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Featured ACE Course: A Journey in Journalism

July 1, 2013 at 11:54 pm
By Guthrie Cunningham
Among this spring’s ACE courses was “A Journey in Journalism”, a new course taught by New York Times journalist and visiting Carleton professor Doug McGill. Through the course students delved into locally relevant stories through a range of journalistic mediums from audio journals, videos, blogs and websites. Some students chose to research underreported local news such as the Dan Patch Rail moratorium, or how the new peace in Somalia is affecting Somali Minnesotans. One student chose to undertake a personal experiment on her own lifestyle and chronicle via blog her attempt to live without using food packaging of any kind for ten days. Another group gave voice to local Mexican immigrants who had fled the drug war in Mexico. “One of the most exciting things about journalism today is the explosion of storytelling techniques that the Internet has opened up,” says Professor McGill. “Even a decade ago, journalism was mostly text (newspapers and magazines) and still photography. Today there are innumerable new ways to tell stories, and the people who are exploring these ways, very much including students, are pioneers exploring the limits and possibilities of a brand new journalism. These new storytelling techniques include podcasts, webcasts, web video, interactive media, infographics, interactive text, blogging, twittering, and various combinations of these and other media, and on and on. Short video documentaries such as the one released a few days ago—an interview with the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden—can have an immediate and huge impact on societies globally. Persuasive essays can go viral, moving public opinion on matters of government policy. Ordinary citizens with cell phones become insta-journalists on the scenes of extreme weather, terrorist attacks and other news events.” At Carleton, the importance of new media is already being embraced on several fronts, aside from the directly journalistic. These range from the design and efficiency overhaul of large campus web pages, the influx of student organization Facebook pages, and the new digital humanities work study positions at the Pearlman Center for Learning and Teaching. Matt Jorizzo, a sophomore biology/music double major, valued the course both for the applicability of the techniques employed, and the depth his group was able to reach within their topic. “Carleton doesn’t offer a lot of other journalistic opportunities, but in the class I felt like I was able to do more than just coursework and was able to do something backed by the broader world outside of Carleton. It was like taking a workshop class from a journalist. At the end I thought I had a better idea of the journalistic process, gathering information, and setting up interviews. I feel like I also learned how to write effectively in a specifically journalistic context.” Matt and his group collected a series of stories about Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. to avoid the drug war. Through eleven interviews, they chronicled the lesser known stories of those who came to the U.S. not to find employment, but to escape violence. “The coolest part of the whole thing was meeting the people. Our story was kind of tricky to report on since we couldn’t use names, and just by the nature of the topic it was a bit more challenging to get people to talk about it. It wasn’t as hard to find the people as it was getting the people to trust us enough to tell their stories.” Certainly, a distinctive component of the class is the relevance of the research and the usefulness of the students’ work in a broader social context. Professor McGill makes clear the importance of journalistic integrity in the contemporary news-media landscape: “In my class, on the first day, before I say a single word, I write these words on the whiteboard: ‘Accurate, fair, truthful storytelling in the public interest.’ This is the best definition of journalism to me, and I encourage students in my class to use any medium they wish, and to tell any story they wish, as long as it meets this simple-but-not-always-easy criteria. Accuracy, fairness and truthfulness are aspirations and values that journalism shares with science, scholarship and the liberal arts. That's why I think journalism fits perfectly on any liberal arts campus, especially one that is highly socially engaged, like Carleton. Some of my most gratifying moments as a teacher come when I see that students have learned, through direct personal experience, how powerfully they can serve society and serve others. That's a moment of really growing up -- of emancipation and graduation rolled into one!”