Can’t We All Just Get Along?

As I hunker down and begin the next phase of research for my thesis, I’m struck by the divisive nature of arguments surrounding what qualifies as journalism and who is qualified to teach it.

Recently, journalism prof Wayne McPhail made some great points about how we aren’t teaching students what they need to know in Journalism School. Since I’m also a journalism prof, this is a subject close to my heart.

I completely agree we need to be jumping into new technology with both feet, teaching our students how to create content for the variety of platforms available, and looking at alternative sources of news – which is why we have Canadian new media guru Amber MacArthur on the program advisory committee where I teach.

Unlike McPhail, I’m not writing this on an iPad, but I do use facebook and Twitter, and a variety of software applications relevant to journalism. And also unlike McPhail, I think a journalism teacher still has something to offer even if she hasn’t shot and cut a story on her smart phone.

Journalism, at its best, is about storytelling. That means everyone’s primary concern should be teaching students how to tell a good story. Secondary, are the tools used to shoot and cut, and the platform it airs on.

I have teachers in my program who have no idea how to use the latest technology – teachers the students give standing ovations to on grad night. These seasoned journalists know how to find focus, ask questions, be smart – skills you still need to know if you’re using a phone – and maybe that you need to know even more given file size is so limited.

McPhail also takes a swipe at the extremely overused person on the street interview, or asking questions of, as he puts it, “ignorant people on busy street corners”. I too have cringed at the comments of passersby caught in the lens of the camera. Perhaps the real issue is that some journalists ask stupid questions, and some stations are more concerned with filling airtime than the quality of content aired.

We need not just to, as McPhail states, understand who our audience is, but be open to the idea that our audience is knowledgeable. Just like traditional journalists shouldn’t assume there are no citizen journalists who know how to tell a story, no one should assume there aren’t informed people in our neighbourhoods.

Teaching students how to do a good “streeter” has many benefits. They learn to approach people and talk to them in person – something many have never done in the age of facebook and texting; it allows them to learn how to shoot with little preparation; to come up with open ended intelligent questions on important issues; to decide when something isn’t good enough to be aired. And wouldn’t that be a great first assignment to shoot and cut on a phone?

There are many things wrong with journalism today, but imagine for a minute if we started looking for the positive and strived to incorporate the best of old and new, traditional and emerging media. As Lee-Wright points out, “the Luddites were not thoughtless vandals opposing progress, but artisans concerned to preserve craft standards and appropriate rates of pay”. Many journalists today are in the same boat.

In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky talks about the controversy when calculators were brought into schools. Parents thought they were a passing fad and didn’t want their kids using them. Shirky says they should have been concerned with teaching children how to use a new tool well. What struck me is that no one was arguing over whether the kids needed to learn to divide.

Perhaps, if all journalism teachers and journalists of all stripes could focus on the fact that we all just want to tell really good stories, we could work together to ensure more stories, from more viewpoints, on a variety of platforms are learned and shared – starting in j-school.

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9 thoughts on “Can’t We All Just Get Along?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Can’t We All Just Get Along? | Redefining journalism's Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. hi, got this link from the making media public list. i think your questions and quest is a good one – how to rethink journalism. i just finished teacher’s college and we spent some time looking the ‘system’ of education in Ontario. while there was MUCH lacking in this professional education, i think re-thinking journalism needs to have a thorough understanding of the political economy of the mainstream media. individual uses of good questions and good tech tools need to be related to and repositioned within the current system of power/resource relations. good luck and i look forward to your findings.
    http://citizenshift.org
    is one example i’d offer up for citizen journalism.
    And the recent Rally For Sanity (organized by comedian Jon Stewart) is another provoking rally-cry for what’s wrong with our current media system.

    • Thanks for the comment and link Paul. I just watched the Saskatchewan Organic Farmers story on Citizen Shift and I think this is the type of story that perhaps organizations like CBC could be partnering on. It’s relevant not just to that community but all Canadians, and isn’t getting the kind of exposure it deserves. Although the subject and content were strong, I must admit watching that story I found it almost painfully slow in parts and the use of music quite distracting. Perhaps my expectations are too high and others think it’s fine as is (would love to hear from you!), but I think this story could be even better with assistance from professional journalists with the end goal of improving public discourse on an important issue.

