Fresh scoop: new-style public journalism takes reporting to a new level of activism - Higher Education

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Fresh scoop: new-style public journalism takes reporting to a new level of activism

by Gwendolyn Glenn

When Dr. Louise Reid Ritchie worked as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, she also coordinated a community service project at the newspaper called the Gift of Reading, which was responsible for collecting and distributing more than 500,000 books to underprivileged children in Detroit. Ritchie said she “tutored kids and wrote articles soliciting books and supplies for area schools from readers.”

 

Ritchie is now spearheading a similar type of project as an associate professor of journalism and advisor of the student newspaper at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, FL. With a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust, the school’s biweekly student newspaper, The Famuan, devotes a “FAMU First” page to covering social and political issues both on campus and in the surrounding community.

 

“It was well designed with a Kente cloth-type border to give it its own identity. It stood out and students noticed it,” Ritchie said. Student-written stories have ranged from examinations of the homeless and battered women to the NAACP and local elections. These articles also pointedly featured problem-solving recommendations to alleviate some of the conditions that were reported.

 

Getting Involved

 

Through articles on the FAMU First page, Ritchie said students were encouraged to vote and volunteer for community service work. “Every week we featured a student, faculty member or administrator who was doing off-campus volunteer work and gave information on how to get involved,” Ritchie said.

 

This style of reporting that FAMU’s journalism students, are learning is called ‘Public Journalism’ — a movement that is sweeping the news industry. Not only are newspapers experimenting with public journalism, but they are working with colleges to develop public journalism projects.

 

Although it is still evolving, most industry experts would agree that the difference between traditional reporting and public journalism is emotion — the reporter does not aim for detachment or objectivity. The reporter, in effect, takes responsibility for the immunity where he or she works, plays a role in finding solutions to community problems and determines, through discussion forums and surveys, what readers want to read.

 

Although public journalism is constantly being redefined and the results at many newspapers are mixed, Ritchie said, “It’s important for students to know about this. The Black press has been doing this [type of reporting] for a long time, and has traditionally been a force in bringing people together to solve problems.”

 

She admits the project was a challenge for most students, because at this stage they are “still trying to figure out what a news story is, who they should talk to, how the story should be written — and now we come along with this new thing.”

 

Student Reactions

 

Washington Post intern Peter McKay, a FAMU senior, agrees. “The fact that students are still learning [the craft of journalism] was a concern, but then again, everybody is learning this [public journalism]. It might be a good idea to teach it in advanced courses …. Most of us [who worked on the project] had interned on major papers and had writing experience.”

 

Said McKay: “My biggest concern was not to do something just because its trendy and a buzzword.” To reach his goal of eventually becoming an editorial writer for a major newspaper, McKay would like to get more experience writing straight, unbiased stories. “You need that foundation,” he said.

 

Katrina Miles, who is interning at the Boston Globe this summer, was the executive news editor of FAMU First. She liked the idea of being able to do nontraditional reporting because, she said, “I see the paper as a campus leader and facilitator to effect change.”

 

Some student reporters at The Famuan did not like the idea of news stories that take a position on an issue. “We shouldn’t just report these issues as something that happened… but come up with solutions,” Miles said. “Some students said this is not the role of the paper.”

 

The standard of objective reporting was applied to stories that were not on the editorial or FAMU First pages, said Ritchie. She cited an example of a student reporter being pulled off of a demonstration she was covering because “she linked arms with the protest group while covering the story. It was difficult for her to understand why we wouldn’t let her write the story.”

 

New Fall Project

 

At Washington DC’s Howard University, Associate Professor Anne Nunamaker is not concerned about the criticism surrounding the public journalism movement. “I see the importance of connecting with readers and sources in order to form a stronger constituency of readers. We have waited far too long to wait for readers to respond to objective journalism.”

 

Howard students will get their first dose of public journalism this fall when they become a part of a seven-college public journalism project pairing schools with newspapers to work together on community issues. Howard is the only historically Black college or university invited to participate. With the assistance of the participating institutions, the newspapers will attempt to improve relations with readers — especially those dissatisfied with the types of stories the papers cover and the way the stories are written.

