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My “Quest” and the Future of Journalism Education

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I’m on a quest.

It’s a quest to bring responsible journalism to live-tweeting.

It’s a good quest, a quest to change the work ethos of journalists when it comes to tweeting during breaking news events. I’ve written and spoken about this topic at a number of different conferences and I’ve adopted a new tactic in my quest:  Calling out poorly reported information passed along by journalists during a breaking news event.

My quest has lead me to a few Twitter discussions with journalists during breaking  news events. Some have not received my questions well. In the rush to be first, journalists and their news organizations continue to publish false information. Joe Paterno, Gabby Giffords, Sandy Hook, Boston Marathon Bombings, Navy Yard shooting, LAX shooting, New Jersey mall shooting. The list of news events where “spaghetti-against-the-wall journalism” occurs just keeps growing.

It’s a vicious circle. Amateur journalists feed social media, social media feeds broadcast outlets, who feed Twitter….round and round we go.

But there’s hope.  Some of my former students who were working and covering the Boston Marathon bombings story were tweeting out questions about why speculation and rumor was being tweeted out by amateur and professional journalists. And, in the end, they were acting a lot more responsibly as they reported during a crisis situation.

Why were rookie reporters acting more responsibly than seasoned veterans?

Which brings me to the return of the Carnival of Journalism. David Cohn’s idea to have a group of writers blog/comment about a different topic every month is back after a bit of a hiatus and tackling a topic which is getting a lot of ink these days: Journalism Education. Specifically, the question reads:

Student news organizations have traditionally existed to give students experience before entering the workforce. The kinds of journalism jobs and journalism companies have changed considerably in the past 10 years, and most student news organizations are set up to mimic traditional print or broadcast news outlets. How would you set up a student news organization in 2013 or how could an existing college news organization modernize itself?
Issues to consider:
  • Ideally experience at a college media organization would help a student learn relevant skills for the workforce and help students land a job.
  • If you work at a news organization, what kinds of skills do you and your organization look for in new hires?
  • What kind of “clips” should college students have by graduation?
  • You can approach this as your advice to college media organizations or as if you were a theoretical adviser or manager of a student news organization. Or as a theoretical employer imagining the ideal experience a just-graduated student should have gotten.

I try to follow most of my students after they graduate, seeing where they land in the profession and watching their progress over time. Some of them have had experience working at a student-run publication, some of them have had internships and some of them have taken my Investigative Journalism class. That class partners up with a news organization each semester — and is where they get their stories published. In the past we’ve partnered with The Boston Globe and MassLive and we’re currently partnering with The Huffington Post.

There’s a lot being written these days about the future of Journalism Education. Ideas range from teaching students code, data visualization, computer programming — they all jockey for the trending subjects of the day. Which is all fine. I support all of that.

But none of it means a damn if news organizations continue to get it wrong. At times I wonder whether spaghetti-against-the-wall journalism is the wave of the future. Some think so. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram wrote last year that:

“The way that inaccurate news reports about a mass shooting in Connecticut filtered out through social media has brought up many of the same criticisms as Hurricane Sandy — that social media isn’t an appropriate forum for journalism. But this is simply the way news works now.”

I refuse to buy that. I’m not going to throw up my hands and surrender to inaccuracies being the norm.

What I like about this current generation of students/alums, is that they really seem to get it. They understand technology. They’ve grown up with it. They understand the amplification effect provided by social media.

UMass Journalism graduate S.P. Sullivan was at the scene of the recent New Jersey mall shooting, live-tweeting for NJ.com. His first-hand reports were balanced and authoritative and a BBC producer told him that at one point they were reading his tweets on air. The importance of the moment was not lost on S.P.:

“There were hundreds of RT and mentions….kind of drives home the responsibility you have, as someone attached to a news organization and on the ground, to not tweet bullshit.”

I’m all for student news organizations training students but students really begin to realize how serious our profession is when they work together with professionals in another news organizations. That’s really where the focus needs to be. Those classes that provide partnerships also allows for training that really seems to drive home the point that speed means nothing if you get it wrong and “tweet bullshit.”

