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Teachable Moments

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U. of Delaware students were upset last week when the police broke up a revel inspired by I’m Shmacked, a popular party-photo-posting company.

One of the pluses of being a poet, fiction writer, journalist, or personal essayist blogger is that everything is grist for your mill. That is, whenever you observe or experience something, you can and probably should think about whether it’s potential material, and, if so, figure out how best to treat it. That’s certainly one of the reasons I find it rewarding and rarely boring to teach journalism. Almost anything can be a story, and it’s stimulating in the classroom to hash out this or that.

On September 11, 2001, my “Introduction to Newswriting” class met at, as I recall, 11 a.m. Almost everybody had heard about what was going on in Manhattan, but at that early moment, nobody knew anything for sure, and all kinds of rumors were prowling around. I guess the natural thing would have been to set up a television in the classroom and watch the coverage on the networks or CNN. I didn’t do it. Aside from the fact that it was a print-journalism class, not broadcast, I don’t think I could have stood to watch the same footage again and again, nor the stand-ups with correspondents reciting the little they knew and the massive amount they didn’t.

Instead, I projected onto the classroom screen the home page of The New York Times. It was just about at that time that the Times was developing a robust Web presence, containing within it the print paper but also updated throughout the day. It was fascinating to see this great news organization rise to the sad occasion, endeavoring to answer the who, what, when, and hows (the whys would come later), with graphics and real-time updates.

Five years ago, as the U.S. and world financial systems came undone, I was teaching a course called “Introduction to Journalism,” which takes less a practical and more a theoretical and analytical approach. I changed around the syllabus in order to look, as the weeks and months progressed, at how the press dealt with these equally weighty but much more complicated issues. I was teaching the same course last fall, and when Hurricane Sandy hit (devastating the home towns and/or summer stomping grounds of a lot of my students), again we adapted the course so as to examine the coverage of all the aspects of this weather catastrophe.

The story that hit closest to home, by far, happened close to 10 years ago, when one of my students was murdered in a “home invasion” of her off-campus apartment (I remember that was the first time I heard the now common phrase). This was raw and painful, but journalists don’t only comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They also, at the risk of seeming ghoulish, have to wade into the really bad stuff, and for the rest of the semester we monitored the coverage of the case in the student newspaper and regional media. One bright student told me that the experience convinced her she didn’t want to go into journalism. There are all kinds of ways a class can be educational.

Eight days ago, on another September 11, I walked into my advanced-reporting class to discuss the biggest story of 2013 at the University of Delaware. This was … well, it’s kind of hard to describe. Two nights earlier, some large number of UD students—police variously estimated it as a thousand and several thousand—had marched through the streets of Newark, Del., stepping on cars, publicly urinating, and chanting obscene slogans about the police, before 75 officers from Newark and nearby jurisdictions came on the scene and made them disperse.

They were protesting the fact that police had broken up some drunken revels inspired by an organization called I’m Shmacked, which the Wilmington News Journal described as “a Web site and social-media channel that films college students in their environments and posts the videos on the Internet.”

The incident raised all kinds of grist for a journalism class’s mill: the amazing power of social media (the news that I’m Shmacked was coming to town had virally spread on Twitter and Instagram); the decision by various media organizations on whether or not to call what happened a “riot”; the effect of the riot or nonriot on the university’s long and noble effort to shed its reputation as a party school and embark on the Path to Prominence™; and, maybe most interesting to me, the provenance of a photograph of a burning car, which the I’m Shmacked account had sent out on Instagram in relation to the Delaware happening but was in fact a fraud.

They were all interesting issues, but, at the risk of seeming ghoulish, I felt better the day my class spent 75 minutes watching The New York Times cover September 11.

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