When news breaks during your class

Wednesday afternoon, as the horrific news of the San Bernadino shooting was breaking, Steve Buttry was live-tweeting what he felt were good examples of live online coverage of the story.

My students in Journalism 319 (Online practicum) at SUNY Oswego got a crash course in this idea this semester. The news of the Oregon campus shootings broke during class. We had just finished our weekly news quiz, and as always, I asked the students what else was going on. One of the students raised his hand and said there was an active shooter at a school in Oregon, and that it was happening right now.

I dropped the lesson plan for that day and told the class that this is what we were doing today. I told them we were going to live report the story via social media. We spent the rest of the 80-minute class following the story, tweeting out news as we learned it, trying to confirm what we knew, what was true and what was rumor. After about a half hour, I had the brain storm to send two students out of class onto campus to get interview people and get reaction. My students did a great job, and we spoke afterward about how chaotic and messy covering breaking news is, how trying to figure out what's true and what's rumor can be a challenge - especially when under pressure to do it in real time.

But the class wasn't as useful as it could have been. It was a lot of retweeting and not a lot else. That was my fault as a professor. Because I was doing it on the fly, I had no plan. I was very caught up in the minutiae of the moment that I didn't stop and think about the big picture.

So going forward, I've devised the following plan for covering breaking news during class. Important note This is not for active shooter on your campus. Other story on campus or a breaking national one (like college shooting etc)

There's part of me that hopes I never have to use this plan. But it's there now. Feel free to use it in your classes, too.

When news breaks

  • 10-15 minutes following social media - basics of what happened. Retweeting judiciously and cautiously.

After 15 minutes, meet as a group

  • What do we know?
  • What do we need to know?
  • What don't we know?
  • What can we find out?

Divide up

  • 1-2 student editors (edit copy, coordinate the rest of the class. One, ideally, serves as copy editor/fact checker).
  • 1-2 writers (write the story and any potential sidebars).
  • 2-4 reporters (go out into campus, conduct regular interviews and multimedia interviews). Come back and give info to reporters.
  • 1-2 social media editors: one to follow developments, one to get reaction (preferably local, maybe national).
  • 1 researcher: find any background info, available data, make graphic, etc

Adjust your numbers to fit your class size. Mix and match due to skill set of class/availability/tone and tenor of story, etc.

Post story by end of class to the class website (in our case, Medium). Make sure the story clearly indicates that this information is accurate and what is known as of publication.