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My Walk in Wonderland: How Statistics Saved My Life, Gave Me a Teaching Idea, and Got Me on Oprah

July 15, 2011

I love statistics the way Mark Twain loved liars: Both provide an endless pool of entertaining, esoteric stories that are almost always too good to be true.  Take my title, for example.  Statistics show that only one of every three statements we make is actually verifiable.  No, wait, I made that stat up.  But, given what we know about language and human nature, it sounds so, so true, doesn’t it?

But statistics are to reporters what analogies are to teachers:  Starting places to put information in the larger context of understandable truth that generates meaning. (Anyone hear the strains of Hutchins Commission Report?)  So where to start with your student reporters?  The obvious answer (an obvious answer, a possibly obvious answer; an, ok, I never-thought-about-it before answer) is IPEDS, “the primary source for data on colleges, universities, and technical and vocational postsecondary institutions in the United States” ( Why? Again, the obvious answer (an obvious answer, a possibly obvious answer; an, ok, I never-thought-about-it before answer) is that students are navel gazers.  IPEDS, in a way, is one big navel.

Here is what the site provides:

College Navigator: Lets users create side-by-side comparisons of institutions

IPEDS Data Center: Lets users compare institutions, download data files, and create reports

IPEDS State Data Center: Lets user create custom data tables and state profiles

IPEDS Resources: Lets users access FAQs and archives

IPEDS Tables Library: Lets users download national and state data tables on almost any related educationally related subjects

Not only do you get lots of stats, but you can create customized graphics from those stats. Moreover, given that it’s a government site, the information is freely available, reproducible, and (reasonably—depending on your take of the government) vetted.

Now here’s the really useful part:  Students can create graphs from the site in literally 10 minutes (with a little practice).  Topics can include almost anything since IPEDS offers stats on everything from graduation rates for athletes to enrollment trends to financial data (what a way to worry your administrators).

So here’s the class scenario after you’ve let them play a while on the site:  They’re the editor-in-chief.  Twenty minutes before deadline, they find out their never-missed-a-deadline reporter has been hired by the (insert your favorite paper here) and left a bloody, gaping hole on the front page.  They check their tickler file only to discover that they actually don’t know what a tickler file is and, even if they do, it’s empty as a politician’s promise (or insert your own favorite, highly revealing cliché here).  Send them to IPEDS to come back with a meaningful, relevant graphic worthy of page 1.

Then have the class actually save those meaningful, relevant graphs in a real tickler file to be made available to your college or university newspaper. 


Pat Miller

Valdosta State University



MeMe, Myself, and I, Blogging

July 2, 2011
Oreo with an IPhone

Oreo teams up with MeMe, the Iphone.

Oreo, my cat, seemed pleased today when I brought home my new Iphone, which I’ve named “MeMe.” My husband was pleased, too. If I were a better person, MeMe would become our new “We phone.” But I’m not and it won’t.

My husband wouldn’t pose with the phone but Oreo didn’t mind.

In a couple weeks, MeMe will be joined by my new Ipad. New Ipad probably won’t have a formal name because he’ll be my university’s property. I’m sure my husband also would like New Ipad to become New Wepad but that’s not going to happen.

Ipad Screen Shot.

I'm getting a white Ipad with a green cover. Screen shot from

The saleswoman at the Verizon store today assured me that MeMe and New Ipad will work seamlessly with my home iMac, whom I’ve also neglected to name.

Aye, yai, yai, yai. Suddenly, my whole technological world has become all about me. I’ve envied my students for possessing the latest in phone gear, communication candy so addicting the students can’t resist pulling these devices out in class, even when I publicly humiliate these Facebook-checkers, confiscate their phones, and dock their grades.

Sweep me away in technological bliss, MeMe and New Ipad. Make me a believer. Allow me to forget for just a few moments what a clever marketing scheme it is that makes “you” a part of “me.”

The Journalist as Blogger 

This “I-world” also is at the heart of blogging. For a journalist, blogging can be about sharing the things you never before shared – what someone told you in the hallway that he might think was just between you and him, not really off the record, just kind of chitchat. Suddenly, you’re not only sharing this person’s thoughts with the world, but also what you think about his thoughts. To let readers know that journalists actually think and don’t just record and process what other people say is a revolutionary change in journalism. To report and reflect on the small moments and not just the game-changing news also is a new way to do journalism.

