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September 01 2010


Revamping J-Schools in Australia to Bring in 'Citizens Agenda'

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

As Australian democracy hangs in the balance, and with the outcome of the August 21 national election unlikely to be resolved for weeks, I'm considering the implications for journalism education -- and how we can invent new models for political reporting.

I am a former Australian Broadcasting Corporation political journalist who now teaches journalism in at the University of Canberra, which is situated just down the road from Australia's national parliament. Parliament House is home to the Canberra Press Gallery, the Holy Grail of Australian political journalism.

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I made a successful attempt at innovating through the employment of Twitter as a student-reporting platform in a Canberra regional election in 2008. But it's time my school, which bills itself as Australia's "Capital University," embarked on a political journalism project that marries journalism students and media-active citizenry with industry partners, new media players and civic agencies.

Such an approach could enable the implementation of a citizen-informed editorial agenda; the engagement of a now essential social media strategy; and the enhancement of industry partner's political coverage, with the social objective of enabling participatory democracy. It should also provide an opportunity for academic research, so that the outcomes can be appropriately measured and academically published, as well as being reported for mass consumption through a variety of media.

Superficial Coverage

Problematic Australian political reporting, which became a theme of its own during the heavily stage-managed campaign, has been cited as one of the causes of this historic result: The first hung Parliament since World War II, and the upending of Australia's entrenched, highly combative, two-party democracy.

Journalists have been accused of producing superficial stories that were heavily influenced by polls and the major parties' political agendas, but light on critique and context. Citizen journalists bit back on blogs and Twitter, telling journalists to lift their game.

They complained about Press Gallery obsessions with predictions, personalities and political processes at the expense of policies. They also cited the impact of spin and campaign stage management on editorial agendas at the expense of independent, inquiring journalism as evidence of the need for changing practice. They asked why Australia's increasingly costly involvement in the war in Afghanistan wasn't probed during the campaign, and they wanted to know why both major parties virtually ignored climate change. This public critique of professional political journalism provoked defensive reactions from some reporters and triggered a vigorous Twitter debate on political journalism between the Fourth Estate and the New Estate. Witness the below exchange between a journalist and one of my colleagues at the university:

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Four independent Members of Parliament, bent on upending the Oz political landscape, are likely to hold the Balance of Power in the new government -- and they've already taken aim at the Fourth Estate for its failures and apparent determination to maintain the status quo. In a National Press Club (NPC) address last week, one MP, Tony Windsor, challenged the journalists present, saying, "if you people are sick of the nonsense, then promote some of [our] concepts." Another, Rob Oakeshott, pointed to what he sees as the essence of the problem. "In focusing so heavily on the [Prime Minister], the cabinet and the polls ... we have lost the focus on the local member," he told the NPC. And with it, the local community.

A challenge

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen visited Australia in the middle of the election campaign to speak at a national conference of journalists. He was intrigued to find what he calls horse race journalism being practiced on the Australian election campaign trail. He revived his alternative model for political reporting driven by the "citizens agenda" during his highly publicized visit. He also proposed a new role of media outlet as "explainer" for the national public broadcaster, ABC.

U.S. political journalist John Nichols was another keynote speaker at the conference. His rousing speech invoked Finley Peter Dunne ("afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted") and pointed to the risk that spin increasingly amplifies the voices of the powerful and threatens journalists' capacity to speak truth to power. It made me feel like I'd attended a revival meeting at the Church of Journalism.

Rosen's practical challenge and Nichols' call to faith focused my mind on the role that journalism education might play in reforming political reporting in Australia. Key targets for an overhaul of political journalism in the Australian setting are:

  • The missing "citizens agenda" and active engagement with citizen journalists.
  • The absence of explanatory reporting and a preference for inflammatory tabloid-style political reporting.
  • The resort to the defense of objectivity in the face of political deceit.
  • The concentration of political reporting on the national capital and the parliament, and the insistence on focusing campaign coverage on the traveling shows staged by the leaders of the two main political parties, Labor and the Liberal National Coalition.

Barrukka Project

There has been only limited innovation in the sphere of community and industry-partnered journalism school projects around political journalism in Australia. The best of these was YouDecide2007 project, which sought to explore the role of social media and citizen journalism in partnership with the secondary Australian public broadcaster, the multilingual SBS. This early and very successful research-driven project did not, however, systematically involve journalism students, nor did it directly feed back into journalism training. In fact, most Australian journalism schools don't teach political journalism as a genre, and the training that does occur tends to simply model entrenched industry patterns.

Here's what I propose: A multi-partnered, citizen-activated journalism project based at the University of Canberra in the lead up to the next national election (which could happen swiftly unless a stable government can be established in the current cliff-hanger of a ballot!). The objective would be to take the focus off the agendas of the major parties and the Canberra Press Gallery and look beyond the walls of Parliament House to the experiences and views of the broader Canberra public.

