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Using the New York Times for Analysis

Assignment Summary

I arrange to supply each student with a copy of the same issue of the New York Times. The first year I tried this I asked them to buy the paper the day before the appointed class. Now I have to admit I buy a copy for each student and sell it to them to assure everyone has it. And then I teach them how to read it.

Beginning with the top of page1, I draw their attention to the volume and issue numbers and some of the tradition and history of the Times, including the fact that the page 1 headlines are seldom large. Our perusal of the day's issue is holistic, touching both upon the timely content of that day's paper and the format within which news is presented every day. I point out the way in which the Times staff highlights, both on page 1 and page 2, news and features found throughout the paper, particularly in the page 2 index, including a provocative "Quotation of the Day." While on page 2 and 3, I point out the nature of the advertising found there (typically Cartier, Tiffany, Neiman Marcus, Rolex, etc.) and suggest they note the kinds of advertising found in the different sections of the paper.

We discuss the fact that each day's Times contains different sections covering different aspects of life but that some sections appear daily. We study the first section to discover its daily coverage of international, then national news, ending with the editorial and op-ed pages. We discuss the difference between editorial writing and news reportage, who writes editorials, and what appears on the op-ed page. I point out those writers whose columns appear regularly and characterize their different styles or interests. And, of course, we note that the "Metro" section covers New York metropolitan news and advertising.

Another daily staple is the "Business" section, which at first I thought would not be of particular interest to an undergraduate class, but I found that they were perhaps most grateful for this introduction to the financial tables and found some of the business news articles interesting. We have had to pause while some students told others how to set up an IRA or otherwise invest in mutual funds.

We look at other sections and, depending upon the day of the week, talk about the range and style of writing covering the various subjects, whether it be cooking in or dining out, decorating the home, gardening, surveying the latest science discoveries or health tips, following fashion or sports, finding the arts reviews and listings, the chess and crossword and bridge puzzles, the weather and almanac...and the obituaries.

Somewhere along the way, I point out by-lines and date-lines and take them deep within someone's text to map the way in which a reporter or feature writer constructed and assembled the prose. It's interesting to pick a sports or financial piece simply because it is not where most people expect to find good writing. In addition to finding quality, however, I also try very hard to make the point that the writing, even in a prestigious paper like the Times, is often limited as well, that all reporters have to get their information or opinions from somewhere and that, even if they are trying to be objective, their sources may offer bias or subjective opinion. If the writer is presenting a personal opinion, it may be important to know what the background or experience of the writer is in order to judge their inclination. I show the students how to find the small amount of information the Times provides about people whose opinion they publish on the op-ed page. My aim is to help them become more questioning, less gullible.

Instructor's Comments

I have used this exercise two different ways. The second creates a more problem-based learning situation combined with collaborative learning.

1. One assignment was that each student find an article in that one particular issue of the Times which interested him or her and write an analysis of it, considering it contextually with regard to its position in the Times and its format and accompanying photographs, graphics or related adjacent material. In this way, I have some control over the text they choose to analyze but give them a range of choice as well. They may have to research additional information about the author or subject matter.

2. Another way to use the newspaper is as an introduction to the difference between reportorial, editorial, persuasive and critical or analytical writing. You can break the class into groups and ask each group to sort some of the writing in the paper into the above categories, or have them separate writing which presents information from writing that offers opinion. You can have each group analyze a different category, bringing individual drafts together to be reworked collaboratively. This is a good introduction to group work as well as analysis.
genre textual analysis
course WRT 102
activity type class dicussion, research (optional), individual writing assignment (optional), collaborative writing (optional)
skills close reading, analysis, classification, genre distinction, audience awareness
duration 1-2 class
copies of New York Times for each student
handouts: none
contributor: Carolyn McGrath