No more lectures, try TV shows instead

A scene from HBO’s “The Newsroom.”  (PHOTO CREDIT: MELISSA MOSELEY/HBO)

A scene from HBO’s “The Newsroom.”


One of my recent blog posts mockingly suggested using a crap TV show as a classroom teaching tool. Well, I came across a recently published academic article that seriously and persuasively endorses the concept of achieving more impactful teaching by indeed letting students watch TV shows. They’d probably love that. 

 Aimed at instructors of journalism ethics such as myself, the article ($) by Laveda J. Peterlin of the University of Saint Mary (Kansas) and Jonathan Peters of the University of Georgia (who also writes excellent articles on press freedom for the Columbia Journalism Review) specifically endorses incorporating viewings of the fictional HBO series “The Newsroom.” That show was created by Aaron Sorkin and ran for three seasons (2012-2014).

Going episode by episode through season one, the researchers identified multiple ethical dilemmas and journalistic debates posed in the show that could serve as talking points and educational lessons for students. In one story thread, for instance, the business reporter clamors for more attention to the federal debt ceiling debate, which runs counter to the cable network’s push for higher ratings. In the end, the anchor asks the producer to throw out the planned story lineup for that night and lead instead with the debt ceiling. The gathered staff applauds. Other issues tackled in The Newsroom’s first season include protection of confidential sources, doing business with boyfriends/girlfriends, advertiser influence, the consequences of zealous artificial balance, anonymous online posts, and speed versus accuracy when news breaks. All good and necessary stuff to think about.

The article’s authors correctly point out that “The Newsroom” offered a highly idealistic version of journalism, and that, based on commentaries written at the time, most journalists in the business deemed it as preachy and inaccurate. (I liked the show, and believe high-minded portrayals can serve as occasional reminders of aspirations. But yeah, a couple of times I wanted to punch a character in the face.) The negativity from the profession eventually got to the point that, in an interview in 2014, Sorkin “apologized” and said he wasn’t trying to tell journalists how to do their jobs.

Still, the academic article’s authors view this show and others as providing an “innovative, rich learning experience,” and a natural one. “Today, many college students grew up watching and learning from television,” they write. I’m good with this idea, but do you think I’d ruin the whole thing by picking “Lou Grant” instead? (Young people, Google it.)