We need more of that.

The Carnival Takes Off

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I always enjoyed carnivals growing up.  You never knew what to expect — new games, rides, foods just around the corner.   And, such an eclectic group of people that often looked and acted strangely 🙂

I think what David Cohn had in mind when he re-started the Carnival of Journalism was bringing together a diverse group of folks who would exchange ideas and maybe shake things up in the process. Cohn got just that Wednesday when a Google Groups discussion between Carnistas ranged over a variety of topics, spanning over two days and 70 e-mail exchanges.

The extended thread prompted this reply from the rad one:  “This thread brought tears to my eyes 😉  I never want to dictate where the Carnival goes – I just wanted to create a forum where once a month we can tackle the same topic.”

It all started with a relatively simple question from Lisa Williams, one of my favorite “new media” types out there:

I’m a judge for the Online Journalism Awards this year.

When I did it last year, one of the things that captivated me was that the discussions between the judges revealed that our basic ideas of what “good” is when it comes to journalism are changing because of the web and mobile technology.

I’d love to do a question about what we SHOULD be rewarding when we’re handing out prizes for the **Online** News Association — but I need a little help writing the question.

My sense is that the Online Journalism Awards have to be about more than solid reporting or social impact; the winners should reflect what we believe is excellent in the use of the web or mobile technology, too.

A relatively simple question, but the answers prompted a conversation that spanned criteria for contests to what makes for a successful business model to Thomas Jefferson.  It was a classic “online discussion” — starting on one topic and branching off into a variety of areas.

At one point, Chris Anderson commented on the idea that innovation and experimentation were more welcome in academia than in the news industry:  “I might say that academia currently (temporarily?) has more money to do more things than the journalism profession at the moment, and that the ability to ‘innovate’ in academia is primarily (paradoxically?) a consequence of that historical anomaly known as ‘tenure.’ Since we’re going all off topic here ;-)”

Lisa’s reply:  “Off topic forever, baby!”

Lisa’s original query promoted some interesting replies, including:

Mark Plenke:

“Number one for me is using the right storytelling tool for the job. A good site uses text and graphics to explain, video to illustrate and capture action and emotion, audio to bring interviews alive, interactive graphics to illustrate a process and involve viewers, social media and polls to involve visitors and get them to participate. I think understanding this is what makes a great online editor. Too many sites don’t get this.”

Anna Tarkov made a number of interesting points during the discussion, including this:

“I would add that engaging your readers substantively (not just: send
us a photo! like us! follow us!) is important as well as being open
and transparent about the news gathering and reporting processes. This
is still mostly not done, to the detriment of both news orgs and news
consumers.”

Tanja Aitamurto sought some clear criteria:

“Whether awarding exploration i.e. trying out new things, and bringing value to journalism that way or success (usually involves risk taking than the former option): solutions where technology is used in an efficient fashion and increases transparency in journalistic practices.”

Paul Bradshaw:

“I was one of the judges on the Press Association’s Regional Press Awards and as the title was ‘digital innovation’ that’s what we looked for – something that pushed the form forward. I also took into account whether they were having to produce to a deadline (the winner was a piece of live data journalism), how sustainable the innovation was, and how it played not just online but in print as well.”

J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer made some important points along the same lines:

It seems to me that an important component is whether a new idea actually “works.”   Cool tools are nice.  Advances in new processes for doing journalism are great.  New ways to tell stories are still being invented.   But who paid any attention?  Did it actually engage audiences? Prompt interactions? Have impact?  Or are we still at risk of talking to ourselves?

University of Nebraska Dean Gary Kebbel (an ONA judge with Lisa) also weighed in on the opportunities available in academia:

“And although we at the University of Nebraska are trying to get on the innovation path, I’m regularly reminded how, well, academic, our thoughts can be when we try to tell news organizations here’s what they should be trying. But an active combo of innovative J profs who get news and digital tools and who know how to make that into digital news tools – in combination with newsroom editors grinding it out every day with no budget – seems to me a great way to work on creating the new culture of innovation and culture of constant change that we need.”

