Media Use Journal Assignment For A Tale

As part of my job teaching journalism, I often browse entry-level reporter job ads to get a sense of the skills employers want. The descriptions of the ideal candidate in such ads are pretty good predictors of what new reporters will be expected to do.

One recent ad for a job in Auburn, New York, for example, asked for “someone who loves to dig into documents for enterprise stories, chase down leads to break news, shoot videos to supplement event coverage and post live tweets from the field.”

Another ad, for a reporting gig in Cottonwood, Arizona, called for the ideal candidate to have “clear, concise writing skills with an unwavering penchant for accuracy, strong photography and social media skills” and to “be familiar with Microsoft Word and Adobe Indesign programs.”

One thing the ads usually don’t say is that once on the job, new reporters might be expected to use all of these skills simultaneously on a single assignment. That means journalism students need training beyond the basics of just covering breaking news for tomorrow’s paper or the next website update. They need to know how to do so in near real time using social media and in some cases mobile and social video.

So how can journalism educators start acquainting students with newer ways to cover news?

Tweeting Breaking News

For several years, I have assigned breaking news to students in my 200- and 300-level reporting classes. After a few lectures on the fundamentals of writing in a rush, students choose a real event such as a meeting or speech and turn a story within two days. This has worked well, and deadline-drive exercises have been the assignments that students said taught them the most.

Milo spoke last night at #UNM about immigration, illegal immigrants,muslims, women and racial issues in the U.S #MiloUNM#CJ375pic.twitter.com/NdnQZA4vnH

— Jazzy Zama (@jazzminlasel1) January 28, 2017

But this work seemed separate from the knowledge I wanted students to have about the professional and timely use of social media to deliver news. So for my 300-level students, I recently added a social media component to their breaking news assignment.

The assignment calls for them to choose a newsworthy event and to write about it within 48 hours. Along the way, they must use social media (usually Twitter, but they have a choice) at least five times. They also are required to use a class hashtag, which is an easy way for me to keep track of (and offer feedback on) what they post.

Protestors surrounded the SUB at #UNM during Milo's speech and guests had to be held inside for an additonal 30 minutes. #miloUNM#CJ375pic.twitter.com/UcFUC72OnB

— Jazzy Zama (@jazzminlasel1) January 28, 2017

To prepare for the social media component, we spend about 10 minutes a day looking at how news organizations use Twitter in their reporting, and how students might use the platform to find story ideas. As part of a separate graded social media presence assignment, students also must post three tweets a week related to journalism or journalism education. This gives them an introduction to Twitter and a warm up on how it works.

A few weeks into the semester, the 300-level students practice live tweeting by watching a YouTube speech and crafting tweets in a Google Doc, without publishing them. I instruct them to think of the tweets as the key points they’ll use in a story, and to use hashtags and usernames whenever possible. We also talk increasing audience engagement by adding media to tweets in addition to text. Writing the tweets without publishing them gives me time to offer feedback on their general approach, and it serves as a place to reiterate the importance of using social media responsibly.

Protestors are yelling "Shut it Down" as anticipated speaker Milo Yiannopoulos is set to speak in the SUB Ballroom at #UNM. #MiloUNM#CJ375pic.twitter.com/AqhB4n2HB2

— Jazzy Zama (@jazzminlasel1) January 28, 2017

Multitasking on the Scene

While the in-class work was valuable, student Isaac De Luna, who recently covered several local immigration-related events, said the real-world work helped boost his skills.

“Having the ability to actually go out and experience what is necessary to make a breaking news happen is an invaluable lesson for any young journalist. I definitely believe theory will give the right basis for any journalist on any situation on how to cover a story, but only practice can allow a student to grow and put the learned knowledge into practice,” he said.

For student Skylar Griego, having to use social media during an event made her realize she’d like to have more hands to help with tweeting on her phone while taking notes and and running a recorder.

Griego, who covered a panel discussion on open records, said she saw big differences between in-class practice and real life reporting.

“The most notable difference in practice live tweeting in class and doing it at an event was the pacing. In class, we practiced tweeting from a video, which we were able to pause and rewind. Or we would live tweet a guest lecturer, who would see us typing and pause at times to give us time to tweet,” Griego said. “At an event, no one slows down or pauses any longer than necessary — some don’t even pause at all. There is no rewind, (sometimes) no asking to repeat that last sentence, and no fixing tweets,” she said.