For professional journalists, blogging is a way to talk about the items that don’t make it into your main stories, a way to add insights that don’t really fit anywhere else. Blogging also is a way to break news after those first Tweets and before you file your main, more carefully focused story for the website proper – and for print.

Often, journalists’ blogs provide a spot for the writers to show a little attitude. For old-school journalists, this “I-writing” does not come easily.

Julie & Julia movie poster

Movie poster from "Julie & Julia," from Internet Movie Database,

The question always is, does anyone care? In the movie, “Julie & Julia,” Julie Powell blogs about her year of preparing every entrée in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Powell, too, questions whether anyone is out there reading her posts and if anyone cares.

Blogging paid off big time for Powell. She snagged book and movie deals. But is that what blogging mostly is about? Trying to advance the eternal me? Or is this view about blogging way  too cynical? When Powell shared her thoughts, hopes, and fears about cooking and her one-year cooking challenge, she was making a personal connection with others who enjoy cooking and who sometimes have been thwarted in their culinary pursuits. In some ways, then, if journalists share their inner selves through blogging, then blogging might become one of the most humane, caring things journalists do. And many veteran journalists just might toss a ripe tomato at that last sentence.

Journalism and Blogging: BFF?

In what ways are journalism and blogging compatible and incompatible? Or has journalism evolved so much in the recent past, is blogging so integrated into mainstream journalism, that this very question is now passé?

In “Blogging From the Labor Perspective: Lessons for Media Managers,” Brad Schultz and Mary Lou Sheffer point out that “Blogs challenge journalistic traditions because many are unedited and present the personal, subjective viewpoints of the author.” In “Newspaper Blogs: The Genuine Article or Poor Counterfeits?” Mary Gordon discusses how journalists’ blogs break down “[t]the old barriers between objective journalist and passive audience” and may lead to a “closer, more transparent relationship with readers[.]”

And there are plenty more articles on how blogging is transforming journalism, including Paul Bradshaw’s “When Journalists Blog: How It Changes What They Do,” in which Bradshaw demonstrates that journalistic bloggers rely less on both official sources and public relations sources than they did previously, while depending more on bloggers as sources. This decentralizing of the newsgathering process could be a very good thing.

The deconstructionists, post-Marxists and others have helped us see that journalism has always been a constructed reality, a collection of skewed and biased perspectives. Blogging, thus, should be a natural fit with journalism. But still…

Does blogging lead to a Tower of Babel of voices, where everyone is talking and no one is listening? What should be the role, if any, of the grumpy old gatekeeper/agenda-setter journalists? How hopelessly passé are these models, or what is it from our journalistic heritage that we should strive to preserve and enhance?

I try to instill in my students such journalistic virtues as telling the truth, being accurate, fair, and unbiased; trying to do the ethical thing. Does blogging undermine these values or is it just another route on the quest for what is true, good, just, and beautiful?

Another Way of Looking Through the Green Eyeshade

The truth is, (at least, my truth is) blogging is kind of fun. You can write your own opinions, design your own headlines, include your own art, and edit everything to your own specifications. You can talk about your cat. You might even wrestle up a few devoted followers. Isn’t blogging, then, every writer’s dream? And furthermore, the writer isn’t even burdened with the stigma of self-publishing.

Yet, has blogging, itself, become passé as we move on to the even smaller messages in Tweets and share even more personal information through Facebook and other social networking sites? And who can say what will come next?

Should one new motto for our age be, “I blog, therefore I am?” Should another be “Iphone, therefore I am?” And should the even more mundane, “Love me, love my cat” be right up there with the others? If the personal is the political, then when a journalist writes about her cat in a public forum, she could be leading the vanguard of communication change.

Since the dawn of man and woman, our lives have always been based on, “I speak, therefore I am.” We construct our identities by communicating with others. Is legacy journalism simply a temporary aberration that unsuccessfully tried to remove the “I” from human communication? Is blogging simply a return to our naturally narcissistic, yet also social roots?

I’m just an old-fashioned journalist. I used to get paid just to ask the questions. I don’t have the answers. Blogging doesn’t come easily to me. So, pardon me, but it’s time to run. I think I hear Oreo trying to wrestle MeMe into submission.

Margo Wilson
California University of Pennsylvania

My Walk in Wonderland–Make Law a Tool

May 12, 2011

 Here’s a thought: What if Alice had had a lawyer.

The trip down the rabbit hole would have been, well, a whole other trip.