Geoffrey Samek became passionate when some (me) wondered whether ONA was becoming too focused on gadgety gimmicks:

“Over focus on technology? It is an award focusing exclusively on “online” and a big part of that is technology and how tech changes journalism. ONLINE! Collection and innovative processes that take place in the real world are by definition offline….In a world where tech is flying forward at an exponential rate, journalism’s baby-step technological advances are killing me.

Journalism is about informing the community for positive change by collecting, reporting and inevitably organizing information in compelling ways. Technology has an enormous ability to aid in the organization of information. Tech allows for assembling and displaying information in unheard of ways. When humans use new tech to do that, then they are fully taking advantage of Online Journalism.”

Michael Rosenblum suggested profitability as a criterium, which took the discussion into another direction:

“I will never understand the inherent antipathy most journalists have toward making money.  It is in our DNA, strangely, and it is incredibly self-destructive.  The ‘Internet Revolution’ took place not only on our watch but on our turf.  Most of the primary online start-ups were largely journalism/information based.  Yet we stood by idly as others benefited from 100+ years of our labor to lay the groundwork.  What is Craigslist but an iteration of the newspaper classifieds.  What is Google, in fact, but ‘all the news fit to print’.  Movies are replete with our own image of ourselves: note Russell Crowe as a newspaper journalist in State of Play:  unshaven, generally drunk, drives a crap car, hard working, dedicated but poor.  What is our problem here?  If we OWN the product we can call the shots.  And we CAN own the product.  But we have to embrace the notion of making money and building businesses as a good not an evil.”

A few took issue with Michael’s point, including myself:

“@Michael — I take your point but not sure there is the antipathy you reference today, judging by the number of pieces being written daily in the ‘Paywalls are Stupid’ vs. ‘Paywalls Will Save The World’ debate.  Making money is very much on the minds of journalists these days.  But, to get back to Lisa’s original question, we’re talking about rewarding journalism, not the making of money.  Although, I wonder whether ONA should have a separate award for ‘Innovative Business Models’ — something beyond trying to reinvent the wheel with paywalls.”

And Dan Gillmor:

“I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that the percentage of journalists who believe this (‘profit is evil’)  is higher than the percentage of the entire population that believes it.”

And Lisa Williams:

“As someone from the tech industry — where we have few of the internal conflicts about money I observe among journalists, I’m not sure that I would put profitability as a criteria for an award series about innovation.

Many people are under the misapprehension that Silicon Valley startups are primarily concerned with making money. This is not true: they’re about getting big (by growing their userbase). In fact, many “successful” startups lose huge quantities of money for years (*cough* twitter *cough*). The idea is to get big and then sell the entire company to a large publicly traded company at a profit.

That’s not always the same as making money either (witness News Corp’s buyout of MySpace, basically a billion dollars down the drain).

If Twitter was judged on the same basis as the Guardian’s local experiment, it would be history. Most mature companies and industries don’t have the stomach for five years of multimillion dollar investment at a loss that the tech industry does, particularly when there’s no exit market (who will the Guardian sell the Local to?).”

And Daniel Bachhuber:

“Responding to Michael’s point of profitability, I think a better
criterium is “viability”. News organizations should be awarded for
intelligent internal technology investments they’re committed to for
the long term. I’d love there be the proper incentives (e.g.
journalism awards) for news executives to support visions like Matt
Waite’s
.

And, much much more….

The good news?  This discussion will continue.  Lisa will be the wrangler for next month’s Carnival of Journalism.  The topic?   You guessed it….more of the same.

Q&A With S.P. Sullivan

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The devastation in Springfield after Wednesday's tornado was surpising to many covering the aftermath. (Courtesy of S.P. Sullivan)

S.P. Sullivan is a 2010 graduate of the UMass journalism program.  Upon graduation, he took a job as a producer for MassLive, the online operation of The Springfield Republican.  I was chatting with him online prior to Wednesday’s tornado and caught up with him to see what the past several days have been like.

