Teaching the Unthinkable

9/11 is rolling around again. As happens every year, I will pause whatever I am doing at 8:46am and cry – just a bit. Less every year. I was one of the many journalists dispatched to New York that day. Witnessing history was why I got into journalism and I will never regret racing to Ground Zero.

Now, though, I am a professor. I’m supposed to teach what it’s like to be a journalist. How to write a lead sentence, how to shoot video on a camera or a cell phone, how to edit and publish on multiple platforms… you know the deal. But every year I struggle with how to teach horror. How to teach a terror attack. How to prepare these bright-eyed young journalists to tell the story in the midst of sheer chaos and fear.

Students entering college this fall were most likely born in 1999. They have no independent memory of that day, although they’ve heard about it all their lives. Even the older students don’t really remember much, parents and teachers shielded them from the horror unfolding on TV screens. I often begin class by telling them I’m going to give them a first person account of the day. To a person, they watch me. They watch me explain what I was doing, where I went and what I did. They hear my voice shake, they see my tears. They also see me take a deep breath and try to explain how to remain a journalist in those circumstances, how to find the voices to tell the stories, and how to try to find the truth.

Each year the questions they ask me vary, but again and again I hear, “Why was it so hard for people to call each other? Why didn’t people post their locations?” I explain about the lack of cell phone towers, and the fact that there was no social media to post anything on. And they are stunned. How the world has changed in their lifetimes.

In our world now, terror attacks are increasing. Orlando, Paris, Barcelona, Manchester…on and on. These students of mine may find themselves in the middle of one someday, as a journalist or as a person just living their life.

I don’t think I can ever really prepare them for that. I can only tell my story.


How to teach the art of spotting fake news

My biggest teaching challenge last fall wasn’t how to hold the smartphone to get the right video (horizontally!). It wasn’t anything to do with AP Style or correct grammar or the active voice (although that was a big headache). It was just this: How to recognize real news gathered by real journalists that tells the true story.

Fake news has been called one of the biggest threats to journalism today. Even as news professionals, some of us have been misled by these stories. But how about those with only a passing knowledge of journalism? Like the college students I teach.

Let me be very clear. They aren’t stupid. They just don’t know how to separate truth from made up. Why our society has lost that ability is subject to lots of debate… but the point of this column is to discuss how I have set about teaching people how to make the distinction.

We may think millennials only care about celebrities and sports. But this fall showed me a group of students who wanted to talk intelligently about the election as well as about the crisis in Syria. The problems we encountered during those discussions were that some of their information was, well, fake. Factually wrong. So my first challenge was to help them realize that just because a source calls itself “news” does NOT mean it is journalism. We discussed journalism and ethics (using RTDNA’s Code of Ethics as the baseline). We talked about all the things we really WANT to believe are true versus what is actually a fact, and how we have a tendency to only look at information we already agree with.

So I challenged the students to go past their usual sources. Seek out information from news websites they hadn’t consulted before. Consider other points of view. Figure out where the facts diverge in stories from different organizations and use that as the starting point to find the truth. Realize that they won’t always like what the facts or truth turn out to be, but that’s no reason to immediately label them lies. We also examined, line by line, how stories were written. How did a verb or adjective impact the tone of the story? Was there hidden bias that made the listener or reader perceive the information in a positive or negative way? Who wrote the article and where was it broadcast or published? And perhaps the most important question: What were their own biases that might make it easy for them to believe without verifying?

I urged them not to accept anything at face value. Some thought that made me jaded and cynical. They may be right. (Probably.) But facts are too important to take lightly. Carl Bernstein called journalism “the best obtainable version of the truth.” I tell my students to make the effort to obtain the truth. Because if they don’t do it, who will?

Students and a convention

Lots of experiences look good on a recent graduate’s resume. Working at the college TV station, interning at a local station. And how about covering the Democratic National Convention for online, broadcast and print media?

The location of the DNC’s convention in Philadelphia provided opportunities for students from a number of universities to experience first-hand the wonder and mayhem of a political convention. I’m focusing this column on the experiences of three University of Delaware students who covered it. Professor Dawn Fallik did the credentialing and prep work for the students, finding them a place to stay and driving them where they needed to go. But once they got to the Wells Fargo Center, Andrew Wichman, Alexandra Hough and Sara Jo Lee discovered that it was nothing like a classroom assignment.

So what’s it like to be a student thrown into the maelstrom of a contentious convention? I chatted with them Friday, after they had a day to recover. Wichman told me, “It was a lot crazier than I expected. Working on the same playing field as the big name media was amazing.” Lee said she thought there would be a definite schedule and plan, but reporting on the fly turned out to be better. Lee said what was most surprising to her was that people were willing to answer her questions! She really didn’t think anyone would talk to her, but was surprised that so many people did. Hough commented, “…what surprised me most was that I was able to do this!”

