Election night as teaching opportunity
Journalists love to cover elections. And no wonder. Election nights are fast-paced, can be unpredictable, provide instant stories of joy and tears and require quick thinking and writing on tight deadlines. It’s everything we love about live news wrapped into one exhilarating bundle.
All of this makes for great teaching moments for those of us training the next generation of journalists.
For the most recent federal election, I decided to put my second year-reporting students to the test and have them cover the election as if they were out in the “real world.” It became one of the most successful exercises yet in my nascent career in the academy.
Keep in mind that these students were, for the most part, inexperienced with breaking news. They had written one story on the election prior to the vote, and had taken the first year intro to journalism class in which they did plenty of writing, but less hard news reporting.
I decided that I would simulate to the greatest degree possible the way an election is covered in a print newsroom.
A week before the election, we talked as a class about the different roles for reporters on election night, from writing the main, front-page story to getting quotes on deadline at a campaign headquarters. We also divided the province up.
We are lucky at King’s in that Nova Scotia is a small place, so our class of 25 was able to blanket six of the most important ridings. I assigned each student to one of the candidates for the four main parties. Each student then had to prepare two things in the week before the election. The first was a research note on the candidate, with basic biographical information, past runs for political office, any positions held in the last Parliament, and most importantly, where the candidate would be on election night and when. I also asked the students to get a backup cell phone number for the candidate. The second requirement was a background paragraph about the candidate’s activities and positions during the campaign. This was designed to simulate the practice of writing the lower portion of one’s story, the part with the background, well before deadline. At that class we also selected three students to write the “main” on election night.
In the meantime, our brilliant web guru, Kate Ross, set up the site that we used to publish the coverage on election night. I refined the design of the site well before October 14 so it would simply be a matter of dropping in the content. See the site here.
We met as a class at 7 p.m. on election night, and at that point I exchanged my teacher’s hat for that of editor.
In a real newsroom, most reporters would be familiar with the drill, but in the classroom, most of the students had never covered an election before. To ensure everyone would understand his or her responsibilities, I handed out a note with detailed instructions on what to do at a campaign headquarters, what to do if one was back in the newsroom writing, and the responsibilities of the three students who would write the main story.
To get up-to-the-minute results, and to give the students covering ridings in rural areas a chance at getting live quotes from candidates’ victory and concession speeches, I set up TVs with showing CBC and CTV coverage.
From there, it was a matter of supervising, but not intervening overtly. All of the students covering a riding worked together to gather the material and write the stories. I had chosen some of the reporters to go out to key campaign headquarters in the immediate Halifax area. They were sent out right away so they could get to their locations by the time the results started coming in. I made sure those students exchanged cell phone numbers with the members of their groups working in the classroom/newsroom, and I made sure one student in each group was responsible for being in touch with those out of the office.
I gave the students two hours from the time the polls closed to complete their stories, which is perhaps a little more than a reporter would have in a working newsroom, but was a challenging deadline for people trying it for the first time.
I was all ready, at least in my mind, for all sorts of calamities and was pleased with how smoothly things went in the end. The students got their stories and pictures, we got the material posted with dispatch, and I think produced coverage as complete as anything else in the market. I was rather proud of the students.
I took responsibility for reading and copy-editing the stories before posting them to the site.
The key, of course, is what did the students get out of it?
I held a post-mortem the week after the election. The students had all enjoyed the evening, partly because it was so new and partly because they felt they were getting a chance to practice something akin to real journalism. But they also learned a lot. They learned about working in groups, and dividing responsibility equitably and efficiently. They learned about what it is like to work on a tight deadline and got a glimpse at how one needs to organize material to write quickly and accurately. And for a generation that often tunes out of politics, the students got a real-life lesson in how we elect our governments and why the media have such an important role in covering that.
In an exercise such as this evaluation is obviously an important element. My strategy was to give the students individual marks for the material they prepared before election night, and a group mark for the work on election night. For the latter I had the students write and sign a note describing each student’s contribution.
If I was going to change anything it would be to bring in one or two senior students to help with the copy editing. I, in essence, became the classic newsroom bottleneck, as all of the copy had to pass through my hands before getting to the site. That meant I was probably handling more copy than I should have in an ideal world, and I ended up staying up until well after Stephen Harper’s victory speech, which was around 2 in the morning in our Atlantic time zone. But then again, that’s just like real journalism too. You stay until the job is done right.
Unfortunately, elections don’t happen every term, but I will absolutely do this again. I think there is great potential to expand the exercise to other breaking events as well. Elections turn out to be wonderful not only for reporters and students, but for teachers too.
Fred Vallance-Jones is assistant professor of journalism at the University of King's College.