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?

When the first tornado hit I was in the office. I stuck around because I have a little car and I didn’t want it to blow away during the NWS’ tornado watch.

We saw the tornado pass a few blocks from our building, tearing debris off the tops of buildings, but honestly I wasn’t that impressed. Even when our general manager came back from a meeting with photos of a few uprooted trees downtown, I didn’t think it was anything more than the microbursts that sometimes happen around here, destroying a random barn and leaving everything else untouched.

So I left! I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that. I went grocery shopping. But there was no way to know the extent of the damage at that point, and I couldn’t get downtown because of gridlock traffic in that direction. It wasn’t until I got home that I heard about the level of damage. So, jaw ajar, I went back to work from my dining room table.

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw.

3.    Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

Because I was 40 minutes away in Amherst when I started working on tornado coverage, I did a lot of back-channel stuff Wednesday night. I’m a producer, not a reporter, so the paper had reporters all over the scene. I tried to flesh out details of what happened from the streams of media reports, the chatter online and communicating with other staff. I made sure the latest stuff was on the homepage as it was coming in and added all the necessary media.

Then, I started recording statements from the governor and other officials remotely using a complicated set-up involving my smartphone, a Zoom H2 recorder and a stereo cable. Because of that I was able to listen in on the governor’s press briefings and file stories on the site about the state response within minutes of them ending. I edited and embedded audio from those briefings.

Most of Wednesday night I was glued to Twitter on the back end, trying to vet information as it was coming in and post stuff as soon as it was confirmed by us or our media partners.

Thursday, I came in early and started out with my normal morning routine, which is manning the homepage. I built what we call a ‘defcon’ promo, which is a module that we roll out for large, breaking news events like this one. Then I worked with a reporter at the paper on a live blog, bringing together dispatches and photos from reporters in the field, user-submitted photos and video and updates on traffic, office closures and whatnot from state agencies.

In the afternoon, I was sent out in the field to capture images and on-the-ground perspectives of the recovery process. I visited the badly damaged South End and talk to a security guard from one of the towers, who had helped his tenants to the shelter at the MassMutual center. I got yelled at by cops and National Guardsmen for crossing police lines, and told by others that I was OK as long as I had my press badge. It was a confusing time, and I was struck by the number of people wandering the South End, taking pictures of the damage with their cell phones.

Between disaster areas, I found some women flagging down cars for a car wash to raise money for victims. A few of them had been impacted themselves. I thought it was a touching story and, for our readers’ sake and mine, I shot some video so we’d have a positive piece to balance out the desperation.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

I got on Twitter as soon as I knew it had happened because I have a decent base of followers in Western Mass. I knew they would be posting about the situation wherever they were at. It’s also useful as an aggregation tool, because it would take me 30 minutes to sift through all of the state’s news organizations that were covering this, but as everyone was sharing from their news site of choice, I was able to see headlines from all over in real-time.

Twitter was most useful in the hours right after the storm hit, and I keep checking it to this moment, but since Wednesday night I’ve mostly been using it to keep our 3,000+ followers up on what we’re doing, what other orgs are posting and what the various state agencies and aid groups are saying. I posted updates from the field, but that was somewhat difficult with spotty reception due to downed cell towers.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

It’s a friggin’ tornado in New England. Everything about the past 48 hours has been surprising. If I have to pick, I’d say the courage of the folks like the women I met at the car wash, who managed to remain positive amid all of the rubble.

Q&A With Dave Madsen

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Dave Madsen has worked in broadcasting since 1970, and now serves as managing editor and anchor for ABC’s affiliate WGGB TV, ABC40 in Springfield. He attended UMass Amherst, majoring in Communication. He has been teaching at UMass since Fall 2000, first for two years in Sport Management and then with Journalism starting in Fall 2002.