Note that I’m not a lawyer (nor—no offense—would I want to be, not even on television), but I have to know enough law, both the actual code and its frequent misapplication, to make sure my journalism students know how to use the law  and how not to be abused by it.

That’s not easy in places like some colleges and universities where the “first” in “first amendment” apparently means the order in which those in power should ignore the Bill of Rights.  To date, we’ve had members of the newspaper staff

  • ·         Kicked out of a public building for taking photographs
  • ·         Harassed by police for reporting on a story
  • ·         Denied material clearly covered by open record
  • ·         Given records with key information blacked out when nothing in Georgia’s open records law justified the omission
  • ·         Denied access to a meeting
  • ·         Threatened with several lawsuits


And that’s just been this year.

So what to do, what to do.  One strategy:  Use technology to put the law at the staff’s fingertips.

As advisers, make sure that every editor has (at minimum) the following links on his or her computer:


Add, if possible, links to the annotated code for your state and to your state press association.

Then start a staff database of legal challenges for each year and how the staff responded. Put it in the form of FAQ. (For example, the Student Government Association wants to close meeting. What do I do if I’m covering the meeting?)  Have your staffers download the file to their smart phones if possible.

Next, create an informational campaign that provides administrators and students groups at least the links to your state’s code for open records and open meetings.  (Hey, you have a newspaper and probably a web site to do this with.)

As adviser, write a short guide to open records/open meetings, get it vetted by your press association or equivalent authority, and distribute it campus wide. Get all major players (key administrators, chief of police, etc.) to sign off on a form that acknowledges that they have received it.  Better yet, if possible, have a non-school related authority provide this.  In Georgia, we have the great good fortune to have the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. This gives teeth to the reporters’ assertions that sources have been informed of the law and thus strengthens the argument that non-compliance is willful.  (Doesn’t hurt to include the fact that the source has been provided with the law in the story.)


In short, be informed.  Be polite. Be persistent. Teach your journalists to do the same.

Pat Miller

Valdosta State University







On grammar and style

April 22, 2011

Tell me if I’m alone here, in my possibly hopeless crusade. In my journalism classes, the biggest challenge is not to impart the basics of reporting, story structure or research. It is something that gnaws away at me, something I have long expected students to learn well before their college years: grammar.

Some students have learned it and some have not. And at college age, imparting the basics of grammar, along with AP style, to those who don’t know it is extremely challenging. Their bad habits are fully ingrained. For the student, it’s like learning a new language, since no one (except perhaps, the Queen of England, who is expected to uphold the language) actually speaks in perfectly grammatical sentences.

But what really gets to me is the social justice aspect of this problem. It’s a North American version of Bernard Shaw’s classic Pygmalion – a play that many have seen in its musical form, My Fair Lady. For those who have not had the pleasure, it’s the story of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl in London, England, and Henry Higgins, an arrogant professor of phonetics. Higgins bets a friend that, given a few months to train her to speak like the Queen, he can pass off the bawling flower girl as a duchess. This he does, though there are a few fashion items and mannerisms that get worked on, too.

As the song from My Fair Lady goes, “This verbal class distinction by now should be antique.” And increasingly, I have observed, it is.

However, in my two years as a Canadian teaching at a liberal arts college in the United States, I have observed a remarkably similar phenomenon. As a text-dominated society, Americans seem to focus their verbal class distinction more on the written than the spoken word, though the latter is certainly important. The upshot is this: Those who can write clearly and grammatically, with access to a full and well-articulated vocabulary, are virtually assured of doing well in university, as well as in life.

And those who cannot? Their prospects are dim, unless perchance they excel in science and math. Given their educational background, however, this is also unlikely. Because the common element in most of their life stories is poorly funded public schools. And I mean really poorly funded, and getting worse as I write this, with legislatures finalizing their 2011 budgets by hacking more money from public education.

In my university classroom I see the results every day: students who can’t match a plural noun with a corresponding verb form, and don’t have the faintest idea what you mean when you point that out. Who have never heard of a pronoun matching its antecedent. Who can’t spot a word like “theirselves” as wrong on a grammar test. And who have tremendous difficulty expressing themselves coherently. I don’t need to ask what kind of previous schooling these students have had. By their writing ye shall know them, to paraphrase Canadian writer Margaret Laurence’s iconic character, Christie Logan, in The Diviners.

The converse, I would expect, is also true: Those who articulately express their thoughts and dreams, marshaling fine vocabularies to do their bidding, almost always attended private schools – or those in affluent suburbs where public schools are virtually private, since no one of modest income can afford to live there.

