September 12, 2007

Thoughts on the initial attempt

Here are a few thoughts from Dan Bernard about the use of blogs in his news writing and reporting section:

Daniel Lynx Bernard
Reflections on the introduction of news blogs during spring 2007
University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication

As you recall, I asked students to blog three times a week. Each entry was supposed to compare two articles on the same event or issue and analyze the writers’ approaches to the challenges they faced. One week they instead described their attempts to obtain public records, and in the final week they wrote mini-essays on the future of journalism and their potential roles in it.
Many students enjoyed being introduced to the technology, and many thrived on the routine of summarizing and comparing news. Still, I think the exercise weakened our attempt to sharpen the students’ conceptions of the distinction between factual reporting and commentary. The students view blogs as a free-flowing genre where the writer scores points for the originality of his or her own embellishments. Although I instructed students to hold their opinions until the end of the entries, and to clearly label them as opinion, nevertheless some students gave in to the temptation to offer personal opinions throughout their entries, including ideological views. Some students said in lecture that they would enjoy the assignment more if they were allowed to blog about their reaction to news events rather than comparing news articles for journalistic merit. Obviously, that sort of blogging would not further the objectives of journalism education, but the suggestion reveals students’ preconceptions about the purpose of blogs.
Many complained that the blogs were make-work, as reflected in these comments from anonymous course evaluation forms:
“News blogs were overly time-consuming. I felt punished for reading the newspaper because that was not sufficient to fulfill the assignment. Instead, I spent time exploring news web sites for relevant articles that I already read and had knowledge on.? (This student mistakenly thought that the blog entries must hyperlink to online articles; in fact the instructions allowed students to refer to hard-copy articles, citing the date and page number.)
“Too much busywork. Blogs are stupid.?
“The blogs added a lot more busywork. They are hard to keep up with, and I have noticed that to be true in other classes, as well.?

If I were to use the blogs again, I might try to tighten the connection between the blogs and the lectures. In spring 2007 I gave the students free rein as to what aspects of the news articles they would compare. It might be better to attempt to focus each week’s blogging by connecting it to the themes of the week’s lecture –to instruct the students each week to look for, for example, how reporters used quotations versus paraphrasing, visual description versus factual statements, etc. That might increase students’ sense of purpose.
Similarly, I perceived that students took the blog assignment more seriously when I referred to the blogs during lecture and occasionally showed students’ blog postings that related to the week’s topic.
At the same time we should acknowledge that the above improvements would demand more time of the instructor – choosing a weekly theme, drafting and disseminating instructions, etc. Although I wanted to mention students’ blogs in class more often, inevitably the blogs were the last priority on the list. The lecture has to be dominated by introducing new concepts, providing examples, and preparing for and reviewing lab assignments. The blogs are appealing because they add another dimension to the instructors’ interaction with students outside of the constraints of the physical classroom: That appeal would be reduced if the blogs ended up cutting into the available in class for core matters.
In the final analysis I agree with you that blogging represents a new journalistic genre that will become important, and we serve our students well by introducing them to it. News-blogging might work best in a class devoted to Internet journalism, where the instructor can devote the necessary time to explain the need to uphold journalistic standards within the blog medium.

GG thoughts on Dan's summary:
Good points, Dan. I agree that it's time-consuming and difficult to integrate the blogs into the lecture. This is the biggest drawback. Too often, blogs were the last priority to evaluate and, as such, the students did not get regular viewers and comments to their efforts. I think that's why they expressed frustration at the "make work" quality of the blogs. I also agree that students used the blogs at times to depart from the straight fact-based approach to reporting. My view is that these skills evolve through the semester and, while we set standards for the news log entries, students also benefit from a venue in which they can express opinions about how the news was covered.

For me, the blog approach was a successful departure from the news quiz approach. My goal was to engage the students with news and to engage them with blog format itself. I was willing to let the format bleed a little into expression, as long as that stayed focused on expression about the journalistic practices. Overall, my students reported knowing much more about the news at the end of the semester than they had at the beginning.


March 29, 2007

Spammers? Use your controls

Here's a technological issue -- not a journalism issue -- but it shows how the technological difficulties can divert us from the journalism lessons.

One of the students in intro to news writing Section 7 discovered that a spammer -- presumably automated -- was trying to post an ad on her blog using the comment function.

The spam-bot was targeting Monique's comparison of news coverage of Fidel Castro calling Hugo Chavez' radio show (link here ).

Perhaps the program used a search engine and found Monique's reference to Castro's "health." Figuring that anyone reading that page was interested in health care generally, the spambot tried to post an ad reading:

Title: No prescription valium.
Valium without prescription. Valium prescription dialogue. Buy valium
online without a prescription. Valium prescription online. Buy valium
without prescription.