Let's call this proposed project Barrukka, which means "talk" in an Aboriginal dialect. This name is in deference to the historically disenfranchised Indigenous Australians and it is a way of reflecting an underlying objective of connecting disempowered voices with the mainstream media and broader public.

Its four-fold purpose would be to:

  1. Produce citizen agenda-enhanced journalism in multiple forms, across multiple platforms (including social media like Twitter and Facebook) and aggregated on a UC-managed website.
  2. Produce political reporters equipped to challenge dominant media/political paradigms and produce creative content.
  3. Provide opportunities for citizen journalism and community engagement.
  4. Enhance mainstream media coverage of the election.

Senior student journalists, with the appropriate training and experience, would be embedded within the wider region's individual electorates (which range from inner city through farmland) for one week, researching and reporting the main issues identified by community organizations, local media and candidates. Thereafter, those electorates would become their election beats and their new contacts their main sources for coverage.

The student journalists would also be tasked to recruit local leaders for community-based discussion groups. These groups would identify and explore key issues of concern and then feed those ideas into editorial processes, while group leaders would also upload content (audio, video, images, etc.) directly to the main website and via interconnected social media platforms.

Partnerships With Industry, New Media & Government

Partnerships would provide funding and support for the project. For example, UC's journalism program could partner with the country's respected and community-engaged, multiple-platform public broadcaster, the ABC.

A second potential partnership could be formed between UC and one of the emerging activist media groups invested in social change like Get-Up, which successfully extended voting enrollment rights during the 2010 poll through legal challenges.

A third partnership could be pursued between UC's journalism program and the Australian Electoral Commission, the statutory body which oversees the election process and the registration of voters. One of the roles of the project would be to educate Australians about electoral processes, promote democratic engagement and stimulate voter registration.

Embedded Hyper-Local Reporting

Embedding student journalists within individual electorates and requiring them to build relationships with both the candidates and the communities, through a combination of online and traditional reporting strategies, would encourage coverage of issues which may challenge both the major parties' strategic objectives and the Press Gallery's narrow editorial agenda.

The student reporters would be forbidden from covering press-release generated "news" in the interests of countering spin, and they would be required to include two face-to-face interviews from non-official sources in every story filed. Their brief would be to report in an explanatory, rather than inflammatory, manner.

They would be required to file content across a range of platforms including the project website, UC journalism school radio and TV programs, Twitter, blogs and Facebook pages associated with the project. In addition, they would be expected to tweet and blog about the processes of reporting in the interests of reflexive practice. And they would be tasked to produce one podcast during the campaign about the key issues and policies concerning the assigned electorate for showcasing on the ABC's website.

Community Forums

The embedded student journalists would identify leaders for citizen-based deliberative forums to be held in each electorate, every week of the campaign. These forum leaders would be trained in basic technical and professional skills by the project. They would be tasked to collect and file content to the project website with group members commenting on key themes emerging from each forum. They would operate like self-reporting focus groups.

They would also be asked to identify one question they would like to put to each candidate in their electorate during community Q&A forums to be staged in the final week of the campaign.

These Q&A forums would be moderated and reported on by the student journalists involved in the project, with the possibility of content also being fed to ABC.

Research Processes/Outcomes

UC journalism academics, working with student research assistants from media studies and communication theory courses, would analyze the processes, outputs and impacts of the exercise and compare the coverage to the mainstream media's reporting of each electorate assigned. The results of this multi-faceted academic research (incorporating quantitative and qualitative methodologies) would then be published academically and in a range of popular, accessible media with a view to feeding outcomes back into the curriculum and future projects.

At this stage, Barrukka is just a simple on-paper-only attempt at enlivening and improving political journalism education in Australia. But I am about to return to the classroom after a long stint of maternity leave, with fresh eyes and renewed purpose -- and I will do my best to turn this idea into a reality. Meantime, watch on as Australian democracy undergoes renovation. You may be inspired too.

If you are interested in being involved as a partner or a sponsor in this proposed project, please email me.

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

April 13 2010


How #Spill Effect Brought Color, Collaboration to Media Tweets

Twitter distinguished itself as an important new platform for breaking political news in Australia during the Great #Spill of 2009. This is the second installment in a MediaShift series on the "#spill effect." (You can read the first part here.) It draws on a case study of the event and includes online interviews with eight tweeting journalists who are prominent members of the Canberra Press Gallery.

"#Spill" was the hashtag used to amalgamate Twitter coverage of the scalping of federal conservative leader Malcolm Turnbull, and the elevation of Tony Abbott to the leadership of Australia's opposition party, the Liberal-National Coalition. But behind the frenzied tweeting of the spectacular unraveling of the Turnbull leadership was another story -- a story about the coverage itself, which demonstrated the transformative effect this micro-blogging platform is having on Australian political journalism. It's a story that made news again last week when Malcolm Turnbull announced his resignation from politics, via Twitter, of course.

