Making News

Texts for Teaching Reporting

by Barbara Selvin

For three years, I had the true privilege of leading the Summer Journalism Workshop for High School Minority Students at Queens College. In this three-week workshop, eight to 12 students learned to report and write news stories and features and published a 16-page newspaper, The Spectrum. Daily lunches with working journalists of minority backgrounds from the city’s top newspapers, magazines, wire services, television networks and radio stations encouraged the students to return to their school newspapers filled with the “fire in the belly” commitment necessary for great journalism, and many have gone on to study journalism in college. Last year, one of our guest speakers was Jennifer 8. Lee, a 1994 workshop participant who is now a reporter at the New York Times.


I used several journalism textbooks in planning the workshop. The most useful for teaching high school students is News Reporting and Writing. It is comprehensive yet accessible. For example, Chapter 2 explains how newsrooms operate — not only at newspapers and broadcast outlets, but also at magazines and new-media outlets. There are flow charts showing typical newsroom organization at small, medium and metropolitan newspapers; clear explanations of information graphics and how they are created; and a section on working with copy editors. There’s also an excellent chapter on reporting with numbers that provides handy references for computing percentages, percentage change, medians, interest, and how to read budgets.


The one thing the Missouri group book lacks is useful exercises, many of which can be found in Reporting for the Media. The chapter on newswriting style, for instance, concludes with exercises on avoiding redundant and wordy phrases, rewriting wordy sentences, and avoiding stereotypes. Other chapters include a variety of story synopses for students to digest and turn into snappy leads.


The New York Times offers an excellent series of curriculum guides for teachers. One of them, Using The New York Times as Your Journalism Textbook, is especially helpful for teachers without a journalism background. I find it mirrors the kinds of assignments and analyses I put together for my students, based on my 20 years in the field. The author, Robert Greenman, a former English teacher at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow high schools, based the book on his nearly 30 years’ experience in using the Times as an instructional tool.


Greenman’s enthusiasm for both teaching and the Times comes through on every page, and the book is full of lesson ideas, activities and examples. He covers topics ranging from news leads and attribution to obituaries, profiles, sports, editorials and photojournalism. There’s enough here to prepare two years’ worth of classes.


My one caveat: Greenman tends to gush about the Times and to see no flaws or lapses in its work. In discussing economy of language at the Times, for example, he writes: “No matter how many words there are in a sentence, each one is there for a reason.” Anyone who has trudged through one of the Times’ convoluted, clause-filled leads on a government story knows this ain’t true.


Barbara Selvin directed the Summer Journalism Workshop for Minority High School Students at Queens College in 2000, 2001 and 2002. The greatest excitement came from the students’ dawning inspiration and resolve. Each year, several realized that they could see themselves making a life in journalism. Others realized that such a life was not for them, but they began to appreciate the role of a free press in a democracy.


During the academic year, Barbara teaches reporting and writing at Stony Brook University. She began her teaching career at Queens College in 1999 and has also taught in Hofstra University’s journalism program.


Before entering academia, Barbara was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, including eight years at Newsday, where she covered real estate and economic development for New York Newsday and later health care for Newsday on Long Island. She holds a B.A. in English from SUNY-Binghamton and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. She lives in Port Washington, NY, with her husband, Craig Werle, and their three children.