Journalism educators: These assignments can help students produce journalism with their community’s needs in mind

When taking a human-centered design approach to building a product or service, the first step is to get a deep understanding of the needs and motivations of the people you’re trying to serve. 

This simple concept can be a powerful lesson for students learning the fundamentals of journalism, and one that’s at the heart of Journalism + Design: By getting to know people in their community and what they care about, students can consider different ways to produce journalism that meets their audience’s needs. 

J+D was in the vanguard of bringing these ideas into a journalism curriculum, but we’re not alone. Sarah Bennett, associate professor of communications and media studies at Santa Ana College, incorporates a design mindset right off the bat in her foundational “Introduction to Reporting and News Writing” course. 

She says most students in the class are not journalism majors and are new to the concept of journalism. Many feel a disconnect or have negative associations with the news. Understanding journalism as a way to serve basic information needs better connects the practice to their everyday lives.

“My students often see the news as an ivory tower – something that’s outside their own experiences,” Bennett said. “We have to get back to the basics and ask them to consider the function of journalism in a democratic society. Grounding students in work that serves the information needs of their peers and people in their community helps them see a direct impact.”

This semester, Journalism + Design got the chance to learn from and collaborate with Bennett on building out assignments for her introductory class – as well as news production courses for el Don, the award-winning student media outlet Bennett co-advises – that help students develop story ideas from interviews with people in their campus community.

Here are a few classroom resources from both J+D and el Don, many optimized for asynchronous online learning. Most of the links below are Google Doc templates that you can copy and adapt for your own classroom.

  • Community Info Needs Report assignment (el Don): This template, created by Bennett, has students interview two members of their campus community to learn about their interests, where they get their information, and what they care about. 
  • Meet the Audience assignment (Journalism + Design): Another version of this exercise, in which students interview a member of their community, find out what they care about and where they get their news.
  • Planning your news reporting (el Don and J+D): Use this step-by-step assignment as a guide for students to develop a story idea from information needs they uncovered by talking to community members. 
  • Empower the Audience (J+D): Challenge students to think about the potential that journalism has to make an impact, and how their reporting can be more participatory and actionable.