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July 11 2011


College Students Miss the Journalistic Potential of Social Media

This piece was co-written by Alexa Capeloto.

A couple of days after news broke of Osama bin Laden's killing in Pakistan, a group of students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where we teach journalism, sat in a classroom and talked about how they were first alerted to the story. Most said Facebook. Some said friends or family, primarily via text message. No one named a newspaper. One student, Josh, said CNN.

CNN? So Josh just happened to be watching cable news late on a Sunday night when the bin Laden story broke?

"Oh. No," he said. "I heard about it on Facebook, then I turned on CNN to find out more."

In these days of social media, it was surprising that Josh didn't give Facebook due credit.

After all, the discussion was about the first source, not the best. Did seeing comments on his status feed not count as information delivery in the same way a CNN report did? Was it not real for him until a traditional news outlet confirmed it?

We're used to our peers and mentors privileging legacy media -- be it broadcast or newspapers. But this is not what we expect of today's college students, a.k.a. tomorrow's journalists. In their wired world, there are increasingly fuzzy distinctions between professional and citizen, fact and rumor, confirmed and unconfirmed. We see their iPhones and Androids, iPads and laptops, and we figure part of our job as journalism instructors is to call attention to those distinctions. Yet, as Josh's answer suggests, students might be overcorrecting toward the old school, and in the process psyching themselves out of the journalism game.

Marrying the digital revolution to journalism

We consider this tendency the "digital divide 2.0," an updated version of the gap that long existed between those who could afford pricey personal computers and dial-up Internet connections and those who could not. Despite the growing affordability of Net-based personal technology, the basic class disparity still exists among our students. Now this new version of the divide adds a psychological dimension that cuts across class lines and might be harder to define, diagnose and fix.

Although our students know how to act the part of digital natives, they're inclined to see the Internet as a tool for entertainment and socializing, rather than as an information source. Facebook is for photos and "status," YouTube for cute or crazy clips to pass along to friends, and the rest a treasure trove of music, movies and TV shows (unless, of course, that history paper is due tomorrow and they need to visit Wikipedia).

Despite all the time they spend online, they're behind the curve in terms of understanding the journalistic potential of social media. In fact, some of them are reluctant to recognize the connection between legacy media and web 2.0, as if in doing so, they'd be assuming a power best left to professionals.

When our recent crop of digital journalism students were asked to create their own journalistic blogs and market their content through social media, they were uncomfortable. Although they habitually post to Facebook, the thought of actually reporting on a topic and putting their work into the public domain as journalism, versus a personal narrative of candid pictures and random Friday night ephemera, was scary.


In fact, a few students said that they didn't see blogs as journalism, because anyone could do them. They were in class to learn about reporting and writing -- capital-J Journalism -- and not to repeat what they already do on their own time.

When one of our colleagues at John Jay published a widely circulated Op-Ed in the New York Times in March suggesting, perhaps polemically, that students be taught to write Twitter feeds and YouTube captions in composition class, our students were more horrified at the thought of bringing those activities into the classroom than many of their professors.

In some regards, it's refreshing that students already know what we think we're supposed to teach them. There is a difference between what they post on Facebook and what they see on CNN. Not anyone can do journalism, or at least do it well. It does take time and training and some hard lessons to become responsible, thoughtful purveyors of information.

But no one ever gets to the point of responsible purveyor if they are too scared to test their capabilities as reporters, or too conservative as readers to trust beyond the mainstream media. If students can't see that there's journalism lurking in the everyday things they do with information, especially now that technology has made such things constant, instant and ubiquitous, then we truly do have reason to worry about the future of journalism -- particularly if the original digital divide is still a factor.

A new digital gap emerges

The digital divide reared its head this semester when one of our strongest journalism students said he wanted to sign up for an online section of Intermediate Reporting, but he was afraid to because he didn't have Internet access at home. During the summer break, the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper can't access the paper's new website for the same reason.

"If I did have the Internet, what would I use it for?" he said.

If students who know, own and regularly access technology aren't inclined to put it to journalistic use, then what of the students who don't have such access? Not having the Internet at home -- or perhaps having parents who don't possess the time or means to demonstrate the web's legitimate capabilities -- pushes some students even further
back in the march toward careers in journalism.