I checked in with Dave to get his thoughts about covering the tornado and the effects of the storm on Springfield and Western Massachusetts

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?
We were live on the air and watching our Skycam video as the tornado moved across the river and Memorial Bridge. People watching saw it as we did, live and heard our reaction to what we were seeing. It was stunning and hard to believe it was happening here.

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?  Absolutely. The first pictures we saw came from the South End. It looked like a war zone.

3.    Can you describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

We went live, continuously from around 3:45 to 9. We kept updating information as it came into us from the field and from Facebook and Twitter, as well as our email address. We worked with police, hospitals and viewers , taking live phoners of people describing where they were and what they saw.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

Social media played a huge role. People were posting pictures and videos that we used on the air. We had more than 1,000 people friend our WGGB Springfield account Wednesday afternoon alone. People communicated with each other on our Facebook page, as well as with us. Yesterday’s tornado really reinforced my opinion on the growing strength and reach of social media. We streamed our coverage live all afternoon long. We got e-mails from people all over the country and world for that matter. We received a request from a blogger in Russia to use some of our video.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

The social media aspect. In times of crisis, it’s probably the most effective form of communication.

It’s Carnival Time: Talking News Sources

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The latest question from David Cohn (aka DigiDave) for the Carnival of Journalism centers on one of my favorite topics:  news sources. The question:

    What can you, as an individual or employee, do to increase the number of news sources?

One of Dave’s suggestions is to focus on Knight Commission recommendations.  As an educator, the recommendation that jumps out at me most is:  “Integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements of education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state and local education officials.”

Teaching students about news literacy (I’m going to avoid the “media literacy” phrase) is the single-most important thing educators across all levels can do.  News consumers not only need to know how to recognize good sourcing and good information, but more importantly, that consumption means visiting several news sources, to make sure you are getting all viewpoints and that the information is accurate.  Reading and consuming for depth is important but doing so for accuracy and diversity is equally important

News literacy needs to start in middle school and continue at the university level.  The era of depending upon one news source for accurate information is gone.  No longer is news consumption a matter of sitting down and watching the 6 o’clock news for a half hour or more and that’s it.  News consumption has evolved.  It’s now a continuous process and this  new generation of news consumers needs to be able to discern between what is news and reality vs. speculation and rumor.

During the first week of the Egyptian revolution, I found myself watching CNN on my television, while on my laptop I was watching the live feed from Al-Jazeera English and running a Twitter feed with a number of different feeds, including #egypt and #jan25.  When I told my students I was doing this, I received a few strange looks.  But in deciding to look at two news sources as sharply contrasting as AJE and CNN, I noticed some pretty distinct differences — not only in images that were being shown (which was fairly significant at points) but also in tone.  AJE was much more critical of the behavior of the U.S. government and after a while, CNN was squeezing in Egypt coverage in between checking in with the latest Lindsay Lohan updates.

And, while the speed of the Twitter feeds was blinding at first, I was able to discover a bunch of sources from the scene that gave me first-hand accounts of what was happening in Tahrir Square.  I also discovered the Twitter curation efforts by NPR’s Andy Carvin as well as the first-hand accounts of Mahmoud Salem, also known as ‘sandmonkey.’

These were real-time sources that I was not necessarily getting from Web sites of The Washington Post or The New York Times or the broadcast coverage of CNN.

What the coverage of the Egyptian revolution also pointed out is how the whole concept of ‘sourcing’ has changed.  In the past, news sources were the New York Times, CNN and NPR.  Now, I’m not necessarily looking for the organization — I want the individual.  Increasingly, it’s the personal brand that matters.  I may not be happy with the overall perspective of the New York Times, but I am going to look for Anthony Shadid’s work in my RSS feed, and Nick Kristoff’s personal accounts on Twitter and Facebook.  I may not be happy about the images being shown by CNN, but I am going to stop and listen to what Ben Wedeman has to say on air and I’m going to follow his Twitter feed.

So, the whole notion of sourcing has been turned on its head.  In large part, thanks to Twitter.