  3. Nice points Nic! I think you are right to argue that storytelling is the absolute heart of the matter. If I were in an unhelpful mood I’d say – but what is a story nowadays? Away from the hard core of strict and straight news, storytellers have won acclaim for deliberately scrambling fact and art since at least the 1900s. As to beginning, middle and end or even a story arc? You won’t win critical praise wearing those old-school shackles. I’m being a jerk about this, really, but I do think that audiences are probably far more open to weird and novel iterations of journalism and storytelling than oldsters like me could ever dream. I may find it goofy beyond redemption, but Auto Tune the News has exceeded 20 million viewers now.

    • Thanks for the comment David. The idea that we need to sometimes get away from traditional storytelling is actually part of my research — journalists aren’t the only ones who can decide what a story is so perhaps we’re the ones who need to realign our expectations. Doing this research has actually changed how I view a lot of things I used to do as a producer and news writer. I got into an online discussion with one of my professor’s (shout out to Michael Real) about reporter’s giving a “version of truth”. I argued that a story that was well done was the truth, but I’ve come to realize that no matter how fair it is, it’s still my version — 20 seconds of a 10 minute interview, put into context from my perspective, based on my experience. I’m starting to think that the real key is just getting as many stories out there as possible on a topic (crazy format or not), and that’s how you come up with some kind of communal viewpoint — my concern is that in an age when it’s easy to find a news source that caters to a specific viewpoint, where does this truth get shared?

  4. I definitely think you’re on to something with deviating from traditional storytelling. We all know that the technology on which we watch and read stories is changing rapidly … But our delivery, the way we go about telling stories remains essentially the same format.

    What I think is often overlooked is the demands of the audience. Technology has changed and so should the content. Our audience has watched more television, more stories, more standups and VOs than any any other audience in history. Our analysis and presentation of the truth, or whatever the story is, will not stick with them unless it’s done in a highly creative and quality way. And if it doesn’t stick with them, it’s not relevant. If it’s not relevant, they won’t watch.

    Media outlets will always have the best resources and credentials to cover the hard news stuff, but the other “softer” or more community oriented content needs some overhaul. If you are producing it in such a fashion that a regular person can go out and create the same story on their cell phone, you’re not doing your job.

    I would strongly recommend the team at http://www.californiaisaplace.com
    A still photog and filmmaker have teamed up to create unique and creative mini docs about all aspects of California, and I believe it’s an example of where we need to be headed to continue to be relevant storytellers.

  5. While I am not in disagreement with McPhail in his interpretation that j-school doesn’t adequately prepare its students and graduates for “modern” journalism involving technology, I find that his obsession with technology to be a fault and I wish that McPhail can be persuaded to read Marshall McLuhan’s work on “the medium is the message”, or at least the by Mark Federman at UToronto. There’s a reason why j-schools and other advanced educational institutions don’t teach the latest technology, it’s because a lot of it is just a fad. Out of all of the apps that he has mentioned, I am willing to bet that the majority will not be in existence in three years. So what good will it do for j-schools to teach them that?

    What you (Nicole) has touched upon (storytelling) is great. The outputs of storytelling is what separates being noticed and being ignored by your audience. Great stories captivate audiences. Your conclusion, that “if all journalism teachers and journalists of all stripes could focus on the fact that we all just want to tell really good stories, we could work together to ensure more stories, from more viewpoints, on a variety of platforms are learned and shared – starting in j-school.” is exactly what is needed. However, I think that you need to go further and make a case that in the information age, journalists aren’t simply dinosaurs lingering around from a bygone era, journalists are content creators whose work should be appreciated and valued as much, if not more than any other “new media” content.

    Journalism is about enlightening audiences through the conveyance of stories. Great stories aren’t commodities, they are timeless artistic masterpieces.

  6. Thanks for the comment Kai, and I agree with you completely that great stories are masterpieces. I also think that what is a great story to one person, may not be to another — and understanding that dichotomy could help bridge the gap between old and new media.

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