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Election mess gives students education.

Students get firsthand look at history

My students thought the project in using the Internet to study editorial writing throughout the United States would be over a few days after the November 7 election. A few students, like Karah Woesner, complained their newspapers did not write many editorials before the election, so it would be difficult to write a rhetorical analysis of the election editorials since Labor Day.

But then Florida happened.

Woesner, who downloaded editorials from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, found she was deluged.

Several students discovered their newspapers took a stance in the post-election that favored the candidate the paper endorsed. One student, however, told me he was amazed that his paper switched sides after the election on its view whether the Electoral College or the total popular vote was more important.

Still, many students talked about how rational the newspapers were in looking at the election crisis.

Our class was an experiment we tried for the first time by creating an online site with the assistance of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

My students developed a semester-long project of learning editorial writing by downloading election editorials from online editions of newspapers and by writing their own editorials on the election.

The project began after Labor Day and was supposed to end after the November 7 general election. A very talented undergraduate, Mark Mussman, helped design the site. (He came up with an alternate address that provides an entry with the Flash program:

After the election, however, we voted to revamp the class. We would continue to look at our newspapers' editorials into December and to write a rhetorical analysis that discussed how the newspaper editorials dealt with the Florida crisis and how they looked at the candidates before the election.

This analysis was written -- as it turned out -- before the election was decided.

The project began in the spring when I contacted NCEW executive secretary Cora Everett, who was so very helpful. Among other things, she put me in touch with Chuck Stokes, editorial director at WXYZ-TV in Detroit, who was NCEW president during 2000.

I soon discovered what a gentle and helpful person he is. We discussed over the summer the ideas for the editorial writing class. He also asked that I get in touch with Phineas Fiske at Newsday. Phineas revised my proposal in a way that made it work.

Both then explained the project to NCEW members in an e-mail and asked them to participate. I soon got an e-mail from Kay Semion of the Dayton Daily News in which she volunteered to help. Since Miami is only an hour southwest of Dayton, I went to her office to get her advice. She and another editorial staff member, Sharen Johnson, volunteered to visit the class in the fall to discuss how to write an editorial.

We also got further help from NCEW members. Robert White, editor of the Cincinnati Post's editorial page and a Miami graduate, explained to the class September 29 how his paper did endorsements of local candidates. He also advised students on how to develop their issue editorial.

Through Kay, I was put in contact with Keith Runyon, editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, who spoke October 9 to the class. He traced his newspaper's crusading history and also discussed the changing role of the editorial page. He told students that the editorial writer has an opportunity to take all this abundant information that is now available and use it to bring issues into focus for readers. The editorial page and the op-ed pages are now a place to go for readers to figure out what is important.

It took longer than I hoped for students to learn how to use our program, to critique the editorials, and to post them and their own editorials. Just before the election, however, I was very happy to see that the students took ownership of their Web site.

Then came the election. It threw our project into a turmoil.

At one post-election point, the students became very weary of the work. I tried to reassure them by making them realize that this was a once-in-a-life opportunity that gave them a singular vantage-point to look at this weird election. I got a boost from Kay on the last day of class. She wrote an e-mail to us saying we had developed a rare historic archive.

When I read this to students, there was an ageement to continue to download their newspaper's editorials until the day of finals, December 16. They would just post them without doing the critiques.

After the class, one student said to me: "Is it OK if I do the critiques anyway?"

Sure. That's class ownership.

Throughout the semester, I got students to answer poll questions and to comment on the candidates and on the post-election problems. I posted these on the daily class journal, which I believe has a wealth of content. The student comments became mini-editorials, some of which you can read on these pages.

NCEW member Hugh Morgan is an associate professor in the English Department at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His e-mail is

How students saw us

Editor's Note: At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Hugh Morgan engaged his students in a semester-long exercise of critiquing editorials on the presidential election. In early fall, students began downloading and analyzing editorials from more than 20 papers across the country.

Little did Morgan or the students realize that their logs would provide an archive of editorials during one of our nation's most historic eras.

The class Web site ( has individual student critiques with most of the editorials and an overall student rhetorical analysis.

The site offers a rare chance to compare editorial coverage during a unique historical era.

Morgan also kept a class journal.included are sections in which he asked his students to write a sentence or two about the editorials they were critiquing.

Below are excerpts from a December 4 entry, after Morgan asked students to write about their newspaper's reaction to the post-election suspense. And on the following pages are observations made on the last day of class, December 14.

The students' names are followed by the names of the newspapers they were critiquing.

Brendan Kelly (The Palm Beach Post): While quite a bit of the post-election controversy took place right in this paper's home, the Post managed to avoid overdoing it with its coverage. The paper failed, however, to shake the partisan divide that absolutely always determines the argument of its editorials.

