The creepy power of my fake news drills to make real news happen

When I teach an introductory reporting and writing course, I devote roughly the first half of the semester to exercises and drills that let students sharpen their news writing skills before they have to go out and interview real people in the real world. The culmination of that is the “news drill,” which I didn’t invent, but borrowed from Michael Shapiro, one of my professors at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

The way these work is that the professor makes up a news story, and the students, acting as reporters, interview him, in character as various sources for the story. In Shapiro’s class, we followed the increasingly baroque exploits of the fictional Mayor Anzovino (I think I’m spelling that right—getting the names right is important, but it’s been almost 13 years). Prostitutes, car wrecks, and something involving the Harlem Italian restaurant Rao’s (I’m thinking it had to be Mafia ties)—things went downhill all semester for Anzovino. And we got a chance to write on deadline in an atmosphere where Shapiro knew all of the “facts” of the story we were writing. It was good pedagogy.

When I started teaching journalism I adopted news drills as part of my own teaching repertoire, and I’ve had students do them in every introductory reporting course I’ve ever taught. I’ve made up a bunch of them. There’s a shooting in a pastry shop (attempted robbery, the cops suspect). Sometimes I’ll call a press conference to bring an inexplicably lavish new building to campus.

And then there’s my smallpox story…

In this one, a large jetliner (it’s always a Qantas plane, since Qantas is hard to spell) is headed for New York City when a passenger on board with some medical training notices that her seat mate (who happens to be of Middle Eastern extraction) has passed out, with a high fever and suspicious raised sores on his face. She notifies a flight attendant, who notifies the captain, who asks for an emergency landing (when I taught in Queens, the plane landed at JFK; when I was in South Orange, N.J., it went to Newark; now that I teach in Poughkeepsie, they get diverted to Stewart, a tiny commercial airport with a long landing strip for the Air National Guard). The FBI and CDC are called out. Could it be smallpox? Might this be a bioterrorist threat?

This is when the student reporters are called to the “scene.” They interview officials and get the story as it’s in progress. Then, just before the class period ends, the CDC official comes back to tell the reporters that it was a false alarm. The man was only suffering from shingles. No worries.

The point of the exercise, besides the interviewing and writing practice, is to make sure that students don’t bury the lead. There’s a real tendency among student writers to want to tell that story chronologically, saving the big reveal—just shingles, folks!—for the kicker. But I tell them that if they’re writing a news report, they have to get that fact into the lead. Otherwise, their readers will be clogging the highways and heading for California.

I noticed early on that I had an eerie ability to make tangentially related real news happen because of these. There would be an armed robbery attempt nearby, and a student would tell me. Or when I had a subway car derail once, a couple week later there was a train emergency in a Penn Station tunnel. I joked to my students about this, since the whole point of the news drill was to give them “breaking news” to report on without the ability to cause breaking news.

I ran the smallpox news drill in February. Shortly thereafter, one of my students noticed an airplane emergency and tweeted about it:

And of course I jokingly replied. But then it happened much closer to my storyline, and it happened tonight. Passengers coming from Uganda, not Pakistan. A misinterpreted illness (bed bugs, not monkeypox in this case; instead of my shingles for smallpox). A happy ending. And of course use of the word “pustule” (which a student once memorably misspelled “puss jewel”).

So next semester, all of my news drills will be about junior journalism faculty and graduate students winning the lottery or getting book contracts.

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One comment

  1. Dr. Denny · ·

    Hi. I teach with Rich Lee at Bona’s.

    I do the same: mock press conferences in intro courses. I’ve created a fictional town with a domineering extended family (the Whattapitys) who tangle with a family of political leaders (the Whaddatwits).

    It’s great fun (for me). But like you, my mock news is often trumped by similar real news.

    But I think we do this for a reason beyond providing interviewing experience: Accuracy is important. In these mock situations, I control all the facts … so I know when their stories are inaccurate. For me, that’s the most important lesson for an intro course: Get the facts right, and don’t fuck up the names!

    A great post. Thx.

    Denny Wilkins

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