How Twitter Impacts Australian Reporting

I've concluded that Twitter is having a transformative effect on Australian political reporting -- but not all Press Gallery journalists agree. While acknowledging the emergence of journalistic audience engagement via Twitter, Samantha Maiden, the chief online political correspondent for Rupert Murdoch's The Australian, described it as just another reporting platform. She downplayed the impact of the #spill story on political reporting.

"Ultimately, Twitter is just a means...of delivering the news. In that sense it is silly to suggest [the #spill] reinvented the wheel in some way," she said.

Nevertheless, Latika Bourke, a Press Gallery correspondent for national commercial radio, who watched her Twitter followers double during the week-long story (to more than 2,000), said Twitter's role in the coverage proved it's here to stay as a journalistic tool.

"For many of us, Twitter was the aside, or extra-curricular part of our job; but now there will be the expectation that when the big stories are on, we'll be there, tweeting as a priority," Bourke said.


Sky TV's David Speers -- who demonstrated the central role of Twitter in the coverage of the story by tweeting live to air in the middle of an interview and using his smartphone to read the tweet of a competitor mid-commentary -- said Twitter adds to the value of coverage and the reporting experience, rather than detracting from them.

"Obviously speeches, debates and essays will always be important," he said. "And they will always be there. Twitter isn't taking anything away from traditional political discourse. It's adding something new. And it's fun."

The Need for Speed & Color

Speed was the most commonly described effect of Twitter on the political reporting process. It even out-paced frenetic radio news reporters. "I thought working in radio [that] I knew what 'instant' meant, but that's been completely redefined now that I've covered the spill via Twitter," Bourke observed.

The Age's political correspondent, Mischa Schubert, agreed that Twitter-speed was a factor in the #spill coverage.

"It accelerated the pace of coverage, that's for sure," she said. "Where once a lot of details would have been hoarded for the next day's newspapers, color that wouldn't hold was broadcast instantly in tweets and on [media organizations'] websites."

The benefits of value-adding tweets with "color" was also highlighted by others. "If you took a straw poll on which journalists were the most popular -- and this was debated by Twitter users -- journalists breaking news with a mix of color and telling observation were always in the top three," Maiden said. "Users aren't that interested in someone who just tweets a couple of lines from a doorstop or the Senate debates."

But some political news reporters are "coloring" outside the lines on Twitter. Australian Associated Press's (AAP) Sandra O'Malley said opinion and commentary are seeping into news reporters' tweets.

sandra.jpg"There was...much more opining on the political players than during 'normal,' straight reporting," O'Malley said of the #spill coverage. She highlighted the impact of the clash of the personal and the professional in the space, and the challenge it poses to traditional journalistic values like objectivity, as I've previously reported.

However, Lyndal Curtis, the chief political correspondent of ABC Radio's current affairs programs, said the act of tweeting political news hasn't altered her reporting habits, such as an unbending commitment to fact-checking; but she's pleased to have "another audience to speak to," and she acknowledges the humanizing effect of tweeting.

"It allows me some more latitude to be a person, and an outlet for some humor," she said. The amusement value of Twitter -- and Press Gallery journalists' tendency to merge satire and reportage in the interests of entertaining one another and their new, individual audiences -- was mentioned by several of the interviewees.

The need for even greater multi-tasking by journalists in the age of the real-time web was also noted.

"One observation that amazed me was watching a few people -- @sarahwiley8 @latikambourke @bennpackham -- standing at doorstops with their digital recorder in one hand and single-handedly tweeting with the other!" O'Malley said.

A number of the journalists commented on the fact that Twitter, with its live reporting capacity and its aggregated news feeds, has enabled them to be less tethered to their desks. They can roam to gather information face-to-face and more accurately assess atmospherics, all while staying informed.

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This, in turn, encouraged the journalists to practice what I've observed elsewhere is the tendency to lay bare reporting the process on Twitter by discussing journalistic strategies, dilemmas and difficulties. In the case of the #spill, this was demonstrated by the journalists complaining about efforts to keep them away from the Coalition Party Room, where Malcolm Turnbull's fate was ultimately sealed.

Twitter Collegiality

One of the strongest themes to emerge from my survey of the eight tweeting Press Gallery reporters who covered #spill was a deepening of relationships between journalists from different media organizations. They spoke of the increased camaraderie and collegiality fostered through the sharing of skills and information.