Weirder, the ad included a link back to a web page elsewhere on the University of Minnesota system -- on the medical school's sub-domain ( http://gregorio.med.umn.edu/aspnet_client/system_web/1_1_4322/valium/).

No harm done: Monique had set her blog to require her approval before any submitted comment appeared. But I had suggested to students that they turn off that filter to make it easier for me, T.A.s and classmates to carry on a conversation without having to wait hours or days for them to approve each post.

There is a layer of defense against these vandals of the 'Net: The University of Minnesota Libraries' blogging system (UThink, which uses the TypePad platform). I reported the junk mail incursion to the UThink tech support folks, who informed me that I could activate UThink's "CAPTCHA service" to block spam. (Instructions at: https://wiki.umn.edu/twiki/bin/view/UThink/CommentCaptcha)

It's a minor headache, but it shows how, at the present level of user-friendliness, a student may not be able to step lightly into the blogging world without having to learn a couple layers of tech stuff. Admin settings. Filters. Etc.

To quote the UThink tech support person:
"Unfortunately, this is nothing new and is quite frankly a never ending battle with the spammers. The only way it will ever stop is if the spammers themselves decide to not do it anymore. Of course, that will probably never happen. ...
"We are doing our best to get rid of spam on UThink. Inevitably, though, some spam always gets through as the spammers figure out new ways around our efforts to fight them."


--
Daniel Lynx Bernard
Master of Public Affairs candidate
Journalism graduate instructor
University of Minnesota
dbernard@umn.edu

March 2, 2007

Here and there about how blogs are used

Check out this entry, and its updates, for comments from TAs and instructors about specific issues that arise with the news blogs.

Here's from John Hoff, posted March 1, 2007:

One of my students told me something I found, well, almost amazing.

He had blogged about a news story concerning an animal shelter. The shelter had an outbreak of disease and put a bunch of animals to sleep.

(That term, "put to sleep" is such a truth-maiming phrase it should be *verbotten* in journalism, and I used it just to be able to say as much)

Anyway, somebody found my student's blog on the Internet and contacted this student to see if he had more information about the news event in question. The person who contacted my student was desperate for more information about the event and thought, just maybe, my student might have something.

This leads me to think, once again, we should be encouraging our students to find their own news. And I can think of a recent example of a student "finding news" in Dan's class, but I'll save that one for another time, another post.

February 7, 2007

How students are using the blogs

Students report in both classes that the news blogs are engaging them more with news. Most report they're having fun with the exercise and that it's helping them write as well as read the news. So in that respect, all is well. We did have a student complain that the blogs weren't helping her writing -- that she was just learning about how to gather information. I told her I didn't think that was a problem at all. In fact, that's exactly the skill these introductory news blogs can develop. The student also complained that it was difficult to find stories reported in more than one news outlet. To find stories she could compare, she said, she had to look for ones that weren't as interesting to her. Also, some students noted that if both local newspapers carried a story, often it was the same AP report. My response to the student's complaint about having to go outside her interest area? Great. That's the goal of this assignment. What good is it to read only news that interests you? How do you expand your interests? And my response to the complaint that local papers are frequently running wire stories on important stories? Welcome to journalistic consolidation. It's a reality. Students are seeing it. And so, we have another unanticipated benefit.

Some students are merely summarizing news coverage in their blogs. But at times, we get engaged students who note -- and are surprised by -- interesting gaps in coverage. Check out one student's blog of local coverage about the recent cartoon-promotion scare on the East Coast. http://blog.lib.umn.edu/lapp0025/3121news/ . As a teaching tool for engaging students with news, I coudn't be happier with these kinds of observations. It's the basis for the critical thinking they need as journalists.

See the comments sections for notes from the other instructors and TAs about how students are using the blogs.

January 25, 2007

About the Project

In the Spring of 2007, instructors at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication began using student-created news blogs to enhance learning among undergraduate journalism students. The project aims to engage students with the news more deeply and to do so through Web technologies. Students are using news blogs in the basic reporting and news writing class and in an intermediate public affairs reporting class. This blog will track discussions and issues in the project to encourage other faculty in journalism schools to consider the approach. The initiative is led by Gayle Golden, a full-time faculty lecturer and journalist who has written for a wide range of newspapers and magazines during her 25-year career. At the U, she has led initiatives on curriculum coordination and innovative approaches to learning. Participating instructors are journalist and writing coach Marilyn Moyer and journalist Dan Bernard. Teaching assistants offering substantial support are John Hoff and Garlyn Moen.

