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        War News in the Digital World: Real, Staged, or Both?

        With the wide availability of smartphones and easy ways to share video online, digital media has changed the way we see and hear about current events. When nearly everyone at a protest or in battle has a camera, the lines between journalism and other forms of storytelling are often blurred.

        Lesson Summary

        With the wide availability of smartphones and easy ways to share video online, digital media has changed the way we see and hear about current events. When nearly everyone at a protest or in battle has a camera, the lines between journalism and other forms of storytelling are often blurred. This lesson uses clips from Marshall Curry's film Point and Shoot to help students explore the impact of those blurred lines and understand what makes journalism distinctive. Point and Shoot follows the amazing tale of Matt VanDyke. A timid 26-year-old with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Matt left home in Baltimore in 2006 for what he called a "crash course in manhood." He bought a motorcycle and a video camera and set off to film himself on a multi-year, 35,000-mile odyssey through North Africa and the Middle East. When revolution broke out in Libya,he joined the rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi, but was captured, sending his adventure in a frightening new direction. Point and Shoot joins Matt's wild ride, exploring how in the age of the selfie we use cameras not just to capture our stories, but to craft them.

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        Time Allotment


        60 minutes, broken into two 30-minute activities that can be done at separate times.

        Learning Objectives


          By the end of this lesson, students will:
        • Take on the role of "news director" to evaluate the accuracy and value of a news report
        • Understand the difference between journalism and other storytelling methods
        • Consider the characteristics of a good journalist (especially one assigned to cover an armed conflict)
        • Reflect on the effects that action/adventure movies and TV shows have on real-life war
        • Write short reflection essays or diary entries summarizing what they learned
        • Look at how people represent themselves online and reflect on their own digital identities [optional]



          • Film clips from Point and Shoot and equipment on which to show them

        Introductory Activity

        1. Opening Questions

        As a springboard into the activity, ask students this question: What's the difference between a professional journalist, a "citizen journalist" and just a person with a cell phone or camera who happens to be in a place where news is happening and records what they see and hear? Help students think through the differences in motives, training, story choice, data collection methods and storytelling styles.

        Then ask: Why would anyone think that the distinctions are important? If students aren't already familiar with Thomas Jefferson's writing on the importance of journalism to creating the type of informed citizenry that is essential to democracy, you might introduce them to it. (See for a good collection of relevant quotes.)

        After allowing a brief time for responses, segue to the activity, letting students know that they are going to explore these questions (and a few more) by imagining that they are news directors for a local television news station and are deciding whether or not to hire a particular person as a war correspondent to report on conflicts in the Middle East.

        Explain that this is what happened to a young man from Baltimore named Matt VanDyke. He was already on a personal "adventure" (his word) traveling across the Middle East when a hometown news organization credentialed him to be an embedded reporter with troops in Iraq. A filmmaker named Marshall Curry made a film about Matt titled Point and Shoot. The clips they are going to see are from that film.

        In their new role as "news directors," students are going to look at two film clips as if they were both parts of a video résumé posted online. The first clip gives a little background on the job candidate, Matt VanDyke. The second clip provides a sample of his camera work.

        Learning Activities

        2. Hiring Decisions

        Show Clip 1 (background). Divide students into small groups to discuss this question:Would you hire Matt VanDyke as a journalist? Have them explain their decisions, including indicating the strengths he would bring to the job and any concerns they might have.

              After several minutes, reconvene as a full class and invite students to share anything interesting that came up in their groups. Take a quick straw poll to see who is leaning toward hiring and who is against. If they don't raise it themselves, you might invite students to consider the potential effects of:
            • Being raised on action/adventure movies, games and TV shows (Could this distort expectations?)
            • Matt's lack of independence (Is relying on his mother and grandmother to do even basic things like laundry a problem?)
            • Studying, but never visiting the Middle East (Do reporters need to have firsthand experience of the places they cover?)
              Also help students explore their own assumptions:
            • Does motivation matter, or only the end product (i.e., the reporting)? Would they hire a war correspondent who wasn't interested in adventure? How might motive affect reporting?
            • Do you think Matt saw himself as a journalist or as subject/creator of an entertaining action/adventure series? Is there a difference in the requirements and expectations of people who create each of those? Can someone be a straight journalist (e.g., getting credentials and filing a story for The Baltimore Examiner) at the same time he is making a less journalistic action/adventure series, or do the lines need to be drawn clearly?

        Clip 2

               (a sample of his video work). Repeat the small group discussion process. In the follow-up discussion, you might invite students to address these questions/concerns:
            • Getting bike stuck in the sand and getting it out (Is he resourceful or careless?)
            • Staging his motorcycle shots (Is he providing a more accurate picture of the essence of his experience by creating interesting shots, or is the footage staged and therefore inaccurate?)
            • Advanced students might also be asked to consider whether the motorcycle shots are even about accuracy. Does the target audience care whether the shots are staged or not, i.e., do they follow a reality TV standard rather than a journalism standard and does that matter? Does an audience watching a reality show about, say, remodeling a home, have a different expectation of whether things are staged than someone who is watching a straight news story on a war?
            • Matt admits to having to resist doing wheelies in every shot and acknowledges becoming an adrenaline junkie (Would an adrenaline junkie make a good war correspondent? Is Matt's willingness to take risks helpful to getting a story?)