The digital divide 2.0 is a psychological and sometimes economic divide, but it's also a generational one. When we started college in the early '90s, the library or the campus lab was the prime source of connectivity. As a consequence, we conceived of the Internet as a tool for doing work and getting information as we would on an old-fashioned terminal-based database or card catalog, or we used it to read primitive newspaper homepages.

When connectivity comes quickly and easily via intuitive mobile devices, and when the web becomes more about entertainment than information, then the associative power of Internet and workspace is undermined. Go to any college library now and count how many screens are on YouTube, Hulu or Facebook for purposes that have nothing to do with news or research.

As for Josh, it's possible that he overlooked Facebook because it has too much power, not too little. He may not see it as an information source because it's so ingrained in his world, such an extension of the self, that he doesn't see it as an external source at all. Like the air around him, it's so essential that it doesn't need to be acknowledged.

But how can students properly examine and harness the journalistic potential of digital media if they don't even see it as media, and how can they become content creators if they don't believe their content counts?

In addition to teaching nuts-and-bolts journalism, these are questions that we need to consider as we prepare our students to be media producers and consumers in the 21st century.

Reporter's essential tools photo by Valerie on Flickr.

Alexa Capeloto and Devin Harner are assistant professors of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York where they direct the journalism program. Alexa earned her master's degree at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and spent 10 years as a metro reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune before transitioning into academia. Devin has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Delaware and a background in journalism. His recent work has included essays on Chuck Palahniuk's non-fiction; on the film Adaptation's relationship to Susan Orlean's, The Orchid Thief; and on virtual time travel through YouTube.

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May 27 2011


Scienceline: A Case Study in Teaching Specialty Journalism

I learned how to be a journalist at my college paper. I didn't go to journalism school. But I teach at one, and from the time that I became an adjunct at New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) in 2002, I would periodically think about how to recreate the experience of working at a college paper for a small group of graduate students learning how to do specialized journalism.

More and more outlets are looking for reporters and editors with expertise, whether it's so they can hit the ground running when they're hired, or curate more effectively. That's certainly true at the magazines, websites, and broadcast outlets where SHERP graduates want to work, and at my own, a specialized health wire service.

So when SHERP Director Dan Fagin, who also learned how to be a journalist at his college paper, and I realized in 2005 that we were thinking along the same lines, we did some brainstorming. How could we create a site that gave students the opportunity to run a specialized news organization? We wanted a versatile, adaptable platform that would let students jump in and enjoy the rewards -- and headaches -- of online publishing.

We settled on WordPress, and hired a great designer. We included students from the beginning, letting them decide everything from content categories to color palette. And they came up with the name, too: Scienceline.

Since 2006, Scienceline has been the online magazine of science that's written, edited and produced entirely by SHERP students, who call themselves "SHERPies." They have published hard-hitting news, features, blogs, videos and podcasts, and encouraged interactivity through comments and polls. Students typically post new stories three times per week, in addition to blogs. Here's a recent video on Scienceline about e-cigarettes:

E-Cigarettes in New York City from Scienceline on Vimeo.

A specialized sandbox

The site's content is divided into four categories. In Physical Science, visitors find stories on everything from the fates of universes to how scientists helped resolve a dispute over a massive telescope. In Health, they'll read about whether a walk in the park can replace a psychiatrist, and about research into using parasites to treat diseases.

In Environment, visitors can learn how a proposed road in the Serengeti is dividing people as it divides land, and about a scientist who, somewhat reluctantly, dropped everything to study the BP oil spill. And Life Science pieces explore what language says about the way we think, and how the state of Hawai'i used a natural predator to fight an invasive species, among other subjects.

All of those categories offer a rich selection of blogs, as well as audio, video and graphics.


The Scienceline staff -- which is made up of SHERP students, usually 15 per year -- plans every piece of content on the site, from pitching to editing to copyediting and posting. (I'm the faculty adviser, and Fagin is the publisher, but it's the SHERPies who run Scienceline.) Some stories are written for class, while others go directly to Scienceline. They have rigorous standards for copy, including multiple layers of editing and a transparent corrections policy. They hold weekly meetings, and publish throughout the year, even during the summer.

Scienceline content is highly regarded, and is frequently republished in leading science journalism outlets including Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science and LiveScience. It's on Scienceline itself, however, that students do what many news organizations are hoping to do: orchestrate a conversation around their content, whether it's text, audio or video. Visitors can even ask questions that the staff answers with reporting, in the Ever Wondered column. Readers apparently like what they find on Scienceline, since on a typical day about 3,000 of them stop by for a visit. There have been 4 million visits since the site launched in mid-2006.

