Peer feedback is awesome

I’m sitting in class listening to my students give each other candid feedback on their interview skills.   They are learning things about themselves they’d never have gotten from my comments in the margins of their writing.

Some of the comments I overheard:

“You didn’t really ask that many follow-up questions, and you kept cutting me off.”

“You seemed prepared, but your style was a little too informal. It made me feel like you didn’t really want serious answers.”

“You were responsive. You laughed and asked good follow-up questions.”

“Most of your questions were yes or no.”

“It was like you had an idea of what article you wanted to write before you interviewed me.”

I was even more impressed by how the students reacted to criticism. They took down notes, nodded knowingly, and seemed to genuinely want to hear their classmates’ thoughts (even when they were a little harsh).

Peer feedback can be such a powerful force in the lives of adolescents – I’m glad this class lets us harness it for good.

Truth as a process

The New York Times Magazine took a comprehensive look at the American media’s evolving coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death, perfectly illustrating our course text’s contention that journalistic truth is a practical, functional and evolving process. From the article:

Where does the official bin Laden story stand now? For many, it exists in a kind of liminal state, floating somewhere between fact and mythology. The writing of history is a process, and this story still seems to have a long way to go before the government’s narrative can be accepted as true, or rejected as false.

Jonathan Mahler also addresses the seduction of narrative (often at the expense of facticity):

These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media. Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. During the Iraq war, reporters informed us that a mob of jubilant Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. Never mind that there were so few local people trying to pull the statue down that they needed the help of a U.S. military crane. Reporters also built Pvt. Jessica Lynch into a war hero who had resisted her captors during an ambush in Iraq, when in fact her weapon had jammed and she remained in her Humvee. In an Op-Ed essay in The Times about the Lynch story in 2003, it was Bowden himself who explained this phenomenon as ‘‘the tendency to weave what little we know into a familiar shape — often one resembling the narrative arc of a film.’’

Was the story of Osama bin Laden’s death yet another example of American mythmaking? Had Bowden and, for that matter, all of us been seduced by a narrative that was manufactured expressly for our benefit? Or were these questions themselves just paranoid?

Bias and style


The students are expressing mixed opinions about traditional news writing.

We’ve looked at some different approaches to conveying information: the neutral, objective “view from nowhere” and the more subjective, personal presentation style.

On their blogs, students analyzed the structure of their choice of article from the Associated Press’ website. They discussed whether they plan to write their own articles in a more traditional or more subjective style. Here are some excerpts from their posts:

Fairness is generally good, but in journalism it can cloud the truth if you include all of the points of view equally, because some of the points of view are more rational and “better” than the others. By emphasizing fairness in the “dirty dozen”, Asimov is encouraging journalists to potentially cloud the truth by including all points of view equally.

In my article, I will take some aspects from Asimov, and some from John Oliver. I will take the lede, the kicker, the nut graf, and some of the quotes, although I will be flexible on how many quotes I put in my article. From Oliver I will take the humor aspect of journalism. I will try to keep the reader interested by being humorous but at the same time keep my loyalty to telling the truth in my article. – Zohaib, 9th grade

The use of the structure can be used to press a particular point. In my article, this particular point was the possibility of sustained life on Mars – the positioning of the lede, quotes, evidence, and transitions was used to emphasize certain points and make the article flow more smoothly, in a way that was interesting and comprehensive. This had no effect on the accuracy of the facts or of the truth of the statement. –Shailee, 8th grade

I believe that you can be bias in an article, interview, or news story, but your method of gathering facts cannot be, or it would be an inaccurate article.  By only collecting facts and opinions on one side of an argument or story, and not “transparently conveying” the facts, the research you conduct is therefore biased and unreliable.  My article will take on John Olivers’ style of conveying the news, not masking my personal bias, but still collecting data objectively. –Jaddus, 7th grade


Offend yourself!

“What do you disagree with, but are willing to explore in order to learn new things?” – @irshadmanji


George Mason University grad student and Columbia University lecturer Roi Ben-Yehuda created a web challenge this past summer: for twenty-four hours, embrace an idea with which you vigorously disagree. In other words: #offendyourself 

In the video, Ben-Yehuda explains the reasons behind the challenge:

The world is complex, and yet we reduce it to narratives that avoid any nuance and any contradiction, and so we misunderstand reality. We belong to tribes, we belong to moral tribes, to ethnic tribes, to religious tribes, and those tribes tend to be ideologically homogeneous. It is these perspectives, and these narratives, and these identities, that themselves legitimize exclusion of the other, and violence towards the other, and make constructive dialogue within groups, and between groups, a lot less likely. Challenging an idea that the tribe shares collectively is quite risky. On the one hand, you have the risk of being unpopular, and the other extreme, you also have the risk of facing violence as a result of taking an unpopular perspective.

