Unscheduled Disasters in Journalism: Learn to Deal

In school, we expect our professors to answer our questions, to return our emails, to invite us in for a consultation, to pay attention what we say and read carefully what we write.

unscheduled-disasters-journalismOne of the important lessons of being a student journalist is learning how to deal with the unexpected. Unfair things happen in the real world, and part of being a professional is learning how to make the best of an imperfect situation.

Uncertainty is part of the subject matter. (See “Wanted in College Graduates: Tolerance for Ambiguity.”) We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, so we can’t work ahead or Shmoop the future to help us write tomorrow’s news.

  • “I emailed my sources, but they didn’t get back to me.”
  • “I told my reporters what the deadline was, but some of them missed it.”
  • “I drove all the way out there and knocked, but nobody came to the door.”

I, as the journalism professor, can’t force sources to respond more quickly, or make staff members more reliable. What this means is that students who have pitched a great story might get encouragement and a good grade from me on all the preliminary work, but they may still find their plans fall apart.

One of my favorite newsroom anecdotes involves the cub reporter who was sent to cover a concert, but never filed a story. When his editor asked him why, he said, “The concert hall burned down.” (He should have filed a news story on the fire, rather than giving up when he couldn’t file the music review he planned to write.)

It’s not fair… but all writers have all been there on one way or another. As a grad student in the mid 1990s, I chose the time period 1920-1950 because, at the time, copyrighted works published 75 years earlier (or 50 years after the author’s death) were falling out of copyright and into the public domain. I planned to pick works that interested me, and prepare richly hyperlink-annoted versions that would be ready online as soon as the work fell into the common domain. Then, in 1998, Sonny Bono’s Copyright Term Extension Act upset all my grand plans. It was unfair, but I had already learned all the hypertext authoring skills, and I’ve ended up putting them to pretty good use. (I started this blog in 1999.)

How can I encourage my students to cope with the unexpected, in an educational environment that aims — for very good pedagogical and humanitarian reasons — to level the playing field as much as possible?

After my “News Writing” students have had the chance to write a few practice stories, I am thinking of putting them into groups, asking them to design the layout for six or so articles across four pages, including a fake half-page ad. As we work on the layout, I will carefully review with the students what kinds of things might happen to affect their work. For example, the advertising department might suddenly get a new ad, or an ad might fall through, a breaking news event might invalidate a planned story, a competitor might invalidate your lead story with a scoop, etc.

Then, on a day that appears on the syllabus as “Unscheduled Disaster Day,” I might have students pull cards from a hat, and they’ll be expected to deal with a simulated complication.

Maybe I will let students participate in an AP Style quiz, where the winning team gets to draw another card and choose whether to keep their current disaster, or swap it for a new one.

The point of these activities would not be for me to be mean. The point would be to give the students practice responding to a crisis. Students would get a grade based on the work that they completed before the ideal, pre-disaster deadline, and another grade based on how well they dealt with the unexpected.