While listening to the news on her way to work last year, Mindy Benze got an idea. The local radio program hosts were discussing a teenager whose story had gone viral on social media. Various outlets were covering the story and taking it to a “new level,” she said.
As Ms. Benze, a teacher at Riverhead Middle School, continued to listen, she began to realize just how powerful the connection between journalism and the Internet has become — and how little students understand about the relationship between the two. Soon, she was thinking about creating a journalism class for middle school students.
Unlike high school journalism programs, her class, which launched at the middle school last fall, focuses on social media journalism and teaches students how to identify reputable news sources, conduct interviews, write articles, take photos and videos and more.
“I think that for many of them I realize that they’ve never even touched a newspaper before,” Ms. Benze said. “It’s shocking to me. Very few of them really know of newspaper sites and news sites to go to other than what’s on their Twitter feed or their social media feed.”
The students’ lack of exposure to print news, she said, could be partially attributed to the relative rarity of individual school newspapers.
When Ms. Benze began working there in 2005, Riverhead Middle School had its own newspaper, which she ran for a year. Soon after, however, it ceased production, she said, attributing that program’s limitations to students’ busy schedules and the plethora of after-school electives offered by the district. She hopes her new class, targeted at eighth-graders, sparks interest in all types of journalism and eventually leads to the revival of school news sources.
Riverhead High School currently has its own online paper, The Riptide.
So far, Ms. Benze’s journalism class has been well-received. Several of her students expressed interest in continuing to study the subject in high school.
“We’re always working on something new; there’s always a new focus,” said Tim Duffy, 13, who noted that cyber-bullying is one topic the class has focused on. “We’re probably going to work on that a little bit longer. But we’re usually doing different stuff.”
For other students, going “out in the field” is their favorite part of the class.
“I like the interviewing part,” said Dennis Lowe, also 13. “It’s fun getting to see who can get to a person first, or who has more people.”
Throughout the year, students have worked with YouTube, created online surveys, interviewed teachers and peers about whether they believe in urban legends, researched cyber-bullying and its effects and written numerous articles about their findings. Kevin Maher of News 12 Long Island even spoke to the class.
“It is important that kids even younger than high school not only get exposed to a career choice, but understand media in the world around them,” Ms. Benze said. “So it’s a really good time to introduce it now.”
Photo: Riverhead Middle School instructor Mindy Benze (right) teaches a new social media journalism class last Thursday as eighth-grader Kristy Troyan annotates a newspaper article. (Credit: Nicole Smith)