How to Teach Journalism Through Reverse Engineering

The headline is a little daunting, right? I know it sounds like a crazy technique, but it's really easy! I promise. Whether you're teaching journalism in the classroom setting or perhaps for a UIL competition, we've found a creative way to push your students imagination while also building journalism skills. 

What is Reverse Engineering?

Reverse engineering, when you break the phrase down, is pretty self-explanatory. When you are engineering something, you build it from beginning to end. To reverse engineer, you have a final product, break it down to its components and work backwards. Here's how it applies to journalism.

The headline can make or break a story

Think about it. What do we read first? What do we typically get main facts from? What do people typically read when skimming a newspaper or news site? What might be the only thing someone reads of your piece? The headline! And what is typically left as the last piece of a journalism project? The headline.

I see most of my journalism students focus on the opening lead and a few major quotes, then tack on a headline at the end and call it a day. But a headline is one of, if not THE most vital part of a news piece. 

Not only does this exercise help them see the importance a headline plays in the value of a story, but also allows them to flex some creative muscles. 

So that's why I start at the headline for this exercise. 

How to Do It

I present my students with a headline. This is where I get to have some fun. Typically, I try to come up with something that pertains to a recent lesson in class or an actual event in the news at the moment. After a major test or difficult project, I'll do something silly to reward the kids while keeping their creative juices flowing.

Here's a few I've used in the past couple of years:

Man Saves Lives During Recent Flood
Mayor to Announce New City Ordinance Friday
Kids Skip School To Deliver Care Packages to Homeless
Adoption Rates Soar After School Adopts Live Mascot
Local Bird Renovates Home for HGTV
Store-Bought Cake Leaves Wedding Goers Unsatisfied
Campus Raccoons Overestimate Trashcan Food Supply

Here's where you hand the creativity over to your students. Tell them to write you a story using only the headline as information. I allow them to make up as little or as many facts and quotes as necessary, as long as the story reads well. 

After they finish, we discuss why the headline is so important and how it can shape an entire story. I like to re-write the headline we use and ask how they would've written their story differently if the headline was presented this way.

For example, if they were originally assigned "Local Bird Renovates Home for HGTV," the story would probably come from the bird's point of view and focus on the reason for the renovation. I'll then as the class how they would've written the story if the headline read: HGTV Films First Reno on Bird House. Probably more focused on HGTV's new animal-centered strategy, right? 

It's a fun classroom exercise and an easy way to teach them the importance of all the components of their journalistic writing. 

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