He argues that in order to engage with other people constructively, you have to possess two key qualities:

The first one is intellectual empathy: not just feeling with somebody else, but generously imagining what it’s like to think as another person. The second one is integrity, and by that, we mean not losing sight of your principles, your core principles and core values that anchor the worldviews that you hold.

If you just have empathy without integrity, you are an intellectual chameleon. If you have integrity without empathy, you’re dogmatic, you are rigid, you are unbending.

The goal of this challenge, which we’ll be engaging next week in Truth in Media, is to build intellectual empathy.  The purpose is not to change your views; it’s to engage the kinds of ideas, experiences, and perspectives that you otherwise purposefully or accidentally avoid.


The Challenge: For twenty-four hours, you’ll generously imagine what it’s like to be a person who embraces an idea with which you vigorously disagree. You’ll seek out information confirming this idea: articles, social media posts, videos, books, conversations with people. Entertain the idea; consider the experiences, traditions, and values that might inform the people who possess it. Perhaps explore the history or geography of this idea: when or where has it been popular? At the end of your twenty-four hours, post to your blog reflecting on your experience and new insights. Explain why you selected your chosen “offensive” idea. Share or paraphrase any informational sources you consulted during the challenge.


Criteria for your choice of idea:

  • Must challenge a belief shared by you and one or more of your social groups (peers, family, neighbors, etc.) because there should be a social risk associated with challenging this belief
  • Must have accessible sources confirming it (articles, blogs, videos, academic communities, etc.)
  • You should be able to explain in your blog post why temporarily embracing this idea will be an intellectually-worthwhile experience for you.

What makes a good question?


In preparation for drafting their first news articles, students collaborated to come up with norms we’ll all follow during interviews. (I should mention that the term “sexy quote” comes from Asimov’s Dirty Dozen).

The lists on the board are entirely student-generated. They also came up with a sophisticated response to the “purpose of interviews for journalists”:

To pursue the full truth, document it authoritatively, present it transparently, and humanize issues and events.

This is an insightful bunch.

I think my favorite moment was when Sofi (perhaps unknowingly, but probably knowingly, drawing on Louis CK) suggested a journalist should basically “act like a person” during an interview. The optimism and prescience are strong in that one.

In the second half of class, they practiced interviewing each other. (We did “musical chairs” to randomly pair them. Musical chairs is exactly the awkward compulsory act set to music that I remember it being in elementary school. But it’s so much fun to watch).

They drafted questions for a fictitious article on how courses here at the Loudoun School are different from those at other secondary schools. I reminded them to uphold the norms they listed earlier on the board, and they went off to different corners of our campus.

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At the end of class, we debriefed. Students pointed out when they felt awkward, and what effective things the interviewers did to get them to relax. They also noticed what kinds of questions helped them open up — and which ones might have been too open.

Summer recognized some of the reasons an interviewer might not seem fully engaged: it takes a lot of focus to listen, transcribe, ask, and refer to notes. There’s so much temptation to hunch over the notepad instead of maintaining normal eye contact and open posture. Especially since interviewing can be such a nerve-wracking performance.

And Brenn pointed out that being recorded makes the interview subject equally nervous. I’m hoping this insight translates into empathy during their “real” interviews this week.

They came up with great ethical questions: to what extent should we alter grammatically-awkward speech (or edit out fillers like “um” or “like”) in our articles? Are there some interview subjects we might want to make uncomfortable – for instance, when we’re trying to hold the powerful accountable? What do we do during an awkward silence?

I’ll guide them as they prepare and carry out their own interviews, but they’ll ultimately have to come up with those answers for themselves.

John Oliver and objectivity

I had stumbled onto this clip from last Sunday’s John Oliver while eating at Starbucks this morning with my older son.

To grapple with Kovach & Rosenstiel’s ideas about objectivity (and, admittedly, to break up the theoretical with a healthy dose of the satirical), I decided to show it to the class.

While this played, I wrote four passages from Chapter 4 of Elements of Journalism on the board:

“In the original concept… the journalist was not objective, but the journalist’s method could be.”

“Objectivity is not the absence of a point of view.”

“The aim of objectivity [should be] a disciplined unity of method, transparently conveyed.”

The “neutral voice” of traditional journalism, “without a discipline of verification, often is a veneer atop something hollow. Journalists who select sources to reflect their own point of view, and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in deception.”

Oliver clearly rejects the “neutral voice” — there is no “absence of a point of view” here.

I asked them what Kovach and Rosenstiel might make of Oliver’s methodology and presentation.

Is there room in their vision for this kind of satire? Is his method objective? Is there a “discipline of verification” evident? Are accurate facts “transparently conveyed”?

We talked far longer than I’d expected, but we had time to introduce some more traditional news writing conventions: the inverted pyramid and Asimov’s Dirty Dozen. Their assignment tonight is to reflect on these varied approaches to journalistic writing. What are the merits, the shortcomings, the implications of particular news writing styles? Which conventions do they think they might adopt for their own articles?