I asked them when they stopped feeling like students and started feeling like journalists. Hough said the moment she was standing on the floor of the arena and looked around at the “real” journalists, the people she had seen on TV, “It was amazing”! Wichman recalled a specific experience of overhearing another media person say the Sanders supporters had taken over another tent. Wichman and Lee ran over and started gathering information, doing interviews and getting it all out on social media at the same time as everyone else. He said “I wasn’t a student, I was a journalist covering a story that everyone else was doing too”. Lee recalled that they took turns standing on a chair to get a better view of the crowd and better posts for Twitter. This is what all professors are trying to teach: figure out how to get the story and get it out.

I asked how the DNC experience impacted their career goals. Wichman said despite the fact he’s a poli sci major, he’d planned to go into sports. But after doing this, he says he wants to be a political reporter. And Lee admitted she had not had any interest in politics because she found it boring. But after the DNC, she says “(Politics) is interesting! It’s not dull at all! I could do this (as a job), this is fun!” Hough said “…although it (politics) still is not my favorite thing to cover, I did enjoy it and now know that I can.”   Overall, as I spoke with the students, I was struck by their enthusiasm. How having this injection of real reporting energized them and helped them realize that they could, indeed, be reporters. Or photogs. Or producers. Or any kind of mix of journalist that the next 20-30 years will require to continue to tell the stories that we all need to know. –

See more at: http://rtdna.org/article/j_school_students_cover_convention#sthash.pyL2SuSi.dpuf


College Students and Content

In my life on a college campus, I have the chance to interact daily with those very valuable demos: adults 18-25. As hard as it is to generalize to a whole population from a small sample size, I want to share with you how one Mid-Atlantic population uses video, audio and the Internet.

Our school doesn’t focus heavily on media skills. We have a TV station, a radio station and a newspaper that does post some video and audio. In addition to these outlets, many students are involved in producing their own stuff and posting it. Of those I surveyed in my classes, many use Snapchat several times a week. Vine is also big, although a surprising number of students said they’d heard of it, but never used it. Students say they use Periscope “for special events.” One student involved in athletics multimedia said a power outage forced them to Periscope their coverage of a baseball game. They thought it went well, and it seemed to get good reviews and good feedback. But their opinion was that it wasn’t something for everyday use.

The favorite on-the-go app for editing is Splice, but most prefer to use Final Cut or iMovie on a laptop and upload to YouTube, Vimeo or Facebook from there. Students are concerned about quality, and feel that while phone video is OK, it needs to be edited on a more robust program. Many students teach themselves iMovie. We use Final Cut X in our TV classes, so they get exposed to both programs. Our campus multimedia center also has Premiere, and some students mentioned using that as well.

One of the sillier uses for video is Faceswap–you shoot two people side by side and you can switch their faces. Obviously not a tool for aspiring journalists, but I’m told it’s SO funny!

What I found surprising is that students weren’t posting their entire lives online. Yes, they all used Instagram, but they really felt that too many people just use it to get likes. There was a lot of disparaging among my students for those who constantly post every single thing they do. Plus they discuss of validation, so apparently they’re learning theories too!

So what are they looking at, if not every second of their friends’ lives? Sadly, not news. Or not news they way we have traditionally thought of it. They’re using Facebook and Twitter to find out the news. Then, yes, they will go to news organizations to get details. But only a handful of them start on news homepages. News apps are useful. Several students say they subscribe to national and local newspaper and/or broadcast stations to get push notifications on big stories.

The elusive audience is getting harder and harder to pin down, no matter what the age. Staying on top of new apps is one way to connect–but no matter what, it’s always going to be about the content. Young adults are hungry to know what’s going on in the world (more so as they get older), but they don’t want their parents or their grandparents newscasts. They want news now, on their terms, in a way they can understand. But no matter what–get it right, make it clear and they will come. It just may not be the direct path that it was long ago.
– See more at: http://rtdna.org/article/how_college_students_produce_consume_content#sthash.6yookRc0.dpuf

