They also developed traditional inverted-pyramid stories that addressed the who-what-when-where in a summary lead, as well as why and how within the first few paragraphs. Then they wrote profile features that included a descriptive anecdotal lead, colorful description, and supporting evidence. In the first semester, the profiles focused on student experiences with diversity at Ole Miss.
  3. JOUR 377-Advanced Reporting:. Assignments included a greater emphasis on the “synthesis” and “evaluation” levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, through production of content that clearly explains how something works or why/how an issue is significant. Since JOUR 377 has a greater emphasis on covering government institutions and using public records, the explanatory instruction in this course included practice in producing professional-quality, multimedia explanatory content through a process of synthesis and evaluation of these data and documents. Explanatory competencies in JOUR 377 included spreadsheet analysis, data visualization, narrative exposition, translation/interpretation of jargon, and web/library/public records research skills. Many of the techniques and exercises were based on materials from the national Investigative Reporters and Editors association and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Student Work

Exploratory Assignment Samples

  • Days of Intrigue. In spring 2014, the JOUR 271 class participated in a complex, two-day tabletop exercise called “Days of Intrigue,” hosted by the Center for Intelligence and Security Studies. Our “press team” provided real-time breaking news blog posts about an unfolding terrorist plot and related international conflict and interviewed seven teams of students from eight different universities. The teams represented the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI, NSA, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, State Department, and the White House. Students who had never written on deadline before were challenged to rapidly gather information and post stories on a public blog. They relied on centralized info flow (from the mysterious “White Cell” media relations unit accessible only via email), official press conferences, an anonymous “deep throat” source, agency leaks, a disgruntled source, and breaking news from competitors. They also had to deal with lack of authoritative sources or sources that refused to go on the record, as well as reporting about unfamiliar topics and unexpected situations on deadline. At the end of the exercise, four of the students and I presented a debriefing for the conference titled, “Ethical Media Dilemmas and Lessons Learned.” In our next class session, students completed a questionnaire and wrote follow-up reports reflecting on lessons learned, including skills used/needed, dilemmas, threats, constraints, realism, and how they handled challenges.
  • Planet Forward. Every semester, students in any of the three courses produce interview-based video stories about local sustainability issues for Planet Forward.org such as campus environmental initiatives, research, or problems. This assignment challenged students to develop newsworthy stories on unfamiliar topics and explain (and illustrate) complex concepts or conflicting viewpoints. University of Mississippi is one of 14 members of Planet Forward’s international university consortium. Since 2009, Planet Forward has published more than 250 of my students’ videos. Student peers, Planet Forward producers (via Skype sessions), and I critique draft videos before the students finalize their projects. Planet Forward selects the best submissions and then pushes the published content out to the public, social media, and partner organizations such as National Geographic, Discovery, and Gannett.
  • Research-based story assignments. Three existing JOUR 377 assignments (policy analysis, sustainability video story, and a research feature) were sequenced to build student research and explanation skills. Daniels, Zemelman and Steineke (2007) recommend a series of research-based explanatory writing assignments, rather than only one traditional library-based assignment. These assignments challenged students to illuminate a significant and complex subject, from a fresh angle, by examining and conveying complex ideas and information clearly and accurately.
  • Pulitzer story analysis. Award-winning news and feature stories are excellent models for analyzing the structure of explanatory writing. Students in JOUR 271 and JOUR 377 analyzed different aspects of Pulitzer Prize-winning explanatory stories. This approach is supported by Gallagher (2011), who encourages instructors to demonstrate explanatory writing by using an engaging model text. Students were asked to read and analyze the components of a Pulitzer winning explanatory piece. Our discussions of these stories helped students understand the thought processes of the journalists and how they waded through records and reports, found and interviewed sources, verified quotes, and put it all together in flowing prose that holds the reader’s interest. We talked about how these exemplary stories ultimately helped to right a wrong, got a law passed to solve a problem, exposed wrongdoing or the root of an issue, or helped the public grasp a critical but complex problem. In JOUR 377, students additionally were asked to identify the explanation devices in the Pulitzer stories they selected, based on Rowan’s (1998) three-part typology: quasi-scientific, elucidating, and transformative explanations

Reflections

In spring 2015, the explanatory writing modules will be made available to all instructors of the three courses via a shared Box folder. Feedback will be solicited from instructors who use these materials.

An Explanatory Writing Framework for Three Core Journalism Courses

IdeaReportingWritingRevision
Story idea developmentID and evaluate authoritative interview sourcesEvaluate all evidence for accuracy, completenessinitial proofing (mechanics, style)
ID news valuesID diverse voices and stakeholdersEvaluate which quotes to paraphrase, use verbatim Add transitions
Preliminary ResearchID info gathering opportunities, constraints, dilemmas, deadlineID story frame/angle and structureFollow-up Qs (fill in gaps)
Story pitchDevelop key Qs. Q orderTranslate complex ideas or unfamiliar terms Final editing (conciseness, flow, fact checks, etc.)