“The rules are changing as we go,” says Jason Martin
, associate professor and Journalism program director, talking about the study and practice of journalism today. “Job opportunities aren’t entirely predictable, so we try to prepare students for a lot of different possibilities by giving them skills that cut across all platforms.” And one platform of daily-increasing importance is social media. “We expect our graduates to use social media successfully no matter what their jobs in the field.”
Students are learning their lessons well.
In December 2015, Martin’s class, along with students from the Sustainable Urban Environment program, produced the Chicago COP21 Report, a real-time, value-added blog
about the Paris Climate Conference, which ended up attracting thousands of readers from all over the world. The following spring, the Chicago Headline Club, a society of professional journalists, named the site a finalist for a Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism in the “digital startup” category.
“To produce the blog, the students worked around-the-clock for two weeks,” Martin recalls. “I thought they’d learn by doing, and that would be good enough. But they far exceeded my expectations. The site ended up reaching thousands, and the assignment turned into a good lesson about connecting with people who are really interested in a topic.”
“We were doing actual, important reporting—this was way more than a class,” says Evelyn Baker (BA '16, MA '18). “We pursued real stories, and it was so cool to be ‘in’ on the science and the politics of the conference. As students, we already knew social media as a pastime; as journalists, we learned to use it as a tool for telling important stories. The experience was extraordinary.”
At the center of the students’ work was the social media lab, which licenses professional-grade social media monitoring software. “We could look at traffic on social media—a firehose of data, really—to see who was interested in environmental issues and what they wanted to read about,” says Martin. “The students were able to focus their efforts, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see how their target audiences wanted to be engaged with the material. Overall, the technology let them be more strategic in their choices of what to cover, how and when and why.”
Kirsten Onsgard (MA '16) appreciated how the insights made possible by the technology sharpened the students’ perspective: “The project reinforced my belief that social media is a very powerful way to understand what people care about. Our site was successful because our content was new, immediate, and not available anywhere else. We were doing real investigative work, and the recognition from the Chicago Headline Club put us on par with the professionals.”
While social media pushes the students into 21st century reporting, it also makes obvious the importance of the founding principles of journalism.
“The ethical lessons kicked in right away: Are we getting everything right?” says Martin. “Social media is such an open, fast-moving platform that it’s challenging reporters with the basics, such as verification of sources—Where did data or a photo come from? Can their origin be confirmed? Is a source credible? A healthy skepticism is still important, maybe more than ever. Today, there’s a rush by everyone to be first; that can make for problems. But social media is great for on-the-ground information sharing. And it’s here to stay.”