Update: To see what other carnies thought about universities as journalistic hubs and their role in media literacy, check out Dave Cohn’s roundup at the Carnival of Journalism
In 2009, I went to my first national conference. I met up with the folks at Denver Open Media in Austin for SXSWi. At the time, I had been working remotely with DOM on their Knight News Challenge project, the Open Media Project, and had caught earfuls of bustle via conference calls, but I had never met the crew.
DOM is a highly controversial, sometimes lauded outfit in the world of public access television. I asked executive director Tony Shawcross why cable access, and in a moment that I often revisit, he said it’s simply the most effective medium at their disposal for what they want to accomplish. He’d as soon lop it off when it no longer serves that purpose.
Media as the vehicle – don’t get too attached.
We’ve all seen them: journos who wax poetic about how to dash your serial commas, how to STET your mistakes. In a shifting journalism landscape, universities’ responsibility is to imbue their students with a flexible mindset, and the rest will follow.
So what environments can universities leverage to exercise that mindset?
I’m not going to suggest news coverage for underserved communities. Okay maybe just a little. But for the most part, the best shot could be through the ol’ college paper.
Several months ago, I spoke with Center for Future Civic Media fellow Lisa Williams, who informed me that many of C4CFM’s innovative projects don’t last past the term. Students have to move on, she explained, and I had to wonder whether those communities felt cheated. All the more reason college publications seem better positioned to experiment. The steering roles at college pubs tend to be paid, and journalism students see themselves climbing that ladder during their college career.
College students also live in a fairly scalable community. Nevermind that it’s a higher-education setting – there are high levels of engagement because it’s a community of peers. Having facilitated content for The Rapidian and tried different tactics at engaging a general audience, I posit that the higher level of engagement you demand, the less direct feedback you’ll get. Minds are whirring, but people hesitate to commit, whether it’s to an answer or a task.
Precisely because the higher ed community is captive, student pubs are ripe for experimentation. They don’t need to mimic national media trends to be innovative, and they have every resource at their finger tips. Why not engage that paper science professor in some sort of collaboration? Perhaps the professor could translate it into a class experiment in creating a new sort of broadsheet for a special issue. For innovative content presentation and audience engagement, partner with the industrial design student group to figure out the most efficient process to die cut paper en masse.
Even with exclusively online pubs, students have the opportunity to play with augmented reality or create a dialogue between print and web in a special issue. And being part of the media creation process contributes immeasurably to media literacy.
On another level, college pubs could collaborate to better serve their respective communities.
“I can see it happening. It would definitely be an online thing,” said Allison Palm, a Rapidian contributor in her first-year at Albion College. Imagine how it might broaden a college community’s perspectives if college pubs paired their stories with another institution’s about similar issues – features side-by-side on similar scientific experiments at universities or how different college admin handled specific cases of sexual assault.
My last thought is a stretch but relates more directly to media literacy. Allison shared that during her first semester in college, she was part of a conference call with producers and actors of Law and Order: SVU. There were 12 college journalists from various institutions on the call, all asking questions to tease out considerations in portraying sexual assault on a college campus. Why college journalists instead of crisis counselors, I asked.
“I think they knew that reporters and journalists would ask the best questions, and I think they probably wanted to get some media attention from it so the topic gets more attention,” Allison said. “As opposed to a counselor calling in and asking probably really great questions, but to have it go to a publication, it’s actually in writing and people have access to it.”
Some think of dramatization as artistic license, others see it as misinformation. Here, college journalists had a direct effect on media portrayal. The way I read it, Law and Order was making an admission that sometimes people take TV at face value and don’t think deeply about it. They were going about entertainment responsibly.
It’ll take more than a bachelor’s for students to get a sense of the journalism landscape, and the work they likely envision is often grouped with mass media even though it’s information based. So there may be some kernel in this if there’s an organized effort among college journalists to set the other parts of mass media straight.
Ultimately though, colleges need to first ground their students in the purpose of journalism and then encourage their sense of imagination. After that, it’s just a question of how to get from point A to point B.
The Carnival of Journalism is a loose network of journalistic bloggers plumbing the current state and future of journalism on a monthly basis.
Denise is the citizen journalism coordinator for The Rapidian, a participatory news project powered by the Grand Rapids community. You can read more of her musings on technology and storytelling/journalism on her blog and at The Rapidian’s dev blog.