News writing assignments

Assignment 1: Man on the street

Description of Assignment: Journalists often need to talk to officials, whether they are police at a crime scene, the mayor’s chief of staff, or the CEO of a hospital. These sources are accustomed to dealing with the press and are always ready for questions because their jobs are so public. Less frequent in news stories are the voices of “real people.” Journalists call them “RPs.” These are the private individuals who make up most of the world, who interact with journalists mainly as consumers. What do these people see, think, and feel? The more a journalist incorporates the lives of real people, the richer their stories will be.

Your job is to interview three to five RPs for what reporters call a “man on the street,” or MOS. If your local health department has no restrictions on crowd sizes or social distancing, you might find it easy to approach people at a park or on a sidewalk in the city where you live, work or study.

If your area is under health restrictions, you may need to approach people virtually. This could entail sending a Facebook message or a Twitter DM identifying yourself as a journalist and asking if the person has time for a phone call or an exchange of messages. You might find these sources in Facebook groups or among those who respond to interesting threads on Twitter.

First, come up with a juicy topic. Try to pick something that people are talking about--a controversial speaker scheduled to come to campus, or a rash of burglaries in dorms. Then come up with the question you’ll ask.

Then get out on the street—or the internet—and start working. Approach someone who looks inviting, introduce yourself as a student reporter, and ask your question. Make sure the source lets you use their name and age. If not, move on—no matter how much time you put into it. We don’t quote anonymous people if we don’t have to. Remember to consider the rarity and necessity of the source to determine his or her value to your story.

Once you have at least three sources, write up your story using the inverted pyramid.

The link below has some good advice for conducting a proper MOS.

Source material:

Assignment 2: Counseling

Description of Assignment: Perhaps no one on campus has a more important job than the licensed professionals who work in your campus mental health and counseling office.

College under normal circumstances can be a difficult environment for young adults, as they are separated from their families for the first time and struggling with loneliness, depression or substance dependency. During a pandemic and in a time of social unrest, this may be especially true.

Who are the professionals who work in your campus counseling office? What types of problems are they helping students cope with? How has their job changed in recent years? Your job is to write a 700-word profile, with your audience being the campus community. So that the official is not bombarded by individual requests, invite him or her to an interview either as a class, or in a small group. If he or she prefers to meet virtually, use videoconferencing software such as Zoom or Skype.

Use the principles described in the text for introducing yourself and setting a time and place for the interview.

Do your research so you don’t waste time on questions to which you could easily find the answers online.

Here is a selection of university-based counseling offices:

Washington University in St. Louis:

Yale University:

University of Washington:

Emory University:

Macalester College:

Assignment 3: Coping in the WFH era

Description of Assignment: The year 2020 was a challenging and isolating year for many people. For office and creative workers, it meant working from home, isolated from other people. This also hit students of all ages very hard, as schools closed and the opportunity to spend time with friends vanished. On the other side, essential workers from healthcare to grocery to factories found themselves on the front lines of interacting with the public and coworkers in a pandemic. But some people developed habits and coping tactics to make the COVID era easier on themselves.

Your assignment is to interview a cross-section of people about how they got through everyday living, working, eating, sleeping, and caring for family members during COVID. Focus on the work. How did workers or students stay connected to colleagues or fellow students to keep their companies or studies going? How did essential workers try to stay safe at work and protect their families at home? Focus on either work-from-home or frontline workers for a consistent story.

Weave at least five interviews into an 800-word feature. Make sure that you observe the principles in the text, take good notes, and arrange for follow-up. Sometimes a theme may develop in your reporting that you didn’t necessarily detect at the start, which will require you to ask a few additional questions.

Assignment 4: Interview the interviewer

Description of Assignment: To understand what it takes to do a great interview, it helps to flip the script. In this assignment, you will interview a classmate — and be interviewed by one.

The topic can be mutually agreed to by the interviewer and subject, but it should offer plenty of opportunities for open-ended and closed-ended questions and follow-up. Take care not to unnecessarily probe into an embarrassing or traumatic event.

Potential topics:

  • Tell me about a time you were inspired by someone. How did the experience help shape your life?
  • What led you to become a student at this university?
  • Tell me about your best (or worst) day?
  • What are your hopes and dreams for your own life?

Then write a 700-word story based on what you find. If you find that one of your sources wasn’t a good interviewee, don’t be afraid to leave it out of your story.

Assignment 5: Fresh Air … with Bill O’Reilly

Description of Assignment: In October 2003, NPR’s Terry Gross, longtime host of NPR's Fresh Air, aired an interview with populist Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly.

The interview was scheduled to coincide with the publication of O'Reilly's book, “Who's Looking Out For You?” which claims that America is in the midst of what O'Reilly calls a "cultural war between left and right."

O'Reilly walked out of the interview because he said he found Gross’ line of questioning objectionable and hostile and “full of typical NPR liberal bias.” He said NPR was unfair to him although it had given left-leaning author Sen. Al Franken a pass when his book came out.

To others, the interview was a model of unflinching interviewing skill that showed O’Reilly as a delicate ego unable to back up his assertions under pressure.

Listen to the interview in class and take notes. Did Gross betray the principles of objectivity and balance?

Write a short letter to the NPR ombudsman detailing what you think. (You don’t have to send it.) If you think questions were unfair, describe how you would have presented them differently. If you agreed with the tenor of Gross’ interview, say why.

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