News writing assignments

Assignment 1: Using data to report stories

Description of Assignment: Under a voluntary program, almost every police department in the United States makes a count of all reports of crime, and submits those counts to the FBI for inclusion in its annual tome: Crime in the United States. The UCR program, which began in 1929, is undergoing a major change starting in 2021 that should make the statistics more informative and useful—but impossible to compare to past years.

For example, an incident in which someone was murdered, raped, and robbed would count as a single incident under UCR: a murder. But under the new system, the National Incident-Based Reporter System, or NIBRS, each offense would count separately.

Visit the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report website and for the years 2016, 2017, and 2018 use the search engine to find the totals for the nation’s 10 most populous cities in the eight so-called “index crimes” — murder, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft, and arson.

Use a spreadsheet to help you keep track.

The FBI warns about comparing one city’s data to another’s. But you can still analyze the data and reach some conclusions. Which city had the most overall crime? Which had the highest crime rate (using census data to find population)? In which city did crime increase the most over the three-year period?

Write a brief story of 300 to 500 words to report what you find.

Alternate assignment: With the sun setting on UCR, how ready are police departments to switch over to the new system of crime reporting, known as the National Incident-Based Reporting System, starting in 2021? If they have begun using NIBRS, are police departments able to track whether the incidence of crime has changed from past years, or are they starting over?

Source Material:

Assignment 2: The public’s right to know

Description of Assignment: Reporters get insight into the workings of government at the local, state, and federal level by requesting access to government records or attending government meetings.

In doing so, reporters are said to be an important watchdog. Whether it involves probing government contracts, scrutinizing how police investigate crimes, or gathering information on building inspections, open records and meetings laws are a powerful tool for keeping the government honest.

All states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have the so-called “freedom of information” laws that guarantee access to government documents and establish exemptions when records can be closed.

Find the state open records law in your state using the link below.

Then pick a government agency you would like to serve with a request. It could be a good way to satisfy a question. Who was arrested at your city’s most recent Mardi Gras celebration?

One suggestion: In April 2020, counties with populations of at least 500,000 people received direct aid from the U.S. Treasury to spend on relief and recovery from the coronavirus. Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act, each recipient county was required to track each expense to ensure it complied with Treasury guidelines.

If you live in one of the counties that received direct aid, you could submit a records request for details on how the relief aid was spent.

Then use the letter generator at the link below to create a request.

Important: If you submit your letter, make sure you send it to the agency’s custodian of records, and make sure you make it clear you are not willing to pay more than a nominal fee of a few dollars. Otherwise, you could inadvertently find yourself stuck with a large bill for services.

Source Material:

Links to all state records laws:

Letter generator:

Assignment 3: The personality profile — without prior restraint

Description of Assignment:

Personality profiles draw heavy readership because people enjoy reading about the lives and experiences of other people. Every person has a story and when you can tell that story in an interesting and compelling fashion, you give your audience a treat.

For this assignment, your instructor will pair you up with a classmate to interview--and be interviewed by. The assignment is to tell the story of how your partner got where they are today. What high school did they attend? In which sports did they participate? What is their family like? Why are they interested in journalism?

If there is time out of class to work on the assignment, please ask your partner for the names and numbers of two other people to contact, to help you flesh out your story.

Prepare to be probed--it’s not always comfortable being on the other side of the interview chair.

Here’s the thing: You need to make sure the story is accurate before you present it in class. You are encouraged to check facts, but you are forbidden from sharing your finished draft with your partner.

After your presentation, your partner will be asked to check your accuracy, so make sure your work is free of errors.

Assignment 4: Design a beat and gather contacts

Description of Assignment:

You’re a new reporter in an online newsroom, part of a small but scrappy staff that’s eager to get out and cover your campus or community. What’s one essential coverage area, or beat, that your publication should start with? Let’s say it’s campus sports. Who are the people who would be essential for a campus sports reporter to know?

Open a spreadsheet and start a list of names, and stop when you get to 25. Using campus resources, or web searches, include your contacts’ phone numbers, email addresses, websites, and online bios. For example, a sports reporter would include the volleyball coach and assistant coaches, team manager, and key players on the roster. It’s OK if you can’t immediately find contact information online--just move to the next source.

Having this contact information at the ready, and in an organized format, will be an essential time-saver as you get acclimated on the beat. And as you meet more people, your contact list will grow to include hundreds, maybe thousands of names.

Assignment 5: Pull it, sir

Description of Assignment:

If you want to know how to do great journalism, then you need to read great journalism and understand what makes it great. Even if you don’t have all the tools yet to complete a work of journalism that could win a Pulitzer Prize, reading great work can show you where to look for great stories and where you can improve your skills to be able to produce meaningful work that can change the world.

There is no better place to find top-notch reporting and writing than the Pulitzer Prizes website.

Start with the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, by Brian M. Rosenthal of The New York Times: An exposé of New York City’s taxi industry that showed how lenders profited from predatory loans that shattered the lives of vulnerable drivers, reporting that ultimately led to state and federal investigations and sweeping reforms.

The first story, linked below, explores how reckless loans devastated a generation of taxi drivers. Notice how the story hooks the reader with the story of how one driver with dreams of wealth and independence unwittingly signed an agreement requiring him to pay $1.7 million. And then the story expands to show how this has led more than 950 medallion owners to file for bankruptcy.

Write a brief essay about what made this story an effective piece of journalism. Take special note of how the reporter tied together interviews with public records and how every detail sings.

Source Material:

Pulitzer winners by year:

Rosenthal’s winning stories: