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Courtroom Drama as a Lead into Editorial Writing

Arnetta Garcin of Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif.

Arnetta L. Garcin
Lynbrook High School
San Jose, Calif.

Title: Courtroom Drama as a Lead into Editorial Writing

Background: Sophomore and junior students entering my Writing for Publication (Journalism I) course are practiced in generating papers on controversial issues, but have not yet developed those critical thinking skills necessary to create a more critical evaluation of “the facts” and their implications. Effective editorial writers examine information from multiple viewpoints, with “What if…” becoming a standard tool for confronting issues, sometimes resulting in the “facts” being disputed and/or invalidated, leading to surprising conclusions.

Activity: One “intro” strategy to a unit on editorial writing might involve students in a critical reading of the classic play “12 Angry Men," a contemporary melodrama written by Reginald Rose, based on a case in which a teen-aged boy is being tried for patricide. The play itself focuses on the dialog of the jurors trying to reach a verdict. As the dialog develops, students and jurors become aware that what appears to be “iron-clad” evidence actually is highly questionnable, leading to “reasonable doubt” and a “not guilty” verdict. Students are asked to examine the motivations of each juror, carefully tracing the line of reasoning that led to the verdict.

After finishing our discussion of the play, I divide the class into two groups, each group being responsible for representing an opposite side of the issues raised in the following case. The teacher may also choose to have the two groups actually conduct a mock trial.

Students enrolled in first-year journalism program have decided to do an investigative story on the apparent ease with which minors could purchase alcohol at local liquor stores.

The adviser asked the parents of the students who would be involved in researching the story for permission allowing their students, all sophomores, to enter area liquor stores and to make a purchase when possible. It was further agreed that students would turn over all liquor purchased as part of this assignment to the parent. The students were able to make liquor purchases at six of the 12 stores they contacted, with no ID being required.

When the story was subsequently printed in the school paper, the six merchants who sold liquor to the minors were listed by company name. Once news of the story became public, the merchants involved contacted the principal and demanded a retraction or they threatened to withdraw all community support responsible for funding several school activity programs.

The principal spoke with the adviser, demanding that a retraction be printed, and placed a letter of reprimand in the adviserĂ•s professional file. He further stated that she would not serve as adviser to the publication the following year. In response, the adviser contacted her teacher union representative, filing a grievance against the district, requesting that a) the letter of reprimand be removed from her file, and b) she be reinstated as journalism adviser for the coming year. The district has filed a counter-grievance, stating that it would not remove the letter of reprimand nor reinstate the instructor as adviser because she had “contributed to the delinquency of a minor” when she allowed underage students to purchase alcohol, which is a violation of the law.

Despite student and parent support, the grievance could not be resolved, thus the case must go forward for hearing.

After students present the various arguments surrounding this case, either through classroom debate or the dramatization of a mock trial, they are asked to assume the role of a court reporter, responsible for preparing an interpretive editorial evaluating the pros and cons of the case, putting all of the various controversies related to this case into perspective for the reader. This requires students to think critically about all of the issues involved prior to the actual writing process, and also reaffirms the necessity for researching the “true” facts relevant to potential articles they may be writing.

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