News writing assignments

Assignment 1: Suckers and losers

Description of Assignment: A story in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, published on Sept. 3, 2020, detailed allegations that President Donald Trump said American armed services members who died in war were “suckers” and “losers.” The story, based on unnamed sources, was soon backed up by reporting from the Associated Press and even a reliable ally of the president, Fox News. The White House and some of the president’s closest supporters insisted the stories were untrue.

The truth may never be known, but the allegations were upsetting to many veterans and their families.

There is an old saying in journalism: See the war through the eyes of one soldier. Author E.B. White put it this way: “Don’t tell write about Man. Write about a man.”

Your assignment is to write about the impact of words attributed to the president. To do this best, find a military veteran who is willing to speak with you about what their service was like.

Tie the story together with a strong “nut graph” that puts the story in context with the president’s alleged statements.

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Assignment 2: “Tear Down This Wall”

Description of Assignment: It is June 12, 1987, and you are struggling to get by as a stringer in Bonn, West Germany, for English language newspapers. The phone rings: It’s the Associated Press! Can you hustle across the inner German borders and get to Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin? Like, now? U.S. President Ronald Reagan is expected to make some comments about the United States–Soviet relations. Could be interesting.

Listen to the speech and take good notes. Then write a six-paragraph story that answers the 5Ws and 1H, using a summary lead and the best quote you can find.

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Assignment 3: Scientific breakthrough

Description of Assignment: Find a recent paper in a scholarly journal that you find interesting. It could be anything from criminology to physics, but it should be a piece you can understand. Notice how academic writers do not adhere to the principles of concise writing--and they certainly don’t use the inverted pyramid!

Here’s where you come in. Take the paper and give it a good “writethru.” Put the conclusion in the lead--instead of at the end.

Most importantly, write for a general audience.

Write a 400-word story for a general-interest newspaper or online news site.

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Two Sage articles you could choose:

Playing Some Video Games but Not Others Is Related to Cognitive Abilities: A Critique of Unsworth et al. (2015)

Effectively Maintained Inequality in Education: An Introduction

Assignment 4: WFH

Description of Assignment: You are a reporter for the Kansas City Beacon, an online-only news website, in Kansas City, Missouri. You have been assigned to cover the city council, but the in-person meetings have moved online during the coronavirus pandemic. The good news is, the city website publishes live video of all city council meetings, so you can work from home. The agenda, minutes, and videos of the meetings are all archived on the same site.

Visit the Kansas City government website at the link below and find an archived agenda with something interesting. Watch the council meeting, then file a brief story using the inverted pyramid writing format. Remember you are writing for people who live in the “Pairs of the Plains.” Make sure to get at least one good direct quote from the video.

If you want to research the background for the story, feel free to search for coverage in your competitor, Kansas City’s daily newspaper, The Kansas City Star. But remember, you can’t use any material published in it for your own story.

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Assignment 5: At the courthouse

Description of Assignment: You are a criminal justice reporter in St. Louis. One of the courthouses on your beat is the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, which covers federal crimes over half of the state. Because you also cover state and municipal courts, you can’t always be in the federal courthouse, so you depend somewhat on news releases.

However, news releases only tell one side of the story--the government. To cover the courts well, you have to be able to talk to defendants, defense lawyers, and other court officials.

Visit the website for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District and look for any cases that look interesting, and start to write a story. But also make a list of sources you need to complete the story, as well as what questions you plan to ask. Make sure you come up with at least one source to reach and at least two or three questions.

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Assignment 6: The smell of the crowd

Description of Assignment:

The author Henry James once said: “Be one on whom nothing is lost.”

Be like Henry James. See, hear, feel, smell, taste your environment.

Standard newswriting and reporting tend to rely on two primary senses: seeing and hearing. But one of journalism’s oldest adages is to show, not tell. It’s important to give people the full sense of a place, a situation or a time.

Either in class or outside, remember a time you went to or did something special, like a concert, festival, camping trip, block party or similar, and cover it. Paint a picture with words! Make sure that you include details culled from all of your senses.

Below is an example of a profile of Block Island, Rhode Island, written for the Los Angeles Times, entirely built from a reporter’s reflections on a beautiful place.

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