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How You Can Add 3 Valuable Journalism Skills to Your Teaching Toolbox

Posted on: August 2, 2021

In our rapidly changing world, educators need to continually develop their skills while keeping up with technology and understanding the pressures faced by their students. In this blog Sue Ellen Christian, author of Overcoming Bias, looks at how you can apply key journalism skills, such as asset framing and the 5Ws and H, to your teaching. 

Journalists have to continually develop their skills to keep pace with changes in society, cultural norms and evolving belief systems. This development requires a toolbox filled with many things that would benefit the educators among us. For example, all journalists need to stay current with societal changes, such as using “they” as a singular pronoun and asking for a source’s pronouns, just as educators do. Journalists need to be aware of the major holidays of an interfaith calendar that includes all major religions, as do culturally-aware educators. Journalists must be attuned to ways their own backgrounds and beliefs may inadvertently influence what they see as significant, valuable and worthy of attention. So too, educators.

Educators are not so different in their need to maintain a toolbox of varied skills, knowledge and attitudes.  As educators, we are often tasked with learning the latest technologies and staying current on a discipline’s advances. We want to, and need to, understand the students in our courses and the societal bouillabaisse that they have been stewing in before they arrive to our classroom doors. Three concepts that educators can also benefit from and add to their toolbox include: asset framing (a carpenter’s square), the 5Ws and the H (a utility knife if there ever was one), and the “turn to wonder” (a tape measure that insists on remeasuring).

Asset Framing as Inclusive Teaching

As I discuss in my book, Overcoming Bias: A Journalist’s Guide to Culture and Context (2e), asset framing is a way of cognitively framing groups of people that can become a habit, and one you may use daily. Asset framing, championed by DEI expert Trabian Shorters, asks us to see communities and people by their contributions and potential, not their challenges and deficits. Focusing on someone’s aspirations immediately turns a negative assessment you may have about a person or place into something else.

Journalists interested in inclusive narratives that stretch audiences’ stereotypical assessments of marginalized groups can employ asset framing. In terms of a news story, asset framing might mean that a description of a neighborhood predominately of residents of color doesn’t reflexively give the crime rate, or the number of unemployed residents. Asset framing opts for other equally factual and valid data. This data might be the growing number of Black-owned businesses, or the increase in community garden projects, or the number of honor roll students. The asset data encourages one’s schema to expand to include a richer frame of reference. While for any of us, educators included, asset framing may not turn a harsh assessment into an instant positive, but it will definitely give pause to an automatic negative judgment. It allows us to see each student in our classes as a glass half full, not half empty.

The 5Ws and the H of Classroom Inquiry

The 5Ws and the H – the who, what, when, where, why and how (and often, also, “so what?”) are the journalist’s hammer, pliers and screwdriver. These simple sentence starters guide so many of the practitioner’s interviewing probes and open-ended queries. The 5Ws and H – and so what? – of reporting covers much of the meta and the micro of a topic. Listen to any interviewer you’re fond of and you’ll repeatedly hear those six words.

Educators can also lean into these words of curiosity. The 5Ws and H can help to frame a lecture on a new subject area. They can guide us when working through a class discussion about a tough topic. They help unravel the tangle of thoughts of a frustrated student, especially when we don’t understand what is so confusing: When did you get stuck on this problem? What have you done to study this chapter? Why do you think this is confusing you? Where in today’s discussion did you get lost? How could you reframe this obstacle? Who is someone that could be a study partner? What makes this problem relevant; why should you care about understanding it?

“Turn to Wonder” to Avoid Assumptions 

“To do journalism with a standard of excellence, journalists need to understand their brains’ mechanics, noting how their minds sort ideas and people, and what gets labeled and how. Thinking about how you think helps your journalism on many fronts, as it stops you from relying on the go-to word choice, question or assumption,” I write in Overcoming Bias.

“Turn to wonder” is a practice that I learned in racial healing workshops and in community work on inclusive narrative with the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Initiative. This response is an invitation to oneself to not assume the meaning of a statement of a source or a student – particularly if it is a provocative comment or personal attack. “Turn to wonder” is an invitation to pause. Wait. Seek clarification (an essential for journalists). Explore the comment, and your reaction to it, either outwardly or inwardly:

I wonder why she would say that.
I wonder why he would feel that way.
I wonder how they derived that from my initial comment.

Educators and journalists are not so different. So much of journalism is about exploration, about being curious, about delving into new topics, different cultures, understanding others’ attitudes and ways of learning. These three handy techniques in the journalists’ toolbox can become valuable educators’ tools as well.