I can’t wait to read their ideas. I’ll share them here soon.

Where do journalists get their story ideas?

For their first blog posts, I asked students to consider how journalists decide what issues and events to cover.

We’ve talked quite a bit about what Kovach and Rosenstiel call the “awareness instinct” – this seemingly instinctual human desire for information. But we can’t be aware of everything — and we don’t appear to seek out an awareness of everything, either. So, what are the mechanisms by which we become aware — and in what ways are we limited? Do certain experiences and stories get marginalized or obscured? How might issues of power, audience, and (of course) the exigencies of the marketplace come into play?

We’re still working as a class to define “journalist,” so students took the question in different directions. Many of them reflected on their own work as student journalists covering issues of importance for their school community.

One student suggested that the apparent objectivity of our news media may perhaps be undercut by both individual preferences and the specificity of one’s lived experience:

If I were a professional journalist, personally I would only write things I know about or are interested in. For example, if you were to give me the task of writing about oil rigs, I would most likely decline because I know it would come out horrific. On the other hand, if you told me to write something on the topic of astronomy, I would without a doubt give a good and well-informed essay on the definition of pulsars.

I think that journalists are human and absolutely do this as well… [snip]

The point of being limited in what you find and what you can be aware of must also be taken into account. Sometimes articles can seem biased because of lack of knowledge or experience on a subject. For example, kids living in Ashburn won’t be able to write the utmost of accuracy when it comes to subjects like Ferguson if they’ve lived here their entire life. –Ilsa, 10th grade

Another student drew on Elements of Journalism to highlight a critical distinction between news writing and other creative work:

In our society, where information is constantly being shared, consumed, and critiqued, it is sometimes worthwhile to examine the ways in which journalists come up with their story ideas. In my experience, the journalistic creative process is slightly different from the standard creative process. After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this is because journalists have to take into consideration the large public they’re writing for, and use the best method for interesting/appealing to a wide audience (think of the Theory of the Interlocking Public: citizens have varying degrees of interest in the stories shared by news sources. It is the responsibility of the journalist to market to the widest possible audience.) A second thing that distinguishes a journalist’s restrictions on the way that they produce content is their responsibility to the ten elements, or core principles, of journalism. When a journalist proposes an idea, it is his/her duty to fulfill the concepts of truth/veracity, objectivity (note – in this case, objectivity does not mean lack of bias, but rather a state of transparency and openness) and independence, monitoring of power, and loyalty to the public. –Katie, 8th grade

Katie went on to articulate a series of critical question she asks herself as she sifts fruitful story ideas from unnecessary ones as a student journalist:

Now that we’ve established loose guidelines for the journalistic creative process, we can move to the more focused idea of where they come up with their story ideas. For me personally, the process of devising an idea for an article began with the questions of, “Is this something that I would want to read, but that others would be interested in? Does this article satisfy a lack of knowledge/understanding in a somehow significant area? Can readers act on the information provided in this article (a ‘call to action’), and does this information somehow affect the way they choose to think and act? Is there enough information/potential sources of information to fill several pages with concrete findings? Is this article fun/interesting to the extent that readers will remember my points and arguments?” I found that all of my ideas at least partially came from an area that I felt lacked clarity/information, and most of them were directly involving my immediate community.

We’ll use these questions in class this week as a starting point for building a set of criteria for what the students cover as a staff — essentially, also a grading rubric for their story ideas. I’m excited to find out what they finally decide.


Student reflections on Kovach and Rosenstiel’s “Elements of Journalism”

Both the middle school and high school sections have just finished reading two chapters of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “modern classic” Elements of Journalism. Given that this is a book written in response to a perceived crisis in the American news media’s credibility, I was curious about how the reading has affected their attitude toward the media they consume.

So I asked them.

I used our digital reading tool, Actively Learn, to insert this question into the end of “Chapter 2: Truth – The First and Most Confusing Principle”:

After reading this chapter, do you find yourself feeling more optimistic or pessimistic about your ability to find “truth” in America’s news media? Explain. 

Student responses ran the gamut. Some articulated a fundamental faith in the news consuming public’s ability to sift through the mass information made available electronically:

I feel rather optimistic about my personal ability to analyze content and find truth in the news. This chapter lays out the essential components, methods, and techniques necessary to providing journalistic truth. As a consumer of news (through a variety of sources) I trust in my ability to sort through facts and information in order to find truth, using the information provided in this chapter. -Sofi, grade 8

After reading this chapter, I find myself feeling optimistic about my ability to find “truth” in America’s news media because with the internet, there are more than enough people to follow the “sorting-out process” to unveil the truth. Even if the journalists don’t get it right, with the connected world, it is impossible for somebody not to. -Chasya, grade 9

One student was less sanguine, pointing out that there might not be practical ways to address the pressures preventing journalists from producing reliable content:

I feel pessimistic. Most of the examples that the authors gave of accuracy over truth, speed and orientation towards argument over accuracy, and of lack of accountability and fact-checking are examples I have seen myself. Journalism is in a crisis, and while the authors offer solutions, I don’t see how they would implement these opportunities.  -Shailee, grade 8

Others had mixed feelings, reflecting particularly on the 24-hour news cycle pressure.