"We all shared information, respected each other's scoops by re-tweeting them, and [as a result] the relationships and trust between journalists deepened," Bourke said.

crabb.jpgSenior Press Gallery journalist Annabel Crabb agreed, noting that, "It brings competitors closer together, in that we read each other's updates. I certainly was glued to @samanthamaiden, @latikambourke and @David_Speers as well as talking to my own colleagues."

Instead of having to finagle details of their competitors' reporting progress and framing of the story, they just watched their tweet streams. This was particularly beneficial to junior Press Gallery reporters like Bourke, who said she was able to break news of the leadership ballots' likely outcome as a direct result of following the very connected Speers' Twitter feed.

"It was like suddenly having all the pieces to a puzzle that I only needed to put together, instead of having just a few, and trying to paint in the blanks," she said.

Speers was unconcerned by this development.

"Journalists usually save any information they have for the stories they're writing," he said. "But on Twitter, political journalists share what they know. I think this is mostly driven by the competitive urge of journalists to be the first to break news, even if it's only a minor development."

Collaborative Storytelling

This collaborative storytelling between journalists from competing outlets is one of the most significant changes in political reporting that has come as a result of Twitter. As Crabb said:

The fracturing media market means that we now assume our readers are shopping around. I think the healthy aspect of this -- and it's a great outcome for consumers -- is that journalists are dropping the traditional and childish approach of pretending that their competitors do not exist -- ignoring a rival's scoop, and so on. I will happily retweet a competitor's update if I think my readers will find it interesting. I think this is an emerging and refreshing trend.

But, as much as Twitter is breaking down old modes of competitiveness in political reporting, it's also fostering a new, sharper edged form of competition for news-breaking.

"Already, newspapers are racing to bring online updates to their websites ahead of their competitors, but Twitter brings a second-by-second competitiveness that is even more challenging," Crabb said.

And this resulted in media outlets like the ABC running an aggregated tweet-stream (via Twitter lists) of Press Gallery journalists' Twitter feeds, including those from rival outlets, on the ABC website. This caused concern within some sections of the ABC News and Current Affairs department, because journalists from competing networks are not bound by the same editorial policies and standards as ABC reporters. There was a feeling that this aggregation threatened the independence and credibility of ABC News' website content. Legal risks associated with carrying competitors' unchecked and unfiltered tweets were also raised.

Consequences of Kicking Down Walls

There's a potentially significant downside to what Crikey's Bernard Keane identified as Twitter's "flattening effect" for commercial media. He fears it will further undermine traditional media business models.

"What's the point of a newspaper site, or even Sky News, if you can get a direct feed virtually from inside the party room?" he said. "It's true that quality political coverage remains one of the few competitive advantages old media has over new media."

In other words, political reporting may be one of the niche beats that is able to justify pay wall protection -- but the unrestrained sharing of information across media stable walls by competing journalists via Twitter may make that unsustainable.

This was also an issue raised by Lyndal Curtis, ABC Radio's chief political correspondent. "I think it's my responsibility to write and file first for the organization that pays me ... and that audience," she said. "So I didn't put anything up of an exclusive scoop nature on Twitter that I hadn't already filed."

But Speers disagrees.

"It's not like journalists are simply giving away their work," he said. "Their tweets often point to a story they've just posted on a website or broadcast on radio or TV. So it can still direct traffic to the outlet paying their salary."

It's also true that, in the social media age where the real-time web reigns supreme and mashing up information from myriad sources seems like an irreversible trend, news organizations will have to come to terms with this sort of content aggregation and amalgamation in a way which best serves their audiences and their bottom lines.

Backlash from the AAP

In fact, in the aftermath of the publication of first installment of this series on MediaShift, Sandra O'Malley's employer, AAP, issued an edict requiring Press Gallery reporters to get permission prior to tweeting about their work -- even from their personal Twitter accounts. The fear was the wire service's journalistic brand and competitive edge would be eroded by reporters' real-time tweeting and cross-stable collaboration.

The AAP crackdown foreshadows the likely development of anachronistic Reuters-style guidelines for tweeting reporters. Censoring journalists' tweets when they've been at it for many months smacks of trying to re-stable a horse that's bolted, and also raises questions about the rights of journalists to free speech. (The subject of a future post.)

However, while some Press Gallery journalists' coverage of the Twitter effect on political reporting highlights residual pockets of change-resistance, proof of its impact came this week in the form of one of the country's most celebrated political reporters, the 9 Network's Laurie Oakes. He became an active tweeter and filed an insightful mainstream TV news report on the "Twitterization" of Australian politics.

In the third and final installment of this MediaShift series, I'll examine the role of citizen tweeters, participatory democracy and audience engagement in coverage of the #spill, along with the political reporters' management of the issues of accuracy and verification, which are so often seen as downsides of Twitter journalism.

More Reading

The #Spill Effect - Twitter Hashtag Upends Australian Political Journalism

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

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