This is, in my opinion, the American way – or perhaps just the Ohio way, since I have not really had a chance to observe other places – of keeping people in their place. I would really like to hear from people in other places about this issue.

The disparities in funding of public schools in Ohio, where I now live, are so great that they have thrice been ruled unconstitutional. Yet despite being ordered to fix this problem by their Supreme Court, Ohioans can’t seem to figure out how to deliver equal funding to their public schools. It’s such a thorny problem. It requires long division!

Let me say right here that I know many Ohioans, and Americans elsewhere too, who disagree with the way public schools are now funded and are actively working to change it. A coalition of churches in the greater Cleveland area has just voted to address this as their top issue in the coming year. It is not something people are ignoring. It’s just something they haven’t been able to solve.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue giving grammar texts to college students who should have learned all this stuff in elementary school, and who find it extremely difficult to undo bad grammar habits as this age. I just tell them the story of Eliza Dolittle. She did it. So can they.  And it will change their lives.

Carrie Buchanan, PhD

Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts

John Carroll University

My Walk in Wonderland: Theory Turned Practice

April 21, 2011

What we take for granted: television, telephones, e-mail, the Internet and time.  And that’s just from where I’m sitting at a particular time in a particular place on a rock spinning through space.

I’m watching a live baseball game from Baltimore as I’ve just e-mailed my sister in Pennsylvania while checking for missed calls from who knows where as I’m writing a blog that might exist (depending on your philosophical stance) for an electronic eternity.  And I’m actually behind the times.

I could be tweeting this (though that creates the conundrum of whether the act of tweeting becomes its own content). Or using my Web cam to Web cast my act of web casting. 

So conjugate this thought:  The medium is the message, is the messenger, is the mess.

No wonder we have such trouble in wonderland.

But just today wonderland—which, being wonderland has its own citizenry of wonderful people—paid off. Today, seven print journalists realized a little magic.  They learned how to render and save video so that it could be sent literally all over the world.  Two weeks ago they weren’t on a first-name basis with the software.  Four hours later, some of those students were involved in a breaking news story complete with a threat of lawsuits (just to add a bit of spice) about a local company that sells a likely-to-soon be illegal sex enhancement drug.  The editor managed to find the “company headquarters” using Google maps.  Turns out to be a house in Florida with a pickup truck out front.  Another found a diagram of the chemical structure.  A third was searching business licenses online to verify that the owners were who they said they were.

And all of this came two weeks after the staff broke a story on a professor charged with battery after purportedly shutting a laptop on a disruptive student’s fingers.  (Student claimed a broken finger.)  That story came with its own police harassment and threat of a lawsuit.  But that wasn’t the fun part.  The fun part—the object lesson—was that in less than a day the story had gone national online and climaxed a day or two later with  a mention (I’m told but haven’t had time—pardon the pun– to verify) in Time magazine.   It clearly hit a nerve as it sparked a debate about classroom discipline. (By the way, comments are running 3 to 1 in favor of the professor.)

The second object lesson—what I teach students from day one—is that journalism changes people’s lives. Two people—the professor and the student—will never be the same because they became a disembodied topic on the Internet saddled with the long tail of a story long after their 15 minutes of fame expired.

The upshot is that wonderland has been a busy place of late, teaching us to take a moment out of time to consider action and consequence. Real people acquired new tools to tell the news.  Real people got hurt because the news was told.

The final object lesson—that technology makes theory turned practice too powerful to take for granted—should be taught daily in the classroom and newsroom, even in wonderland.

 Especially in wonderland.

Pat Miller

Valdosta State University

What Would Bob Say?

March 11, 2011

Photo Credit: Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, founded the Progressive Party and ran for president on that ticket. He also served as a Congressman, senator and governor from Wisconsin.



Perhaps I should be writing about new journalism technology, the future of newspapers, what I did in my classroom last week or what I hope to do next. But I can’t. I’ve been planted in front of my computer screen for the last three weeks as I watch Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans in the Wisconsin State Legislature kill the state’s public employees’ union.

Not in Wisconsin! It’s political sacrilege in the home state of “Fighting Bob” La Follette, founder of the Progressive Movement, who fought to curb the influence of corporations over government. Not in Wisconsin, the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union. Not in Wisconsin, which has prided itself on open, honest, clean government.

As a March 10 editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel states:

Reason has taken a holiday in Wisconsin politics. Civility along with it.