Black Lives Matter protesters have formed a human chain #cj278#milounmpic.twitter.com/6DVVbeESX5

— Sarah East (@saraheast67) January 28, 2017

In my 200-level course, students undertake similar practice with an in-class, on-deadline exercise where they watch a speech on YouTube and have to write a short hard news story on the spot. They also are assigned to select and cover a real event during the semester. For them, the social media component is optional, but highly encouraged.

Covering a Controversial Event

Usually, when I go over this assignment at the start of the semester, students fret about finding the right type of event. Using common news values as a guide, we work to identify newsworthy events that merit local coverage. This semester we had easy pickings, with a campus visit early on from Milo Yiannopoulos, local protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and other politically-themed events. Students also chose scheduled events such as speeches and meetings, but still had to meet the 48-hour deadline.

The Yiannopoulos event came first, and I strongly encouraged students to attend.

It turned out to be just the kind of scenario I had hoped students would encounter. The controversial nature of Yiannopoulos’ speech meant hundreds of students were present, mostly to protest. The multi-agency police presence was large, and students faced the issue of having to secure access into the event. A small handful of students were able to enter the speech, while others were left outside to cover the protests — a breakdown of duties that mimics how real news organizations at the scene broke up the work.

Protesters now hitting windows and doors on north side of SUB #CJ278#milounm

— Sarah East (@saraheast67) January 28, 2017

By and large, students did well handling the experience, which became chaotic and included arrests as the night wore on. Some students said they worked to overcome their nervousness at the unrest as they covered the event while others dealt with technological issues.

Student Jazzy Zama said she learned several valuable lessons on the scene.

“Covering this speech taught me to be on my guard because anything can happen, whether it was to look out for my safety or to watch what was happening amongst the people and get good footage. I learned to have my equipment ready before getting on the scene and to have multiple SD cards in case anything happened,” she said.

“It was helpful that my phone was fully charged because my Zoom (audio recorder) ended up not working for my interviews and soundbites, so I had to record the information on my phone. I realized it was important to have the camera batteries charged and the camera constantly rolling so I didn’t miss something (Yiannopoulos) said or an audience member said,” Zama added.

Police pushing protesters back #cj278#UnmMILO

— Sarah East (@saraheast67) January 28, 2017

Student Sarah East said covering the event gave her a sense of what to do the next time she covers breaking news.

“I learned how to tweet while paying attention to the situation around me and interview people at the same time,” she said. “This ability to multi-task is very hard to replicate within a classroom. The only way to truly experience it is in the field. I now feel more prepared to cover breaking news in the future because I know what to expect.”

Kate Nash Cunningham teaches journalism at the University of New Mexico. Follow her @katenashnm.

The [Milo] Yiannopoulos event … turned out to be just the kind of scenario I had hoped students would encounter.

Analyzing two news stories from three different perspectives

You will analyze two news stories, choosing 3 different news articles covering each story in the news (one from each group below). You’ll be looking for evidence of bias, filtering, etc.—differences in coverage explicable in terms of biased reporting. The bias could be political, could be commercial, and the use of techniques designed to deceive, either by the news media outlet or by newsmakers. The book ‘Howtodetectmediabias&propaganda’ will be indispensable—you’ll want to read through it carefully, probably more than once, to help you identify and describe the techniques of manipulation covered by the authors. This assignment will be easier for you if you pick stories where there are some pretty clear differences of political opinion, and the stakes are high (with elections approaching, this should be easy).

Spin involves the manipulation of language, logic, evidence, etc., used to defend one’s views, attack others’, move public opinion, etc. It is but one of many techniques used to persuade. For instance, was the war in Iraq about freedom and democracy? Or empire and oil? Why were their (alleged) weapons called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ while the US weapons had names like ‘daisy cutters’ and ‘bunker busters?’ Is it only ‘fake news‘ if it makes you or your side look bad? What exactly does ‘Make America Great Again’ mean? Or ‘alternative facts?’ Is a person who supports a woman’s reproductive rights pro-choice, pro-abortion, or anti-life? Is the press a public enemy? Are those who oppose abortion pro-life, anti-abortion or anti-choice? Is the republican party really the party of ‘family values?’ Are the democrats really friends of the poor? Was Obama really a socialist? Is Trump really a populist? When did tweets start becoming a news ‘source’? There are many tricks of the trade, and part of what I’ll be looking for is to see if you can identify them when they are used by people in the news, and those who report the news.

