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Universities should apply expertise to explain complex topics

Posted by on Jan 20, 2011 in Blog, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

News doesn’t always come in quick bursts, focusing on THE HOT STORY on a given day. If we’re telling stories about our world, there’s got to be more than “feeding the beast”. What about helping the public understand a large issue, as opposed to a soundbyte, or in addition to an anecdotal story?

This is why raw information is important, why data journalism is key. But data doesn’t just mean numbers. It’s the solid facts behind what makes a system work. Not what a politician said today about climate change legislation, but what’s the big issue that have brought us to our current point in understanding climate change? What makes our world tick?

Call it an explainer, call it an in-depth piece, think about telling it with all the new story forms you can. Whatever you call it, universities can train journalists who excel at using their own expertise, and leverage their in-house experts to help those of us currently in the field.

Journalists, educators, students, we’re all just learning what we can and passing on these nuggets. Whatever our beat or department — we all traffic in information. The world’s complex, and we could all use help understanding it. Even better if it’s explained clearly, and using storyforms that are different than what we’ve been doing for past decades and centuries. That’s how we enhance public knowledge, and that’s how we captivate the attention of our students. Because this is the information age, and we have more to explain, and more ways to explain it, than ever before. It’s fascinating, and it’s something we should take advantage of.

This post is my contribution to the Carnival of Journalism, a group of journalistically-interested bloggers writing on a different topic every month. Links to other posts from this month’s topic are collected, with great care and context, by this month’s host, David Cohn. And what are we writing about?

The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community: One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario? Or is this recommendation wrong to begin with? No box here to write inside of.

Help students realize their natural new media expertise

Without taking a single class, students come into their university courses with a certain body of knowledge. Given the era they’ve grown up in, a photojournalism class doens’t have to start from scratch — the notion of a Flip camera isn’t so different from the cellphone cameras used to post quick photos on Facebook. That’s actually reporting on deadline.

Many students use social media to chat with their friends, although they may not think of using it for reporting, or promoting content they create. But in fact, every time they post about some new game they found, they’re passing on a story. Writing about a party last night — that’s passing on a story too.

Even though instructors may not be as familiar with this newfangled tech on a daily basis, they must be interested in learning, and helping students see that using these tools could enhance how they tell stories. And they could learn about these new tools as well, and pair it with their own expertise. Students and faculty have much to teach each other. Just as journalists learn from their communities, teachers learn from their students. Whether in academia or journalism, learning just isn’t a one-way street.

Digital and media literacy needs to be taught in universities, but in a lot of cases, that doesn’t mean showing how Twitter works. It’s more of imparting a philosophical understanding — it’s about showing students that what they already do everyday has a name, and can be applied to other pursuits. But I think in many classrooms, we’re still a long way from this. We can do better.

Many class assignments are journalistic — take advantage!

Students also gain another type of expertise. Even if students are in a journalism track, they should be taking classes in many other departments. If our job as journalists is to explain the world, we can learn from how professors approach the same task. When they are assigned to give a class presentation, approach it like a story geared for online broadcast. Whether a professor or student is doing the explaining, they must have good presentation style, engage the audience and make complex concepts clear and comprehensible. It’s the same job we should be doing as news producers every day.

That economics class is going to prepare you better for explaining the Great Recession than learning how to write in “inverse pyramid” style. We must stop thinking of core liberal arts requirements as distinct from journalism. Journalists spend so much time tracking down experts to explain concepts, so they can convey it. And at a university, students have unparalleled access to these experts. It’s not fulfilling a requirement, it’s a gift. Learning information of all sorts, how certain issues came to be, thinking critically and learning how to convey those concepts, it all couldn’t be more integral to the very nature of what we do.

That’s not to mention that courses will assign readings, often studies, which often have datasets. Learn to analyze and glean information from this primary source materials, and you’ve got a leg up on most journalists practicing out there. And if you misstep, you didn’t just misexplain to millions of people, that’s why you submit your work to a professor before it gets that far. Let the university’s local experts be your training wheels. Because journalists can work with university faculty, and I’ve found them to be willing to help. But as a student, you’re literally paying for their expertise. And that stretches far beyond them teaching curriculum, if you have the journalistic curiosity to push further.

So, go ahead, students. Use your coursework — all of it– as journalistic opportunities. And once you’ve done good work that explains an important issue, try partnering with a news organization. Yes, your environmental science class can do the partnering. That’s how universities can get the message out, and then we can start to do even better with facilitating an information exchange.

Universities exist to foster experimentation

In order to explain complex issues, we can’t keep telling our stories the way we always have. Text isn’t enough. Graphs can help, but maybe they can be more than a sidebar. Interactivity must not be gratuitous, but serve a purpose. Bottom line: This is all hard, and we’re all still figuring out the right way to do it. Universities can facilitate this experimentation. Students and faculty can try out new story forms, and keep the experiments as private or public as they like. I wish experimentation was encouraged in every news organization, but it’s not. Bottom line concerns sometimes scare us away from failure. But in a university setting, if you’re not coming close to a failed story form once or twice — that’s the real failure. Take a leap.

And professors — don’t downgrade a student for a story form that just didn’t work. Higher education is about learning, and branching out is a key way for us to do that. Because a university’s bottom line should be innovation and experimentation, and pushing the knowledge economy forward. Again, news organizations, universities, we’re really not so different. Both trying to elucidate the “big picture” for the general public.

We can’t afford to be segmented. New discoveries and ways of teaching deserve to make its way to the public, and fresh ideas from faculty and students have much to contribute to newsrooms. We’re not journalists, reporters, students, professors. We’re lifelong learners, and we’ll all do better work if we help each other out.

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