In their place is a nastiness rarely seen in a state that long has
believed in good government as a guiding principle.

Republicans got what they wanted Thursday: a flawed and divisive bill that strips public employees of most of their ability to bargain collectively. Gov. Scott Walker’s party may now reap the whirlwind.

I grew up in Wisconsin and attended journalism school at the university that’s just eight blocks from the state capitol. As a student, I marched in candlelight processions from the university to the capitol to protest the Vietnam War. With my friends, I chanted, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” on the public square in front of the capitol and got mowed down by riot-gear-clad police wielding non-negotiable batons when we exercised our First Amendment rights.

To hear protesters inside the capitol recently yelling, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” when they were asked to leave the public building was like déjà vu – eerie and sad. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Yes, I was a desultory French student, among other things, at the university.

The assault on public employee unions in Wisconsin is part of a plan by the American Foundation for Prosperity to go after public employee unions in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to the New York Times. Charles and David Koch, billionaire oil tycoons and libertarians, founded the foundation and reportedly are pulling many of the strings of the Tea Party movement, report the New York Times and The New Yorker, among other publications.

I no longer live in Wisconsin so I won’t be bearing the immediate brunt of what’s happening there. I do live in Pennsylvania, however. Our newly elected Republican governor, Tom Corbett, has just released his budget for next year. Like most states, Pennsylvania has a budget deficit. Corbett is calling for many cuts, but the most severe are to K-12 schools and public universities. He is proposing the universities will receive 50 percent less in state money. How are you going to run a university on that much less money without slashing programs, hiking tuition, and firing staff and professors?

In a press release, Corbett calls upon “the best-educated people” to “face up to a hard economic reality.” As he states, “The system in which you have flourished is in trouble. We cannot save it by individual efforts. … The sacrifice must be collective…”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not much into group sacrifice. I’m especially not into sacrifice when the pain I bear is not equally shared. For instance, Corbett wants to hire 230 additional state troopers. He refuses to tax the drillers of our state’s Marcellus Shale layer, a mother lode of natural gas that energy companies just now are beginning to tap.

There are ways to raise revenue in Pennsylvania when increasing the taxes of the rich becomes an option. Gouging public workers and stripping them of their rights should not even be a choice.
The Milwaukee Journal tells how the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently compared protests in Madison to voting-rights protests in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

“In many ways, Selma was a defining moment for the right to vote,” Jackson said. “Madison is the defining moment for workers’ rights.”

Time will tell.

Margo Wilson
California University of Pennsylvania

History rapping, gently tapping…

February 16, 2011

All month, I’ve thought about what to blog (to write for a blog?) Then, perhaps as a result of the recent rather impassioned responses on the SPIG listserv to a call for that old chestnut history to take its turn on the heap, I’ve worried about the challenge to the centrality of history in a journalism-education process..

My thinking’s not always clear, often not even reasonable. Round and round: history/technology, technology/history/journalism. Repeat. Reverse. Repeat.

No matter how I approach these elements, I end up at the same point. Isn’t much of journalism history basically the story of how technology has changed the production and delivery of news?  And isn’t much of history about how technology has changed and how been harnessed to maintain a power structure, ANY power structure.)

So, if the developing tool angle is a useful point of view, why wouldn’t both techies and tree choppers find history—especially communication history—absorbing and fascinating?  For, in its simplest form, history is, quite simply, the story of how cultures and peoples have created, adapted and used technology.

To do our own adapting, then, writing a news story includes the same refocusing process. Take the 5 W’s (please, someone…) When my students first learn about writing a lede, I suggest that they think of those hackneyed stalwarts Who, What, When, Where, Why. In writing their lede, I suggest, pick the one that is primary. Is WHO said or did something what matters most? Or is the central concern WHEN? If the story concerns the time or a change of time, then don’t tell us WHO is giving the information. We need to be told about the change in WHEN.

Just as journalists routinely refocus the readers’ attention toward what is currently most important, so do historians–just not as quickly or as often. And I’m guessing that you don’t need to have much of a history to acknowledge that we’ve been here before.

If it’s not the internet and social media, it’s cold type and offset presses or matrices and type cases. These are not just news-delivery systems; these are developing technologies and once they were the new in communicating what was news. And as delivery systems change, so the importance of understanding the past becomes more critical, crucial even.