        End the discussion by asking the news directors what they would expect from a journalist that they wouldn't expect from other storytellers. What do they imagine their audience would expect? Do they expect different things from the news than from reality TV, a YouTube clip or a Facebook post? Do those different expectations change the ethical/journalistic requirements of each kind of storytelling?

        Conclude the activity with a five minute free-write during which students summarize what they learned about journalism and the skills and attitudes that good journalists possess.

        Alternative: As an alternate activity for students active on social media, point out that they were judging a prospective job candidate from video clips that might have been posted online, either as part of a video résumé or on a social media profile page. Guide students to notice how they evaluate people based on their posts. Then do a free write asking students to reflect on how others (including prospective employers) would evaluate them based on their own social media posts.

        Culminating Activity

        3. Making News Decisions

        In the film, Matt is credentialed to be an embedded reporter in Iraq. If students don't already know what an "embedded reporter" is, offer an explanation.

        Then have them watch Clip 3 with their "news director" hats on. They need to decide whether or not to air what the reporter has submitted.

        Have students watch the clip twice. The first time screen it with the sound off. Break into small groups for a short discussion about whether to air the footage.

        Repeat that process by watching the clip again, but this time with Matt's narration.

        After several minutes of small group discussion, reconvene as a full class and invite students to share what decision they made about the footage and, more importantly, what arguments they used to back up their positions. As part of the conversation, discuss what the difference is (if any) between setting up the motorcycle shots and allowing the soldiers to set up a shot of raiding the house.

        End the activity with a short free write on what students learned about the influence of entertainment media on the way that journalists report war news and on the way we interpret that news.

        Both free-writes can be collected to assess what students learned from the lesson.


        1. From the film, select two segments of Matt's footage of soldiers that students haven't yet seen. Divide the class into two groups of equal size. Show the class the segments without the sound. Have the students in one group write news stories summarizing the first clip and the students in the other group write news stories summarizing the second clip. Then have them act as news editors. Instruct them to swap papers with the other group so that each student can edit a story by a classmate in the other group (so every student will write one story and edit one story). Provide time at the end of the exercise for students to reflect on what they learned about their own writing by editing someone else's work.

        2. Show the portion of the film from the section on the Arab Spring, just before Matt decides to go to Libya to join the fight (Clip 4). The majority of the footage in that clip was shot on cellphone cameras by regular people--most of whom were active participants in the protests.

            • Does the fact that participants or people on the street were the source of that footage affect whether it should have been aired?
            • Is there any special way it should have been contextualized or should it be treated the same as a news story submitted by a professional journalist?
            • In the future, do you think that crowdsourcing will become the model for most news and news-footage?
            • As people post their own footage to social media (YouTube/Facebook/Twitter) and others consume news from those sources rather than going through traditional news outlets, how will the Jeffersonian goals outlined in the introduction to the lesson be affected?

        3. Assign students to monitor a range of video coverage of one of the current conflicts in the Middle East for a set time period (e.g., two weeks or one month). Include blogs by participants and YouTube posts, as well as traditional television news. Ask students what they notice about how the video is shot and edited and how those choices affect the message(s).

        4. Have advanced-level students write reviews of an article or book by a thought-leader on the impact of cameras and social media on the development of our identities (e.g., danah boyd, Howard Gardner, Katie Davis, Douglas Rushkoff).

        5. Invite students to create video résumés.

        6. Use the activity as a springboard for an in-depth study of one of the current conflicts in the Middle East. In the film, Matt shoots video in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Students might also look at Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Iran.

        7. Screen the full film, followed by a discussion of military recruiting in U.S. high schools (or students' own school).

        8. Invite a news director to speak to the class about their work.

        9. Invite students to reflect on how what they've learned might apply to the things they post online about themselves (e.g., on social media sites). There is a scene (Clip 5) where Matt talks about how the rebels in Libya wanted to be filmed/photographed in a certain way for Facebook, so they could show off. Does this apply to the rest of us who are not in battles, but are "news gathering" about our lives? How does the use of ever-present cellphone cameras and social media affect this personal "news gathering" about our own lives? Do we create idealized images of ourselves to present to the world? Does the fact that we are going to be recorded affect how we act or present ourselves to the camera? Or do we/should we follow traditional news-gathering journalistic practices?

        10. Invite students to consider how women are portrayed in coverage of the Arab Spring and how the interests and temperaments of typical war correspondents influence such coverage. For more on this issue, students might look at the stories included in Peace is Loud's The Trials of Spring project:


        Journalism and Media Analysis

        Columbia Journalism Review - This media watchdog publication has a number of easy-to-read articles on issues related to reporting; useful search terms include "ethics and war" and "citizen journalists."

        Merchants of Doubt - The website for this film examining media "spin" includes a full high school curriculum.

        Poynter - Search for "journalism ethics and war" for relevant articles. Also see the organization's blog on ethics:

        Middle East Conflicts

        The Guardian: "Arab Spring: An Interactive Timeline of Middle East Protests" - This newspaper offers a timeline of Arab Spring events and government responses.

        Institute for the Study of War - This organization provides perspectives on Iraq and other conflicts, mostly from people sympathetic to the Bush Administration and critical of mass media reporting on events.

        U.S. Department of State - This website provides official U.S. government accounts of current Middle East conflicts and U.S. positions.


        POV: Point and Shoot - The POV site for the film includes a general discussion guide with additional activity ideas.

        POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films - This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.

        POV: War Feels Like War - This POV film is about embedded journalists. The website includes related resources, as well as an important summary of the work Chris Hedges has done on addiction to war.


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