I feel a little of both, half and half. In some ways, news media is an amazing place to get information. It’s easy, and a good amount of the time you can rely on the media to be accurate and truthful in the information they give out. But if you look at it from a different angle, news media is a terrible place to get your facts. If you can’t always rely on something to get information, why every try to? You may end up thinking you finally found something accurate, but later, too late, you realize that you should have never trusted that media source. I do not think that news media should give out information quickly with inconsistent reliabilities, instead I believe that they should slow down their rate in which they feed us the information we want and need, in order to allow themselves enough time to fact-check, and be more reliable, accurate, and truthful. -Eric, grade 7

My outlook on the news media after reading this chapter can’t truly be defined by one of two terms, but I think I’m leaning towards pessimism. With the new age, people are growing ever more opinionated and persuasive. With technology such as the Internet, one can spread their news to thousands instead of merely a few dozen, however, inaccuracies are frequent. Every journalist wants to be the first to get their story out there and available, yet this inevitably leads to faults. As proven by the two articles we read about Ahmed Mohammed, journalists can be extremely biased and incredibly convinced that their opinions are correct.  -Summer, grade 7

Another student echoed this issue of speed as the enemy of accuracy, pointing out as well that we tend to seek out sources that confirm our own biases:

Personally, I feel a mixture of both. Certainly, with the digital age’s accessible information, not to mention social media’s unique ability to correct mistakes in news, there is a definite advantage to seeking “truth” in modern American journalism. However, with the abundance of news sources that place speed above accuracy, prey on our inherent confirmation bias, and mislead us by cherry-picking which facts to use in an argument, it is very difficult not to feel at least somewhat pessimistic about my ability to discover “truth” in America’s news media. Either way, it is definitely (at least in my opinion) a positive step forward that this book has taken the time to acknowledge flaws in modern journalism and attempt to correct them/teach citizens how to be informed and conscious in their consumption of news. For example, I was reassured that, instead of simply noting the inability/unwillingness of journalists to define their concept of “truth”, this book delved into the question and created its own definition. -Katie, grade 8

I’m excited to see how students’ feelings shift as we get deeper into the text.

Edublogs’ global Student Blogging Challenge

All my English students — especially those in Truth in Media — are encouraged to register for this challenge. From the website:

The aim of the student blogging challenge is to connect student bloggers with a global audience while supporting teachers with their classroom blogging.

It runs twice yearly, starting in March and September, and guides the participants through blogging and commenting over 10 weeks.

Read more! Register!

Welcome to Truth in Media!

I’m looking forward to using this as a space to engage course concepts, articles and videos of interest, and all of you! I’m also hoping to feature a “student blog of the week” award here.
Here’s a quick overview of what I’m looking for in your posts. Think of this as a rubric for how you’ll be graded:
  • Relevance: your post should be relevant to the text, course concept(s), and the prompt (if I gave you one). It should be a focused and coherent exploration rather than an aimless rant.
  • Accuracy: your claims should be factually accurate, and your use of course concepts should reflect a solid understanding. Be sure to fact-check all your assertions using multiple sources. Your interpretation and analysis should derive from sound logic and comprehension.
  • Elaboration: develop your ideas with sufficient detail, building toward a convincing and engaging post.
  • Awareness of audience: your primary audience is the LSG school community, but your work should be accessible and engaging to other students, educators, and general readers around the world. Before publishing, re-read your work, thinking about how your reader will experience your posts. Consider having a friend or adviser read your drafts to address issues of clarity and voice.
  • Timeliness: be sure to complete your posts on deadline. Each should engage a story of current importance — stay informed and up-to-date!
  • Personal voice: this should sound like your blog. Your own voice and evolving approach to the material should be at the center of this space. You should also make yourself the subject when appropriate: reflect, for example, on how you consume media, the source(s) of your own ideas and values informing your worldview, and your personal experience of this course.
  • (Required for HS; extension for MS): Nuance and sophistication: explore ideas from multiple perspectives, demonstrating an awareness of the premises and implications of particular arguments. Trace ideological positions to broader cultural formations (schools of thought, traditions/religion, responses to conditions) rather than viewing them as purely the product of an individual mind. (Cognitively, rather than emotionally) empathize with all those involved in the story/issue you’ve chosen to discuss.

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