Nothing could ever drag me back into a middle-school classroom. Or so I thought, until my daughter’s English teacher made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
She asked if I would talk to her classes before they started a unit on investigative journalism. Given that the finest reporters in the country have been pilloried by the holder of the highest office in the land, I figured I could brave a day in the hormonal jungle that is middle school.
Today’s children may seem media-savvy, but less than half say they can tell real news from fake news, according to a new study released by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advocates for safe technology and media for kids. The report found that a third of tweens and teens who shared a story online in the last six months later discovered the story was wrong or inaccurate.
I figured it was part of my civic duty to explain how a free press works to a generation that prefers to get its news from YouTube and social media.
I came up with a lesson plan that I shared with the teacher beforehand. First, we would discuss the First Amendment. Then we would talk about the different types of stories in the media, the various sources of news and what investigative journalism aims to do. I would tell them about investigations that have impacted communities, and ones that have changed the entire country. We would look at Pulitzer-winning investigative reports, and historic ones.
I would also share investigative projects my newspaper has tackled and how we did them. We would explore the ways in which reporters can gather facts, and the tension between those who search for information and those who don’t want it made public.
I asked the teachers to have students brainstorm their own ideas that they would like to report and write about, so we could discuss how they could be investigated. I made sure my lesson had some multimedia elements, and invited the principal to stop by and observe.
I’ll admit that I also armed myself with a significant amount of candy, and told each class that any student who answered or asked a question would get a piece. (A cheap trick, and I apologize to the teachers who had to deal with the students afterward.)
I taught this lesson six times to groups of 40 students in each section. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, my throat was sore, and I had given out nearly an entire 20-pound bag of candy. I was impressed by the students’ interest, and it only deepened my admiration for teachers.
A few days later, I received a large mailer stuffed with more than a hundred notes -- thank-you notes from the students, written on index cards and construction paper. The notes included what the child learned from the talk. Many students wrote that they hadn’t realized that investigative journalism could be dangerous, and that reporters often receive hate mail and pushback for what they write. Other comments:
“Now I know what a reporter is.” “I learned a lot of new things about how to gather information on public files.” “I’m taking journalism in high school, and I wasn’t that excited about it, but now I am! Can’t wait for that class.” “Who knows -- you may have possibly inspired a future journalist.” (Yikes. That comment was from my daughter, and I read it like a warning.)
“It’s sad that print is dead,” shared one student. Another drew a big heart with an arrow through it, adding a disclaimer at the bottom: “This is not a Valentine. I admire how you don’t let the hate get to you.”
Others shared their favorite parts of the discussion:
“It gave me new insight on the steps reporters take to write a story and how they’re viewed by the public. My favorite part was when you explained the impact of journalism on real world issues.”
“My favorite thing you said was that reporters helped bring bad things to light.”
“My favorite thing you said was you’ve been a journalist for 20 years, and that’s a record to me, because most people quit because people say mean things.”
“My favorite thing you said was that investigative journalists don’t do it for the money, they do it for the truth.”
More than a handful of kids kept it real, writing: “My favorite thing you said was ‘Whoever answers a question gets candy.’”
A lesson in truth-telling for all of us.