 

Howard’s partner is the Free Lance-Star, a small newspaper in Fredericksburg, VA. According to the managing editor, Ed Jones, Howard journalism students will work with the paper to help improve how it covers its city’s Civil War past — often a source of discomfort to its African-American readers. “This is the Civil War battlefield capital and [how we cover] it comes up all the time….We’re trying to do a better job on sensitive issues like this, and explain others’ views on these issues,” Jones said.

 

Meanwhile, Nunamaker is sending students who write for Howard’s Community News out into surrounding neighborhoods to expose them to a wider range of issues. “We will refine things we did before, and give more information on how to connect with the reading public… educators must communicate more on this [public journalism] to students,” she said.

 

Credibility Factor Raised

 

Robert Asher, a veteran Howard adjunct instructor, encourages journalism schools to expose students to public journalism but, he said, “I don’t like it … its a crazy way to go about trying to figure out what’s good and bad news. What papers do in a community is tricky. It can be good, but … my tendency is to say `back off and stay neutral.'” Asher, who has worked for The Washington Post for 37 years — 26 of them as an editorial page writer, prefers leaving nonobjective reporting to the editorial page.

 

“I’m a purist … journalists should get off the stage and watch, and not be actors. You can’t work long taking sides, because sources who disagree with you won’t talk to you. And you don’t want to be labeled.” Asher is not alone in his reservations about public journalism. Many critics say a newspaper’s credibility would suffer from public journalism.

 

Some also question whether newspapers are getting involved in public journalism out of a desire to help communities or simply to boost circulation numbers — which have been in general decline since 1950.

 

 Hot Topic

 

Most journalism programs, including those at HBCUs, have not made any major changes to incorporate public journalism into the curriculum. But the issue is being discussed. Dr. Reginald Owens, a professor at Grambling and advisor to the student newspaper, said, “I talk about it in my classes in terms of this is going on, this is what it is … and you should know about it …. It’s a subtopic.”

 

At Clark Atlanta University, Assistant Professor Sabbaye McGriff, who teaches newswriting courses, said that her colleagues “don’t have any focus on public journalism — but it has validity as a forceful trend in the industry that students need exposure to.”

 

McGriff is an American Press Institute Fellow this summer, and has attended panel discussions conducted by API where public journalism was a frequent topic. She said, “After API, I saw that we’re [Clark Atlanta] not ahead of the wave on this, but are way behind. If nothing else, I will try to orchestrate a series on issues and trends with public journalism as one of them.” FAMU’s Ritchie said because the Pew Charitable Trust funding was for one year only, next year The Famuan will place their public journalism reports throughout the paper rather than a separate page.

 

Ritchie, while pointing out that FAMU is the HBCU with the oldest accredited journalism program, advises other institutions considering similar projects to be aware that setting up such a program can be time consuming. She said a lot of effort was expended helping students to think through their stories. Also, like most college newspapers, the turnover rate was high. Finding replacements was yet another distraction.

 

A major obstacle encountered in the early stages, said Ritchie, was finding a student willing to be the public journalism editor of FAMU First. She said that even though the position came with a salary, “It was hard to get a public journalism editor because it was a lot of work and the students didn’t know exactly what it was.”

 

And even after working for a year as The Famuan’s public journalism editor, Katrina Miles is still not sure what the goals are. She said this was a major source of frustration. “At once, we were all frustrated because no one had straight answers … It’s so new and we kind of know what the goals are but we’re not sure,” Miles said.

 

As part of FAMU’s project, students worked with the city’s local newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, which had its own public journalism team of reporters. The students wrote stories in FAMU First about what the Democrat was doing with its public journalism project, and informed readers when the city’s main newspaper was holding community forums on race relations and other social issues. Miles said staff members from both papers also got together for roundtable discussions on each paper’s public journalism efforts, “But they had no more answers than we did … we were wondering, are we doing something good or wasting our time?”

Miles said they were looking for results. They wanted to know, for instance, if the stories they did on student parking problems on campus would result in positive changes. But being realistic, she realized that the results of their efforts on the parking issue and other stories may take years to determine.

 

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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