Julie Williams, one of my colleagues from the American Journalism Historians Association, recently reported that she’d been told that three prospective students said that the aspect of communication that they’d most like to study is history. Not the internet, not social media, not blogs.

Three cheers for those prospective students. And three cheers for us, too, because luckily history is something we can offer them. They already know as much (or more) than we about the interactivity of delivery systems called social media. What our new students need is guidance in applying political and cultural understandings to the study of these (and any) communication systems.

What they need is an understanding of the past so that the future is indeed the future and not an instant replay on newer technology. What they need, dare I say, is more history as well as more opportunities and challenges to apply that knowledge and understanding.

Ann Mauger Colbert
Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne

My Walk in Wonderland: ER

February 1, 2011

Ok, ok, ok, ok, ok, ok, ok.  Enough with the literary stuff.

What do we know—most ironically reported by the media about the media? Life support and last (w)rites are imminent.  Rush the patient to the ER.

The siren song of sirens as the gurney bursts through the doors to bright lights and cutting edge technology.  Why, it’s wonderland, the place to be, in any sort of e-mer-gency.

Too much? Thought so.

I’ve had to settle for a much smaller version of ER.  I call it Eroding Resistance.  A method I’ve had to adopt for the digital natives (print journalists) who inhabit my classes but who seem unable and/or unwilling to bridge the chasm between their everyday online lives on Facebook, Twitter, and the Web and the application of such to journalism.

Most of this resistance is to producing original multimedia, particularly sound and video. The analogy remains simple:  I know how to post a video, but I’m bamboozled by the thought of creating one.  (Yes, it’s the dreaded “student mode,” where intelligent people revert to blanked-out slate status. I bet you’ve seen it, too, where perfectly good writers and reporters can’t seem to identify the lead for the Second Coming.)

Thus, the intervention.  ER baby steps. (Or, in academic-ese, effective pedagogical strategies for knowledge transfer.  Gotta love it.) Build analogies that connect what they can do with what you want them to do. Mark Briggs does a fine job of doing just that in Journalism 2.0, the once-upon-a-time free monograph available as PDF download because funded by the Knight Foundation, that’s still available if you look really hard. Tired already? Ok, go here: Journalism 2.0.  Or, you can opt for the big brother edition (JournalismNEXT) published in 2009.

Briggs points out that editing video and sound relies pretty much on an operation as simple as cut and paste. That is, if you’ve used a computer at all, you have the basic technical skill for editing video and sound.  And if you’ve bought a computer recently, then the software to edit video is already installed or is available as a free download.  Same for audio.

So I give my digital natives the ultimate challenge: If someone as old and un-hip (would a hip replacement cure this?) as I am can do this …

They get the point and short audio and video clips from me to play with.  Then I usually bring in someone with lots and lots of experience editing audio and video to tell them exactly the same things I’ve just told them (meaning, wow, if only she had said this).  Thus, we build to the crescendo—so that I can deflate them by observing (thanks to a certain run of Microsoft commercials) that a 5-year-old can do what they just did.

But what the 5-year-old can’t do is understand the rhetorical application of sound and video to tell journalistically acceptable stories that are, at heart, text-based. And I remind that that when they tell those stories really, really well, they truly change people’s lives.

Cogitate on that, I say.

Maybe Wonderland ain’t so bad after all.

Pat Miller

Valdosta State University

Why do we continue to teach journalism?

January 25, 2011

The time elapsed since the last post on this blog is due to the start of the spring  semester, no doubt. As a relatively new professor, I find it overwhelming but fun to prepare new syllabi. Overwhelming because one’s plans for the entire semester must be in place at the first class – that’s a tall order! And fun because there’s a chance to try new things, repeat things that worked well last time and generally become a better teacher.

How to do that last thing is the challenge: In this period of flux and flummox in the journalism world one sometimes wonders, “Why am I teaching journalism at all?” Here is the answer I give to myself, my students and my friends in the business who think it’s not fair to encourage young people to pursue this dream. The dream is over, they insist. And I say it can’t be. That simply cannot be true.

It cannot be “over” to keep an eye on government, schools, businesses and the (in)justice system to ensure they are serving the public with integrity, grappling with the problems we face, and ensuring our future rights and prosperity. Surely people who know how to do this well – even, dare I say, professionally – are still needed?

It cannot be “over” to have the skills to translate government and scientific jargon into plain language that any semi-literate person can understand. Can it?

It cannot be “over” to engage in a discipline of verification that holds public officials accountable for what they say and do. Do we not need this now, more than ever?