Christine Kailus (Chicago Tribune): The Tribune's editorials have been well balanced throughout the election. The paper endorsed Bush, but still included plenty of Gore-friendly pieces. There have been more editorials published in the past few weeks (post-election) than there were during the weeks prior to the election.

The recent editorials have not made strong arguments, but rather, have sounded like a retelling of the news.

Joseph Roberts (Chicago Sun-Times): The Sun-Times was fairly moderate before the election, even after the paper endorsed George W. Bush. Once the recounts began, though, the editorials started to take a much stronger tone, admonishing Gore for, among other things," trolling for votes."

Karah S. Woesner (St. Paul Pioneer Press): Before the election, my newspaper didn't really cover the presidential election. The paper wrote more editorials about local elections than anything else. However, after the "Florida incident"... editorials were written frequently. The newspaper focused more on getting the vote recount over with and said that the nation needed a resolution.

Kelley Halligan (The Courier-Journal in Louisville): The Courier-Journal hasn't gotten caught up in the mess in Florida. Before the election it was a pro-Gore paper, and afterward it just took the stance that the public should wait until the courts' rulings to accept either candidate for president. Still, Gore is supported in his efforts to receive a full and fair count of the votes in Florida.

Adeyemi Oshodi (Newsday):The paper remained very consistent with regard to objectivity on partisan political--campaign issues. In fact, Newsday criticized all candidates about their lack of something. This serves as a very effective tool in trying to maintain readership of Democrats, Republicans and Green Party members. It was very comprehensive in establishing a balanced argument incapable of burning too many bridges.

Jon Sergent (The Indianapolis Star): The Star began the election favoring Bush, and as the election turned into a chaotic mess the Star began to focus more on what is right and good for the country as a whole. Gore should concede.

Meghan Galvin (Fort Worth Star-Telegram): The Star-Telegram has had rather superficial reactions to the election quagmire. The press is saturated with what-ifs and hypotheticals, and the Star-Telegram seems to be riding the wave without providing any unique information or viewpoints.

Meghan Schilt (The Dallas Morning News): The paper endorsed Bush before the election and in the following weeks it has been asking Al Gore to step aside and then let the country get on with its life.

Mandy Minick (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): My paper deliberately chose not to endorse either candidate but rather to point out the strengths and weaknesses of both....The newspaper has continued its impartial commentary by simultaneously admonishing and praising both sides.

Alison Archer (The Columbus Dispatch): The paper used the election chaos to explore the political system in America. It has used the opportunity to discuss the validity of the Electoral College and voting methods and to teach readers about the often misunderstood process of voting.

Heather Sefcik (The Oregonian):The paper was very neutral in its writing, then it endorsed Bush. The writing became more focused around Bush's plans and ideas. Then, the recount issues started. The paper decided to stick with a stance saying that Gore deserves the recounts for the sake of the country's integrity.

Ryan McCarthy (The Seattle Times): The Times is trying to be subtle about saying Gore should concede. The paper has stuck with its pro Bush stance.

Steven George (The Washington Times): The editorials in this newspaper are extremely reactionary and are Written for an audience predisposed to the paper's right-wing opinions. It is no surprise that it has stuck with Bush, who has escaped any criticism whatsoever, throughout the entire election.

Nathan Hunter (The Blade in Toledo): The Blade has been strongly Democratic. It follows that it should then be pro-Gore. It has been consistent before and after the election in pushing for Gore. During the ordeal that has gone on in Florida, The Blade has been quite fair. The paper still supports Gore but it says that it is less important than making sure that this election was done fairly and completely.... The Blade is generally amazed that this could happen and happy that nothing threatening democracy has taken place as a result.

Barry D. Scheffel (The Cincinnati Post):The paper is unhappy with the current election tie-ups. Its editorials have called for Gore to end the legal battles and accept the certified results of the Florida count.

Cindy Phair (The Cincinnati Enquirer): The paper was definitely conservative throughout the whole campaign....After the actual election, it became very unbiased for several days, focusing on the unfortunate circumstances rather than a particular candidate; however, it has decidedly begun to favor Bush again.

Patrick Campbell (Dayton Daily News) :The paper advocates a path of patience and fairness in the election debacle. They really haven't taken sides since before the election.

Andrea Might (Cleveland Plain Dealer):The Plain Dealer has written editorials consistently throughout the election, but the editorials increased in number after Nov.7. The paper does a good job of being fair... It has written suggestions as to how to improve the system and it has given readers proper information; however, the paper has a general feeling of frustration with the process and how things are unfolding.

Jennifer Davison (The Kansas City Star): The Star has had about one editorial a week since the election -- the same as before the election. Since the election, it has focused on critiquing the election process rather than critiquing the candidates. The Star is riling people up because it has said in about every editorial since the election that Americans need to be assured that elections are fair and that Americans do not deserve to have to wait so long for results.