Twitter has become a great teaching tool for educators.  It allows us to get across the idea not everything that is reported or tweeted is true (see NPR, CNN and Gabrielle Giffords shooting) as well as the idea that you can go to Twitter feeds and get a vast array of perspectives on a news event like the Egypt revolution.

What can educators do to increase the number of news sources used and consumed by students?  Teach them about the Twitter….

The Sri Lanka Chronicles…continued

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I’ve been lucky over the past month to meet people who have either visited or live in Sri Lanka.  I’ve met and chatted with John Stifler, an economics professor at UMass.  John was in Sri Lanka for more than a year as a Fulbright Scholar and has been a fountain of information — briefing me on everything from hotels and restaurants to stay at to the state of the media there.  Through John, I met Tissa Jayatilaka, the executive director of the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, during his visit to Amherst in late October.

Who would have known that I would find so many connections to the other side of the world in Amherst?  It’s one of many reasons why I love this area — there is a unique, eclectic group of people here and you don’t have to look far to find connections.

Which brings me to this week.  I was sitting in my office Wednesday  when a Journalism student approached me and introduced herself.  Turns out the Journalism program also has a connection to Sri Lanka.  Pavi Kulatunga is a junior journalism major who is heading home on Sunday and will be in the country when I’m there lecturing.  Pretty cool.

I’ve spent the past two days chatting with Pavi about Colombo and the surrounding areas.  She says Sri Lanka has the best Chinese food.  I’m looking forward to checking that out, as well as some of the other dishes she described that are unique to the area.  Turns out her parents’ home is about a half-hour drive from the beach resort my wife and I will be staying at once my lecturing duties are completed.  Pavi offered to act as our own personal tour guide — a generous offer which we’re looking forward to.

Pavi and I also spoke a bit about the 2004 Tsunami.  She was not in Sri Lanka when the tsunami occurred and told me how lucky she felt when all the members of her extended family survived the disaster.  She told me a harrowing story of a friend who lost her Dad after he thought his daughters had died.  She spoke about her work as a trauma counselor and talking to a 7-year-old girl who had lost her entire family.

Pavi also spoke about how those in the country have bounced back since the tragedy, rebuilding roads, businesses, infrastructure.

Her words:  “Please, come visit!”

Looking forward to it…..

Here’s my schedule for the week:

Steve’s Schedule:

Monday 13 December
9:00-12:00 noon
American Centre workshop, Topic: Investigative Journalism How to deal with hostile and/ or hesitant sources.

2:00-4:00 p.m. Lecture at the University of Sri Jayawardanepura Topic: Citizen Journalism

Tuesday 14 December
9:00 a.m.- 12:00 noon
Lecture at the University of Kelaniya, Topic: Investigative Journalism

Wednesday 15 December
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon
Workshop for the Army, Navy and air Force Media Units
Topic : How to create a Blog and how to maintain a Blog

2:00-4:00 p.m. Lecture at Lake House, Topic: What is Blog, How to create a Blog and how to maintain a Blog

Thursday 16 December
9:00-12:30 p.m.
University of Colombo lecture/workshop:
Topic – Citizen Journalism

4:00-06:00 p.m.
American Centre Workshop
Topic: Be a blogger

Friday 17 December
9:00- 11:00 a.m.
American Centre
Seminar for A/L students, Topic: “Publish Me”: Royal College

2:00-4:00 p.m.
American Centre
Workshop for Religious Groups.
Topic : General Introduction to new Media; Students from Buddhist and Pali University

Steve

 

Berkman, American Univ., others propose citiJ training service

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Bill Densmore (densmore@mediagiraffe.org) writes:

I am on a Google Groups list started by J.D. Lasica and including folks from the Berkman Center at Harvard, the Center for Social Media at American University, and including Jan Schaffer, Ellen Hume and Geneva Overholser. The discussion has been about a proposal from Lasica to seek grant funding and collaborative operation of training events for citizen journalists. Here is J.D.’s proposal:

http://writer.zoho.com/public/jdlasica/Innovation-Camps