It’s not news to say the foundation of news delivery and consumption has experienced seismic shifts over the past decade. Paper and airwaves have given ground to digital feeds and mobile apps, forcing journalists and those who aspire to tell the story best and first to become adept at delivering information in multiple manners, on multiple platforms and multiple times as the story moves forward and the audience provides instant insight that can add another layer of understanding as the event is still swirling around us.
What once was a one-way highway from media to audience now is a multi-lane turnpike with conversations traveling in all directions. Navigating that traffic is the responsibility not only of the journalist, but also of the news consumer.
In my final column as editor of the Democrat, I wrote, “I still believe in the power of the story, and the ability of daily journalism to bring communities together and move them forward in positive directions.”
My stance on that has not changed, but the ways people share and receive news and information seems to change daily. And since I will be teaching journalism this fall at Smith-Cotton High School, it will be my responsibility to train the next generation of reporters and editors how to survive and thrive in that environment.
The past two weeks I was blessed to participate in the Reynolds High School Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Teachers from across the country were selected to participate in the program, which provided intensive instruction in developing story ideas, using social media to engage the audience, creative ways to convey information and so much more. The experience was exhilarating and at times overwhelming, but I left with a metric ton of incredible ideas and information that I will be processing for months and putting into action.
Roger Gafke, professor emeritus at the Mizzou School of Journalism and director of program development for the Reynolds institute, told me the institute’s “short mission statement is to enhance the practice of journalism for the benefit of citizens and the democracies in which they live. Obviously, the foundation for that — achievement of that mission — is high school journalism teachers. … (I)f we don’t reach young people in high school with lessons about civic responsibility, citizenship responsibility, the evaluation of media and message, the skill to acquire information … if we don’t do all of that, we are not going to get it done in our culture. So, you guys are on the front line of achieving the enhancement of our democracy.”
A key element of Gafke’s statement is “the evaluation of media and message” — news consumers need to understand the motivations of their information providers and access multiple sources, where possible, to get the complete story. That doesn’t mean a media outlet is willfully deceptive, but there are limitations to what anyone can cover. That’s not cynical, it’s realistic.
The expanding role of the Internet and social media in journalism was a recurring theme over the two weeks. Angela Saoud, who teaches journalism and junior honors English at LaPorte (Ind.) High School, said: “Technology is going to rule everything. My newspaper is currently print, we are not online yet, we don’t do video, we just established a Twitter account … and so we have to embrace all of those things in order to advance because the kids are advancing. The technology is not going away; we have to go with it.”
Saoud’s school is not alone — many limit or ban social media and YouTube access not only for students, but for faculty as well. The goal is to increase productivity, but the outcome may be putting our children at a disadvantage as they move toward college and the work force.
“This is a great time to teach (students) real-world skills,” Saoud said. “They are going to use Twitter and Facebook and post things that colleges or employers are going to see, and we need to show them how to use it responsibly while we can still rein them in. I don’t mean to control them, but to show them how to use it correctly so they don’t make mistakes that are detrimental to their future. What better way to show them than through a classroom environment where they can get experience that is useful?”
Social media, traditional media and online sources flood us with information nonstop, and sorting through all of that noise is a challenging job for journalists and their audiences. Gafke referenced the work of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and one of its senior advisers, Eric Newton, who Gafke said uses “the metaphor of search lights and sunglasses to describe the transformation of journalism.”
“A hundred years ago or so, information was a lot more scarce than it is now, and the responsibility of the publisher was to search out information — that’s the search light,” Gafke said. “Now, with the abundance of information we have, Eric says it is like walking on a beach on a bright, sunny day — you need some sunglasses, you need some sorting out. So that is a new responsibility for a journalist, to identify from all that is available what someone might need to pay attention to.”
As Missouri and scores of other states move to Common Core State Standards, a key component of curriculum could be journalism training. Gafke has not studied the standards, but offered this assessment:
“Journalism is an acquisition of information, processing of that, a synthesis of that, and an expression of your understanding of it. That kind of skill, that kind of analysis, and being able to express one’s opinion about it … surely has to be a fundamental educational objective.”