I had a media literacy course in community college. It was an elective. I liked it. It was cool. I don’t remember much from it, though.
I also had a critical thinking course at the same college. It was a requirement. I loved it. It changed my life. It wasn’t a “journalism” class, but it definitely focused a lot on the media. And it was more than cool.
I remember being asked to clip advertisements and identify the marketing tactics used to sway people into buying the product. I remember we were asked to memorize seven most common logical fallacies and apply them to different news articles we found.
Both assignments would have worked wonderfully in the media literacy course. But nope. Missed opportunity for the elective, but thank God students had to take the critical thinking course to transfer to a 4-year university.
We need more requirements like this, for everyone.
Media works best when the public is smart
When I read “Study: Many college students not learning to think critically,” I wish I were more surprised. This is not a j-school problem, it’s a school-school problem. And a painfully obvious one to boot.
So to address the root problems in this month’s Carnival of Journalism, we have to go deeper and wider than just the journosphere.
The Knight Foundation loves to use wording like “journalistic activity” and “information needs” to step away from thinking that only journalists can impart good information. I like that.
So to apply it to the role of the university, how about empowering departments who conduct original research to write for the public? Much of their work is inaccessible because of academic jargon or restrictive publications. If the school has a journalism program, what about a tighter and more in-depth partnership with them? And what if the journalism schools were able to broadcast this to a broader audience?
Let’s invent an example. A university with a great biology department discovers an important find. A peer-review journal has published the study and it is passing the test.
To spread it to the community at large, the university PR department sends out a one-page press release describing the research. It’s not very in-depth, and frankly, the poor overworked PR department has other things to do.
If there were no journalism program at the university, an outside entity (such as the Knight Foundation!) could set up content-production training with the people in the biology department. It could give them tools to build their own website, seminars on how to write engaging blog posts, workshops on how to publish a database to the web.
But luckily for this fictional school, they do have a j-school and it has a special reporting class. (Yeah, yeah, I know I said let’s look outside the j-school, but let’s return to navel-gazing for a bit. Humor me.)
The class’ sole job is to maintain different online journalistic outlets — websites, blogs, newsletters, etc. The class maintains a handful of niche websites or blogs, and they keep the content coming every day. The niches could be on science, entertainment, politics, finances — whatever is an identified information need, whether it’s a local or a national niche. (The publications stay the same, no matter what semester.)
So the biology department’s press release lands on the instructor’s desk. She gives it to the student assigned to writing for the science blog that day (each student has to be well-rounded enough to rotate through all the blogs). They notify the established student media that they’re working on this article. They might do a short write-up, or they might wait until the student does something more in-depth on the science blog. They choose that route. The student then acts as the liaison with the science department into helping them translate this finding into English, obtaining some databases or spreadsheets, and posting it in an interactive way to the blog. If the science blog had a national audience niche, even better. The class could also set up a place on the site where the biology department themselves could upload and post articles. The student newspaper does a short write-up and references the science blog in a link or QR code from the article.
How is this different?
I view this kind of scenario as different from the current student media setup in that it encourages national audiences with very specific niches and consistent writers. How many good blogs do you know have gone dead because the person behind them got sick of doing it?
Research needs to be done in each community on what the information need is, however, not what the students want to blog about. That’s for their own blogging time (and it’s good journalism training to write for subjects you didn’t choose).
The flagship student media should represent a general-interest campus niche and should focus all of its efforts on that. But this class would allow students to identify information needs and focus on that regardless of campus relevance — or if there’s a deeper relevant topic on campus, it could fill that need where the established student media can’t devote the resources.
I will say, it IS similar to UC Berkeley’s Mission Local, but I’m imagining an undergraduate class writing for national audiences. I like to dream big.
Ideas more practical than that one
I’m full of too many ideas, and frankly, I need to wrap this up, so I’m going to toss out a few ideas of practical things that 1) don’t involve a brand new class and 2) is related to the Carnival of Journalism topic:
I originally was going to use this space to bitch and moan about how journalism schools should never lose sight of the basics, but I’m sure you all know that by now. I’d rather leave you with a sprinkling of ideas that you could turn into actual classroom exercises. Hope you do.