Sarah Blundell (St. Louis Post-Dispatch): During the campaign, the Post-Dispatch had very few editorials discussing the presidential candidates. After the election, it started writing editorials almost daily. The editorials that the paper is now posting are written more as news articles, in that they don't offer much insight into the newspapers view.

And in the end ...

On December 14, when the class was over and so, too, the election, Hugh Morgan asked his students one last question: What did you learn about editorial writing from the online project?

A sampling of their answers follows:

Barry D. Scheffel (The Cincinnati Post): The editorial staff was consistently fair in its commentary on the election. Even if I disagreed with its opinions at times, I believe it presented an honest, unbiased view of the election. From this project, I've learned the importance of rational thought and fairness in editorial writing.

Adeyemi Oshodi (Newsday): From this project, I learned that editorial writing, though a combination of several people's ideas, can sound extremely fluid, and can consistently represent a few strong perspectives. My paper did a great job of remaining consistent in their views regarding the election. The writing style was engaging, light, and funny.

Heather Sefcik (The Oregonian): I learned that editorial writing can never follow a set schedule. After this whole election fiasco, The Oregonian had to continue writing about it until today, December 14 -- more than a month after the election.... I'm tired of reading about it, and I can only imagine how the writers are tired about writing about it.

Jessie Osterbrink (The Capital Times): The editorial staff did many things very well. What I took away from its election coverage is that evidence is very important. The Capital Times' editorials were rich with opinion -- but always supported by fact.

Alison Archer (The Columbus Dispatch): I learned many things about writing an effective editorial, including how to build a solid argument, effective piece structure and good writing style. Most importantly, though, I learned about objectivity. Being fair in judgments and evaluating all sides of an argument is something I will take away from this project and put to use not just in my writing, but my everyday judgments in life.

Angela Shealy (Star-Tribune in Minneapolis): I learned the art of being fair in editorial writing. The writer of each editorial took a strong stance, but didn't bash the proponents for the other side of the argument.

Kelley Halligan (The Courier-Journal in Louisville): I learned the important lesson that sometimes less is more. The Courier-Journal didn't write nearly as many editorials about the presidential election as some of the other papers, but it did effectively voice its opinion when it thought it was necessary.

Ryan McCarthy (The Seattle Times): After the Times did their endorsement of Bush, the next couple editorials seemed like they were still trying to justify their choice to the readers. They ended up sounding like they were trying to convince themselves that they had endorsed the right candidate. I learned that if you're going to write something, at least pretend like you mean what you say.

Jennifer Davison (The Kansas City Star): I learned that research is key. The most effective editorials that we have read and written in this class are the ones that...use concrete examples as backup.

Steven George (The Washington Times): My newspaper was completely partisan and argued on behalf of the Bush campaign as if it were one of Bush's attorneys. What I learned was...not [to] use an emotional argument every time an argument based on intellect fails.

Patrick Campbell (Dayton Daily News): The DDN's editorials on the election taught me about everyday editorial writing. I unfortunately learned that the stereotype of editorial writers "cramming" at the last minute might very well be true. Some of the editorials were clearly written to fill space when little else was going on. Some dealt with issues only remotely related to the election, topics such as "audio tapes in the courtroom" and such. Hats off, however, to the DDN editorial staff for always advocating the fairest and surest solution to the Florida debacle.

Karah Woesner (St. Paul Pioneer Press): I think the most important "lesson," if you will, was the process it takes to write an editorial that represents the opinions of the paper. Meetings upon meetings, discussions about morals and ideals and deciding what is best to is also the choice that an editorial staff deals with day in and day out -- to write an editorial or not to. Is this topic worth an editorial or will they just be writing an article to fill space, and if so, is that necessary? Ron Clark, the editorial page editor for the Pioneer Press, wrote an article in The Masthead that I read. It was about how...writing passionately every so often about something is much more important than writing about something every day with less depth and less research. I agree fully.

Joseph Roberts (Chicago Sun-Times): I learned not to quickly reverse my opinion on an issue, or at least not to do so without admitting and explaining the reversal. The day before the election, the Sun-Times wrote an editorial against the Electoral College. In the following weeks, the paper asserted the legitimacy of the College in three different editorials.

Brendan Kelly (The Palm Beach Post): What I learned mostly from this project is the effect editorials can have on public opinion. As I was watching news shows such as "Hardball" and "EqualTime," I started to realize how often politicians and other guests would refer to the editorials of the major dailies. As the post-election fiasco went on, however, I started to see guests referring to the PB Post, as it was stuck right in the middle of things. I guess, then, what I really learned was that journalists always need to be in their prime, because you never know when you'll find yourself right in the heart of the mess.
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Previous Article:Sore winners are the worst.
Next Article:Post-election 2000: op-ed perspective.

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