#jcarn: Teach the art of curation and the importance of verification

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft. This month’s prompt: What should the student media of the future look like? And should j-schools teach students how to aggregate?

Teach the art of curation

J-schools need to teach the art of curation.

I prefer the term curation to aggregation. To me, aggregators conjure visions of content sweatshops that scrape the Web and repost whatever the hot story or trending topic is. Perhaps they’ll rewrite a sentence or two, but it’s fundamentally the post from a legitimate news organization or reflective blogger, slapped up on their site with little context.

FLowingdataBut good curators such as Maria Popova (brainpickings.org) and Nathan Yau (flowingdata.com) are creating something new in their compilations. You hear their voice in their posts and glean insight from their analyses. In Yau’s case, he weaves his own posts about data analysis and visualization into the mix. As I noted in an earlier post on curation, the curator is adding something of value to the collection process.

It’s a skill necessary for developing your own journalistic brand. You learn what your audience wants to know, and you provide value by scanning the information-overloaded landscape and teasing out the valuable tidbits. Though journalists have been doing this type of work for decades, it is more difficult today to find the uniquely insightful slices that haven’t already gone viral and provide value in the collection.

Teach the importance of verification

My university, Drury, is a small private liberal-arts college. We can morph quickly with developing trends. About eight years ago, we merged our print and broadcast journalism majors into a unified major called integrated media. A few years later, we tweaked the major further based on what we’d learned and dubbed the new iteration “multimedia production and journalism,” in part because prospective students still ask for “journalism” as a major. Our students all learn Web development, video, and multimedia writing, with the goal of becoming cross-platform content creators who embrace social media.

But as I mentioned, we are small, which is our weakness as well as our strength. We cannot offer the massive slate of courses provided by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, which sits just three hours up the road in Columbia, Mo. To compensate, we often meld several ideas and competencies into our courses. For example, we don’t have an “intro to journalism” course or a specific course dedicated to the history of the craft.

Instead, our students take Foundations of Communication to learn about communication theory beyond media effects. In our Multimedia Writing course, they’re introduced to Kovach and Rosenstiel and the principle of verification. In Web Communication, they’re exposed to design, basic analytics, and social-media planning.

Because of this content burden on our courses, I’ve found the best learning laboratory for the roots of journalism is our student media in their traditional forms.

So much of our coursework is updated regularly, focusing on new technologies and forms of storytelling. Students become immersed in WordPress as a content management system, Twitter/Storify as ways to share breaking news, and Facebook/Pinterest as ways to build community; sometimes, the old story forms get lost in the ocean of technology.

Our student newspaper is old school: A weekly edition with a website that fundamentally mirrors the print edition. But that publication schedule is perfect for teaching journalism as a longer process. Students watch their stories unfold over hours and days, and have more time to walk through the ethical/legal issues without the level of immediacy demanded by the Web. That level of reflection is important, especially for newer journalists who haven’t confronted those issues in real-world environments as we instructors have.

Covering a potential threat

Earlier this semester, our students received email and text alerts warning them of a person of interest being sought by the Department of Homeland Security, and the alert from our security department provided the individual’s name. It noted he had made vague threats against “universities” in our area.

At the time this alert was going out, a second, unrelated incident was unfolding on our campus. An unknown driver, apparently angered by a student on campus, drove by the student and waved a gun ominously before pulling away. The student reported the incident to police, who responded at the same time the alert went out.

In the rush of social media that followed, reports merged the two unrelated incidents into one. Our neighboring community college locked down while we did not. Missouri State University, just to the south of us, decided not to lock down either.

Because of the time our student journalists had, we could delve into the broader context and ask questions about lockdown procedures and explore the issues around the event. Instead of focusing on the breaking-news event — who doesn’t do breaking news well? — we wanted to dissect the decision-making.

In the reporting that immediately followed the incident, many local news organizations named the person listed in the Homeland Security release in their updates, tweets, and video reports. As I huddled with our editors in our traditional newspaper newsroom just before deadline, I asked if he’d been charged with a crime.

He had not. We talked about the difference between being arrested and being charged. We talked about how his name was already out there. We talked about Richard Jewell and the Olympic Park bombing. In the end, the editor and reporter decided not to name him.

The next day, the person was released without charges being filed by the U.S. attorney’s office.

I realize that these types of conversations happen in the converged newsrooms on college campuses as well. But throughout our journalism programs, we focus so much on technology and immediacy, especially in this age of the Internet, that we never slow down and take time for the long thought.

In these slower-paced traditional organizations — some would call them “relics,” I suppose — we can meaningfully teach the importance of verification, context, and reflection, away from the pressure of instant immediacy.

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