The pros like it too: Scienceline is a three-time Region 1 finalist in the Society of Professional Journalists' Mark of Excellence Awards. Perhaps more importantly, students have tons of clips, which are attractively archived on the site, with each current and former student with his or her own author URL. Employers are impressed.

And so are Fagin and I. The site has been everything we imagined and more, allowing students to create rich, specialized content that shines. We learn something with every new Scienceline experiment, as the site changes with each class of SHERPies. It has recently been redesigned to improve the user experience and add various content types. And the students are even creating an iPad app.

We never know what's next for Scienceline, but we do know it's making SHERPies better prepared for an evolving job market -- and that's a big task.

Ivan Oransky, MD, is the executive editor of Reuters Health. He teaches medical journalism at New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program, is the treasurer of the Association of Health Care Journalists, and blogs at Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch. He has also served as managing editor, online, of Scientific American, deputy editor of The Scientist, and editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Praxis Post. For three years, he taught in the health and medicine track at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Ivan earned his bachelor's at Harvard, where he was executive editor of The Harvard Crimson, and his MD at the New York University of School of Medicine, where he holds an appointment as clinical assistant professor of medicine.

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January 20 2011


Aussie Academic Journal to Publish Peer-Reviewed Journalism

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

An Australian journalism professor has started an online academic journal with a twist: It publishes journalism, rather than just studies of journalists and their work.

The fledgling journal -- believed to be the first of its kind in the world -- is called Research Journalism and it's the initiative of Edith Cowan University journalism lecturer Dr. Kayt Davies.

"I would like it to become a vibrant publication that regularly breaks big stories [and] I would like it to enable academic journalists to be practicing what they preach and really leading their classes by example and involving their classes in research projects," Davies told me. "[But] most importantly I would like it to make a real contribution to Australian civic life by examining corporate and government behavior and bringing problems and potential solutions to light."

The journal publishes journalism as an academic exercise. Authors are required to apply for university ethics clearance for their journalism projects, and submitted articles are subjected to triple-blind peer review.

Academic Focus for Australian J-Profs

In the U.S., the craft of journalism has academic status in many journalism schools and many professors continue to work as journalists after entering the classroom. But in Australia, journalism professors often struggle to maintain their professional practice when they join academia.

One reason for this is the structure of Australian universities and their dependence on research funding, which has historically discriminated against journalism research. Another is a traditional disregard for published journalism as a legitimate form of journalism research -- in the way that art and literature have long been accepted as creative research outputs.

Both of these factors have mitigated the practice of journalism by Australian journalism professors. It's also due to the demands of traditional academic research requirements, which typically include the study of journalists and journalism through the disciplines of cultural studies, mass communications, and journalism studies but not the academic publication of works of journalism. Then there's the heavy teaching loads. While there are some notable exceptions including collaborations between the online alternative news outlet Crikey and two journalism schools, most Australian journalism professors eschew journalism practice in favor of traditional academic publication in highly ranked, peer-reviewed journals.

A sense of frustration with this reality was one of Davies' main motivations for starting the journal.

"It was a crying shame to be preventing academic journalists from doing journalism," she said. "In many ways, with our skills honed by teaching and without the time and other constraints of commercial newsroom employment, I had a sense that we could be doing remarkable work."

I know from experience that it's essential to continue practicing as a professional journalist in order to be an effective and up-to-date journalism educator. But in an academic environment like Australia's, it can be difficult to sustain. In addition to building traditional academic publication profiles, journalism educators in my country are increasingly required to obtain PhDs, regardless of career achievements. They are also expected to win significant research grants; undertake labor-intensive teaching and innovate in the classroom; keep track of massive industry change; offer career guidance for students (past and present); and coordinate student publications.

A Need to Practice Journalism

Nevertheless, continuing professional practice after becoming a journalism professor is increasingly necessary, according to Davies.

Kayt Davies.jpg

"Staying in the game and continuing to do it is the best way to [keep] abreast of the changes in the industry, and by that I don't only mean that news is going online," she said. "I also mean the way corporate and government departments duck and weave and spin, the FOI [freedom of Information] rules, sensitivities about privacy, all kinds of changes."