Deception could come from individuals quoted in an article, it could be the spin of the media outlet or the author of the story, or the author might take an entirely uncritical view of quotes or statements in the story (reporting newsmakers’ spin as straight news). Even the headline of an article can be spun— so watch for spin, deception and propaganda in different places.

Some basic rules

  • Same topic please! For each of the two stories, choose 3 articles covering the same topic. In other words, choose three articles covering the samestoryin the same time period, so they’re comparable. Stories change fast, so the further apart your three versions are in time, the more likely they’re not comparable. I’ll notice. And . . . this isn’t a history class—don’t choose a story from the past. There are stories every week that will work for this assignment. They must be from the current term.
  • Things to avoid. Among the three articles you choose to compare for each story:
    • Avoideditorialarticles—focus on news. You could read a couple editorials to aid in your understanding of a news story. But we expect bias and spin from an editorial. The skill of spotting editorializing in the straight news stories is one I hope you glean from this class. So comparing an op-ed to a news story makes for a weak argument. Stick with articles that at least claim to be news. As the rubric below makes clear, you will lose points if you don’t.
    • No more than one newswire story (e.g., Reuters, Associated Press). Many news organizations subscribe to newswires and can use their stories in their own papers/websites. That means that they may reflect more the perspective of the newswire than the subscribing organization (but the organization did choose to carry it, right?), and you may not find variation from one site/paper to the next if they’re both carrying the same newswire story—nothing to compare, and that won’t be good for your analysis or grade because you should have caught it when documenting the source. It also means that the same AP or Reuters or Cox story covered by two outlets is going to read pretty much the same. So part of this assignment requires you be able to identify a newswire story. Basic news literacy.
  • Choosingstories,sources. For each story, you must choose one article from each of these three groups:
    • Right-leaning: FoxNews, Washington Examiner, Newsmax
    • Center: Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, CNN
    • Left-leaning: Common Dreams (from the news stories column), Vice News, or ReaderSupported News (do not choose the op-editorial pieces!).
    • If you’re not finding the same story across three sites, try some expanded choices at on the ’Spin Journal Sources’ page (https://people.eou.edu/socnews/spin-journal-sources/). But if you leave out representation from the right, center, or left in your analysis, it will come out in the points. Make sure your three sources represent news site from each of those three viewpoints. Thusly:
Story 1Left-leaning versionCentristRight-leaning version
Story 2Left-leaning versionCentristRight-leaning version

Resources:

The Mediabiasandpropagandabook gives you examples of deception in action. I would recommend ordering it through the Critical Thinking Foundation’s website, though. However, there are many places online that may help you think through this assignment.

News weblogs

There are many ‘weblogs’ whose owners analyze, critique, and/or fact-check the day’s news.

  • You can find a small slice of the more trafficked ones on the ‘Alternative news sources’ page.
  • The blogs will give you many ideas about various angles taken in stories.

Watchdog, Resource Sites

These sites keep an eye on news outlets and coverage they suspect of bias or ‘fake news':

  • These are sites where you can look up individuals, organizations, people used as experts on TV and in print, etc. Watchdog sites could have their own biases, so be careful—this is one of the more effective means of using 3rd parties—as supposed impartial arbiters of other

It’s your job to figure out how sites might lean conservative or liberal, or seem to be mostly providing ratings ‘bait,’ which points of view represent conservative or liberal stances, and you might have to do some homework to do this (some of the above sites should help). Remember—sometimes ‘left-right’ controversies are just distractions—there may be other biases at work. There are other resources in the ‘tools’ section of the ‘alternative news sites’ page).

Your paper should be 5-6 pages in length, double-spaced—plus a short conclusion. Don’t get carried away–this assignment doesn’t get better with length. I will stop reading after 8 pages. Here’s how points will be assigned:

Requirementdescriptionpoints
Story/article choiceChoose from each ‘group,’ a story of political importance where you’re likely to see differences in coverage25
Summary/analysis/writingSummarize each story and use the tools given to analyze each version of it; support your conclusions with evidence from the articles; research you do to better understand the topic is always looked upon favorably
50
Documenting sourcesFull citations, not URLs (each missing cite = 1 point)10
Using resourcesDemonstrated use of blogs, other websites to do research on story topic, watchdog sites, and the ‘How to detect bias’ book10
Final reflectiona concluding paragraph analyzing/critiquing what you learned from this process, and from the analysis of the story5
Total points100

 

Papers are due before midnight, March 5, in Canvas

 

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