Teaching Journalism Writing and Reporting Through Peer Examples Cindy Elmore, Ph.D.

Teaching Journalism Writing and Reporting Through Peer Examples
Cindy Elmore, Ph.D.
School of Communication
The exercise described here was developed during the teaching of two journalism writing
classes in the School of Communication at ECU. One is Media Writing, the required
introductory writing course that all students intending to enter the major must take. The
second is Basic Reporting, the next writing course in the curriculum required of those
communication majors pursuing a concentration in journalism or public relations.
Students in both of these courses do a considerable number of graded writing
assignments. In my classes, I provide substantial written feedback on each paper, which
some students carefully peruse in an attempt to learn from their mistakes and which
others ignore, typically repeating their errors. So as a follow-up exercise in class, I go
over the assignment using a second, altogether different methodology, in which I orally
and visually highlight a well-written (and well-reported) example of the assignment
turned in by one of the students in the class.
In her research about teaching writing to journalism students through the revision
process, Yoder (1993) surveyed students about the efficacy of several revising process
techniques, including the one that I use: “looking at a model assignment on the overhead
projector” (pp. 43-44). All five of the methods she tested were rated highly by students,
including this one, which ranked third in the students’ order of preference of the five.
To accomplish this exercise, I select one of the best-written, best-reported examples of
the assignment by one of the students in the class (or sometimes in a companion section
of the class). I retype it exactly as (s)he turned it in, underlining the few problems in
grammar, punctuation, AP Style, or wordy phrases. Occasionally I will use the strike-out
feature to mark through unnecessary or awkward words, adding in a better choice word
or phrase in parentheses to indicate that the addition is mine. Because journalism students
typically write paragraphs that are too long, I also add a double slash mark to indicate
where a new paragraph should begin. I highlight all well-written transitions in an italic
font and underlining to set them apart. Lastly, I remove the student’s name, blow up the
font to about 20 point typeface, and copy the paper onto overhead transparencies if I do
not have access to a computer and projector in the classroom. Otherwise, I retain the
paper as a word document on an instructor computer (see Appendix 1).
During the class sessions where I use this teaching methodology, I project the student
example onto a wall screen and read it aloud to the class, reminding students that I am
showing them a paper written by a fellow student that was particularly well written and
well reported. Because my student papers are typically only two to three typed doublespaced pages, the exercise can be completed in under about five minutes. As I read the
example aloud, pausing at the underlined sections to ask students how the words,
punctuation or phrase can be corrected or improved, I point out particularly
commendable reporting or story organization techniques that are reflected in the piece.
There are times when I have not chosen to show the class a student paper that is too well
done, because it gives us little to talk about. And while I leave examples anonymous, I
can always tell that many of the students whose work is being featured enjoy the
validation of having it shown to the class. As a result, I try to show different students’
work each time I use this method so that, over the course of a semester, five or six or
seven students find their work highlighted in this way.
I do not show badly written student papers, in an effort not to publicly embarrass
someone. However, for some assignments, I will often take 15 or 20 particularly bad
sentences from multiple students’ work and make a handout of them (see Appendix 2),
asking the class how to correct or improve each sentence. Sometimes these are also
projected onto a classroom screen; sometimes we do this via a handout.
Throughout the term in both of these classes, my students are assigned to read many
examples of great professional journalism, both from their textbooks and from articles
that I assign to them both inside and outside of class. Some are Pulitzer Prize-winning
news and feature stories from which I hope students learn and are inspired. Some may
come away from these readings with the motivation to set similar high journalistic goals
for themselves. Others, however, may find the professional examples far removed from
their own abilities and expectations. That is one reason why I feel it is especially
important to also show students well-written, well-reported examples of journalism that
are perhaps closer to home or more easily relatable because of their authorship by peers.
Yoder, S.L. (1993). Teaching Writing Revision: Attitudes and Copy Changes. Journalism
Educator, 47(4), 41-47.