As Davies pointed out, "It is ... the best way to motivate a class. When you stand up in front of them and air your frustration at receiving bland motherhood statements in response to specific questions, they arc up and understand that journalism requires determination and tenacity and it isn't just about placidly churning whatever is handed to them."

If the system in Australia that discourages active journalism practice by journalism educators is to change, then academics, universities and the Australian Research Council need to start recognizing published works of journalism as research and/or back Davies' approach of publishing a peer-reviewed journal of academic journalism.

Some Australian journalism schools are starting to make progress in this regard, with limited agreement to count journalism as research and recognition by one university of the professional code of ethics for Australian journalists as a suitable replacement for cumbersome ethics clearance processes.

"The main difference [between U.S. and Australian journalism professors] is that U.S. academics are not bound by the ethics committee red tape that is effectively gagging Australian journalism academics," Davies said.

This can cause journalism projects to be refused ethics clearance by university committees because these committees interpret the rules of academic research as prohibiting the naming of sources and the broadcast of recorded interviews if the interviewees are identifiable, for example.

While the process of reform in Australia has begun, it is likely to be a long and difficult struggle against overlapping bureaucratic processes. Davies sees her journal as an alternative route to supporting professional journalism practice among Australian journalism professors, while working within existing structures.

All Content Welcome

Davies will accept submissions of all forms of journalism -- from text to audio, video and multimedia -- and she is keen to receive international submissions. She has informal agreements in place with Fairfax Digital and Crikey to co-publish content for mainstream consumption. But what distinguishes the journal from standard journalism publications, aside from the academic ethics clearance process and peer review requirements, is the publication of an accompanying reflective commentary by each author that outlines the journalistic methodologies and processes adopted in the production of the piece of journalism. In academic terms, this equates to an exegesis.

"I think this will make the journal a useful tool in actually tracking contemporary best practice," Davies said.

Unlike most other academic journals, Research Journalism will publish its content online, and without a pay wall. This fits with Davies' general approach to digital media.

"Media is changing and, unless we want to be teaching something as outdated as blacksmithing and smocking, we need to be across the shifts," she said. "This doesn't mean we should abandon teaching grammar and thinking skills and devote all our time to learning software, but it does mean we have to be paying attention and preparing our grads for the world they'll be working in."

Davies hopes the journal will evolve to incorporate an interactive element. She has established a WordPress site that operates in conjunction with the journal and accommodates comments and limited social bookmarking. But at this stage, she isn't planning to experiment with crowdsourcing peer review, preferring instead to pursue traditionally recognized processes. Her immediate goal is to publish another 11 submissions in order to apply to have the journal formally rated via the system of scholarly publication rankings.

Challenges Ahead

One challenge is already hampering the progress of Research Journalism that may prove fatal: the failure of journalism academics to follow through on enthusiastic promises to submit content. So far, the only peer-reviewed article published on the site (which was launched nearly a year ago) is by Davies herself. (It's an excellent piece on conflict in a West Australian Indigenous community which was also published as a Crikey series).

"I am surprised that it has been so slow," Davies said. "Every time I speak about it to a group of journalism academics I get a flurry of promises and declarations of support but the promises are yet to manifest as submissions."

She said this is likely because of workload and cumbersome university ethics committee clearance processes, which can be viewed as hostile to journalism and incompatible with deadlines. But it's also likely to be a product of the reluctance of ladder-climbing academics to publish in lowly ranked or unranked academic journals. This is a Catch-22 that infuriates Davies.

"I can't apply for ranking until I have two editions out, and so if people are holding out for this reason then they are killing it before it can walk," she said. "My wish is that people would be a bit more generous, bold and proactive so that we can get something going that will be good for all of us."

Confession: I'm one of the academics who's so far failed to follow through on a promise to submit an article. But I am in the process of writing a piece for Davies on the controversy surrounding five tweets I sent from a journalism education conference in Sydney last November. The tweets will represent the journalistic output, while the exegesis will examine my experience of the international debate and the legal threats that the tweets triggered.

Research Journalism deserves the opportunity to make a global impact on contemporary journalism research and education -- and I encourage you to hold me to my commitment to help kick it along.

Photo of Dr. Kayt Davies by Floyd Holmes

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 journalism and social media, talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She is writing a PhD on "The Twitterisation of Journalism" and she consults on social media for contentgroup. Posetti blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

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