It cannot be “over” to know how to capture a moment on film or video or in words, preserving it for posterity, explaining it for those present in this day and time – in short, writing “the first draft of history,” as someone famous once said. Oh wait, I know how to check that and find out! I have those skills. Surely they still matter. Don’t they?

That is what I teach, and what inspires my passion. We have a financial model that is no longer working, that used to pay people adequately to allow them to do this important work. But the loss of that financial model does not mean the work itself is not essential. It’s the Fourth Estate: Edmund Burke was quoted by Thomas Carlyle as having said that “there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” If you’re interested in running down the origin of that expression, I found a great write-up on Wikipedia that looks quite well sourced. It is possible that Burke did not originate this phrase!

By the way, the correct form of the quotation mentioned a paragraph earlier is “the first rough draft of history” and columnist Jack Shafer did a column on his search for the original utterer of the phrase. It is widely attributed to Phil Graham, a brilliant publisher of the Washington Post who died too young but was succeeded by his very capable widow, Katherine Graham. But no one is absolutely sure.

No one is sure, either, about the future of journalism. Clear writing, capturing the moment in all media, holding public leaders to account and verifying what people say: These are the essentials of journalism and these are what I teach. They are as important now as ever. We need people who know these things, who care about them and practice them. We’re just not sure if we can pay them for doing it.

I have faith that given the obvious need for it, we will find a way to make professional journalism possible once again. Like J.M. Barrie’s Tinker Bell, journalism requires that we continue to believe in it.

Carrie Buchanan, John Carroll University

Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts

My Walk in Wonderland: Alas, poor Yorick

January 9, 2011

Alas, poor Yorick, I must admit to a birth defect:  I was not born a digital native.

 I, too, like Yorick , am a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy, but my birth defect makes extrinsic what is intrinsic to the current generation of news consumers.  So what do my wit and imagination matter?

  Plenty, as it turns out, especially as a teacher.  Wit provides perspective and imagination possibility.  Both are more important than technology, per se, because technology simply serves as the tool for communicating fact and narrative. 

So what does this digital immigrant have to offer students with digital in their cognitive and social DNA?  How about an understanding of audience.  For example, I can assume that most people reading this blog—based both on age and level of education—know who Yorick is.  Some, I know, will understand the allusion (after all, in dog years I’m dead; in computer years, I’m ancient history). And some will ask why I’ve referred to a programming language used to create scientific simulations. (Yorick as a bit player? Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Allusion, after all, relies on a shared frame of reference.  Technology changes that.

But keep this in mind: Our digital natives will likely face a similar influx of technology after their DNA has set. (Granted, the brain is plastic, but it’s not silly putty—with perhaps the exception of the current crop of politicians and celebrities, but, again, I digress.) We must model how to handle that level of change.

Moreover, if (big if) someone clicks on the link to Yorick (technology in action), he or she (or they, depending on your politics of grammar*) will grimace when he/she/they find it links to Wikipedia. Wikipedia, for Pete’s sake, where anybody (with a capital anybody) can purport to be an authority. It’s not academically acceptable.  It’s not journalistically acceptable. Except collaborative knowledge is acceptable (not to mention democratically inclusive) to the contemporary news audience who acknowledges the value (but perhaps not the authority) of information as process rather than product.

 So what do digital immigrants have to offer the digital natives? An understanding of the changing rhetorical paradigm that explains (if not emphasizes) how audience engagement changes the communication process, and, in the process, every step in how we define and communicate “news.”

*Check out Grammar Girl’s take on this controversy.

A Very Short Teaching Experiment:


1.  Give your students 15 minutes to use whatever technology they have at hand in the classroom (computers, smart phones, iPads, etc.) to get the information that will allow them to answer this question: “Who is this Yorick dude in Shakespeare and why is he important?” Make sure they cite the sources of their information.

2.  List all major uncontested assertions on the blackboard (or its equivalent—say a discussion board in a classroom management system).

3.  Check those uncontested assertions against the entry in Wikipedia. Note discrepancies.

4.  As the professor, run the list of assertions by your local Shakespeare expert and note his or her comments. (Or perhaps you could offer this task as extra credit.)

5.  Report your findings to the class as the basis for a short discussion on the value and pitfalls of collaborative knowledge. Pay special attention to the factual part of the question (“who is Yorick”) versus the interpretive part of the question (“why is he important”).

Pat Miller

Valdosta State University