News Pros in the classroom


One of the joys of my academic life (besides the fact that no one ever holds class at 2am on a Saturday) is the chance to bring my professional friends into the classroom. My students pay more attention when there’s a “real” journalist in the classroom. They get used to me, have heard many of my stories, so it’s helpful to bring in new people with different experiences. For the professionals who come into the classroom, they get a face-to-face look at their audience and perhaps their future colleagues. I love to sit back and watch my students as they listen to, and ask questions of, the guests. It’s fascinating to find out what’s most important to them–based on the questions they ask. Some oft repeated questions include: Did you know forever that you wanted to be a journalist? Was college really worth it? What grades did you get? How did you get that first job? Several of my former students have jobs in journalism, and I’ve been able to invite some back to speak. The current students feel encouraged (there are jobs out there!) while the grads suddenly feel very old (I wasn’t like that 3 years ago, was I?) Even in a first or second job, a speaker who is close to the student experience can bring a lot of value to a class. My favorite guest speakers are the ones who challenge the students. Walk them through a typical day, a typical story. Who is the first person you call? One current newsie shared his experience at Columbine. The students were rapt as he described the call from his boss, flying to Littleton and trying to get information and facts. He challenged my students to tell him what he should have done… then he told them what he did. It was a great exercise, even as some of them complained that they needed more time to think of questions, I think they started to understand the real-time pressure of news. For those of you who have the chance to speak to a college or high school class, I urge you to do it. Challenge the students to think like a journalist. Whether you are new to the business, or have a wealth of experience under your belt–explaining what you do can in some ways remind you why you chose this line of work. What you tell them about the job will soon be reality. It’s about preparing the reporters and producers for the world that will greet them. – See more at: http://rtdna.org/article/bring_news_pros_to_classrooms#sthash.SdpWMFIJ.dpuf

Free Speech Day


College campuses may seem to be places where speech is as free as it can be. Young people discovering new facts, coming in contact with new cultures and people. In some cases, that leads to opening of young minds. But in other cases, the basic tenets of free speech seem to be failing. Graduation speakers cancelled, trigger warnings on the syllabus, faculty members fired for engaging in what they consider to be their right to speak freely about issues that concern them.   In light of this, my campus celebrated Free Speech Day on October 20, 2015. Colleagues in the Department of Communication and the Center for Political Communication created a spot on campus for students to speak their mind. In 15 words or 15 seconds, students, faculty and staff had the chance to say something that matters to them. We provided a backdrop, and let it unfold.   Some students chose to address issues on our campus, from security to student loans. Students addressed concerns about health care and their families. Some spoke of the need for Millennials to care about the country and vote. Pro gun rights, pro gun control. A person’s right to choose what happens to his or her body. Equality. Others cracked jokes. One explained the two parts of a turtle’s shell (clearly just finished an exam…)   All of these expressions of opinion mattered. I forced all my classes to participate. Some students were worried–what if they get in trouble for saying something? Argh! That’s the point! You are free to speak your opinion!   As a Department, we had a concern about someone using the platform for hate speech. No one did. One young man said he didn’t want to speak because he might say something that offends another person. “Go ahead!”, we told him, “That’s what free speech is!” But he declined.   Listening in on the students’ conversations, I was pleased that some of them realized what a gift it is to be able to say anything in public. Several of my students thanked me for the event, and the chance to engage in their Constitutional right.   But not enough. Many more students walked past our display, earbuds in, phones out… ignoring everything around them. The stereotypical self-absorbed Millennial college student. Do I think they are bad people? No, just not paying attention. In class, I quote statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists about how many of our colleagues die while covering the news. These facts are generally a shock to students. Why would someone kill a journalist? They don’t understand why journalists seek the truth–and are willing to die to tell the truth.   As we celebrate Free Speech, this week and every week, we should remember the great power we have as journalists over the airwaves and through the ether. We have the power to speak, to be heard. We have an even greater responsibility as well. To tell the stories that need to be told. To keep our democracy strong.

Like I never left…

Read on RTDNA:

Like I Never Left

The scanner is blaring behind me, the monitor in front of me blinks updates, I smell coffee and someone is crinkling a bag of chips.

Yes, I’m back in the newsroom!

How did I get here?

I hosted two people from a station in my old market who were looking for interns. I mentioned to them that I might like to come visit for a week, just get back into the newsroom, refresh my skills.

Instead–they asked if I would be interested in some vacation relief work for the summer!

So here I am, in a familiar place that’s also new. The AP beeps are still here. The technology hasn’t changed too much. It’s a lot easier to get video in house now, from the field and from network feeds. The news itself hasn’t changed much either. And I’m even working with some people from my former station!

That scanner just said 3 kids, 2 adults, graze wounds… and my blood pressure is up. Cut-in? Chopper squeeze? Sheesh, I’m only in my first day of training. But the adrenaline never left, now did it?

I’m in it, and yet I still have the academic part of me observing the action. How are the managers deciding what to do? What words do the desk people use when they describe a scene? How are all the journalists deciding what to cover…and what NOT to cover?

I hope to answer, or at least shed light on, some of these questions as the summer progresses. I can answer them from my own anecdotal experience, but now I am looking at situations from another perspective. The academic perspective isn’t better or worse, just another way to see how the news goes from an event that happens to a story that’s told.

And I hope that in turn I can take a fresher point-of-view back to my classrooms in the fall. My life’s work now is to prepare the journalists of tomorrow. I can do that more effectively by being a journalist today.

Slow down, time

And suddenly, it’s summer. My efforts to update at least once a month are going downhill fast. I’m at the Summer Faculty Institute, at UD, learning about my online presence. So this is it, my online presence!