Guidelines for the news blogs

We have all come up with guidelines for the news blogs. It's important for students to have clear parameters to avoid the blather of unfettered blogging. Here are some guildelines I put forward linked to the points students can accrue for their blog entries:

We are judging the blogs based on the following criteria:

• The blogs must be fact-based, not based on opinion rants.
• The blogs must primarily summarize stories from credible news organizations, which profess journalistic standards. If the entry does link to a blog, that link must be because the blog’s reporting has spurred coverage in a credible news organization.
• The blogs must have links to more than one version of the story, again drawn from credible news organizations.
• The blogs may offer opinion on the journalistic techniques in a story, such as the nature of sources or the disclosure of sensitive information.
• The blogs may NOT offer opinion on the content of the news itself . (In other words, do not take sides with an issue. Remain reportorial and balanced in your approach.)
• The blogs should look deeply at various reporting issues we cover from week to week. (You won’t be asked to do this every week. But many weeks, we will ask you – announced in class – to analyze how a basic reporting skill shows itself in a story. Please do this only during the weeks we say in class that you should do this.)

We will communicate with you on your blog entries. If you’re getting too far from facts, or too opinionated about the content of news itself, we will let you know via the comments.

One issue, of course, is what constitutes a credible news organization. I'm sure we'll be in discussion about that. Meanwhile, here are some related and other guidelines Dan Bernard put forward in a response to a student's question on that:

# "Full-length" excludes briefs. News articles excludes opinion columns and editorials. Articles labeled "news analysis" are OK.
# "Timely" means coverage of news that occurred in the past day or so.
# Magazine articles usually don't count, because they usually have a weekly or monthly cycle and so do not face the sort of pressures that we're talking about in this class. However, the newsweeklies have begun posting breaking-news stories on their web sites. So, if you find an online article by Time or Newsweek or the Economist or U.S. News and World Report, etc., that covers news that occurred in the past day or so, that would count. If their articles use opinion, please note that in your blog posting.
# TV coverage usually doesn't count. However, the major national television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC) often produce written coverage exclusively for their web sites. So do NPR and MPR. Those would count, if they read like news articles. CAUTION: Some stations and networks simply type up their scripts or transcripts and post those on their web sites. Those do not count. If you can't tell whether it was written to be read, don't use it.

So, for now, we're off and running. Links to the blogs forthcoming.

January 24, 2007

Blogs? Or Online News Journals?

The instructors of the basic news writing course, along with several graduate TAs, had a lively discussion about how to introduce a news blog to students without sending them unfettered into the partisan, opinion-based, questionably reliable world of the blogosphere. From my viewpoint, blogging is simply a tool -- a technology that allows postings, comments and efficient access to varied sources of information. The other instructors worried, however, that the word "blog" has too unfavorable and unjournalistic a reputation. So students will get confused, they argue, and muddle the distinctions between fact and opinion on these blogs.

After some discussion, our solution was to more clearly define and restrict the blogs. We are limiting the kinds of sources they can use, restricting those to credible journaistic enterprises. Where relevant, they can link to other blogs, but only insofar as those blogs have reported news taken up by credible news organizations. Their entries must 1) summarize the news; 2) link to other sources of information and identify differences in reporting; 3) offer context or background by linking to direct sources of information; and 4) offer analysis of the reporting methods or writing effectiveness in the stories they follow. They must attribute or link to everything they cite. They must note HOW the reporters appear to have gotten the information. They must report, not judge or rail in any partisan fashion about the news.

In short, they must approach the news blog as journalistically as possible. This is useful beyond the exercise itself. It's no good to complain about blogs disrupting journalism. That's just history. The time has come to integrate sound journalistic training with those blogging technologies that have already disrupted and changed the industry. This seems like just the place and the way to do it.

January 16, 2007

Getting Started

This is Day One of introducing our journalism students to blogging as a way of teaching reporting. We are applying this at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication as part of the basic news writing and reporting curriculum, the first intensive skills-based class of our professional journalism majors. Instructors in all three sections of Jour 3101 have agreed to use blogs primarily to encourage students to engage with news.

In my section of 3101, students must blog five stories per week in the fashion of The Times' approach in http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com.They must summarize news stories and look for ways those stories are sourced and treated on other sites. In the basic reporting course, students will create five entries per week.

I am also using this idea in an intermediate reporting course, where students will create three entries per week on public affairs stories that include coverage of cops, courts or government. Entries will automatically be summarized on an aggregator site. Students can then click on the entries and comment directly to the students on the blog.

My hopes? Engagement with news, depth of analysis and experience with the technology they need to know. These blogs -- designed to be fact-based commentaries on reported information -- will not replace the reporting, writing and editing that goes on in the courses. But it might send the students into news more effectively than news quizzes or class discusssions have been able to do. For years, I have been trying to get journalism students to engage with news, with some frustration.. Even those intent on becoming journalists aren't reading newspapers with any consistency or depth. They surf the web, though. My hope is that these blog sites will encourage engagement.

They will also provide a much-needed portfolio item as they look for jobs. When describing the blog assignments to my intermediate reporting students, I asked how many of them had blogs already. None raised a hand. That gave me everything I needed to know: This kind of approach is critical for journalism students today.