November 2, 2007

What I've Learned Teaching Citizen Journalists

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN – Three years ago, I started teaching basic journalism skills to citizens in community education classes in Minneapolis.

Since then I’ve taught about a hundred ordinary folks – school teachers, government workers, not-for-profit types, retired people, students and many others – the basics of journalistic story structure, ethics and practices.

I taught at the Resource Center of the Americas, a Latino cultural center in Minneapolis, until it closed last August, and now am teaching for the Minneapolis Public Schools Community Education department.

My students take the class for many reasons. Some want to do journalism on the Internet to cover a favorite issue such as health care, human rights, or immigration reform.

Some want to learn skills to use writing not-for-profit newsletters, corporate reports or press releases. And some are simply curious to discover how journalism works, because they’ve been consuming the news media for years without understanding it. 

New Views

The class meets once a week for three hours over six-weeks, writing and rewriting articles between classes, reading and commenting on each other’s work during class. I invite working mainstream reporters and editors to many classes, to describe to citizens their daily jobs, their attitudes towards their work, and to answer whatever questions the students have. 

The class has changed my view of my role as a journalist, of journalism’s role in a democracy, and of the promises and pitfalls of the many forms of citizen journalism that are a part of the news media today.

Here are the seven main lessons I’ve learned from my citizen-students, so far:

1.   Citizens are an untapped source of expertise and positive civic energy that journalists can help unlock. Every one of my citizen journalism students has had years of personal experience in some important civic issue. They are aching to share that knowledge but have been hampered by A) Their cynicism about journalists and journalism, B) A lack of reporting and writing skills, and C) An incipient sense, like a vague but possibly potent memory, of journalism’s role as a foundation stone of democracy. The best possible teachers of these skills and attitudes of democracy are journalists. But journalists and their employers need to rethink their purpose and role in society for that to happen. We need to start thinking about journalists taking weeks, months and even years away from their newsroom jobs, to go into classrooms and auditoriums and public meeting halls to teach and to remind citizens – and to remind themselves – about how to read and write journalism critically and intelligently, and about journalism’s critical role in a democracy. Projects involving journalists fanning out into society in teaching roles would  renew trust between journalists and citizens, and show the way towards new business models for journalism, too.

2.   There is no substitute for a strong, independent, institutional journalism. My students are experts in many fields – mental health, immigration, aging, urban planning, human rights, animal rights, sports, local culture, recycling, water and air pollution, organic food, the legal system on Indian reservations, alternative medicine, and the Minnesota electoral system, to name just a few. But even under the rosiest scenario -- with citizens becoming skilled online journalists in all of these areas -- the result would be a journalism of special interests, and not of inclusive public interest. Most importantly, such a journalism would not constitute the strong counterweight to government and corporate power that only an organized and healthy professional journalism can provide.

3. Citizens can help journalists reconnect to the wellsprings of their craft. It happened to me. Like many journalists these days, I’m a refugee from mainstream newsrooms, where I worked hard and happily for many years. Until, one day, the relationship just didn’t work any more. Something about too many assignments that served corporate and not civic interests. I haven’t made much money teaching citizen journalism, but I’ve found citizens who care about journalism like they care about clean air and water. It’s energizing.

4.   Journalists need to learn citizenship skills, as much as citizens need to learn journalism. Time and again, I have been shocked in my class to witness the gap that’s grown up between ordinary citizens and journalists. Even highly-educated citizens tend to be ignorant of the simplest facts about how journalism is created. Many students are surprised to learn, for example, that every word in a newspaper is not fact-checked before it’s published. On the other hand, journalists who visit my class, and I myself, sometimes display an apparently ingrained, patronizing aloofness to the students, especially when we’re called on our aloofness. We journalists tend to be super-sensitive when we’re the ones being asked questions. Ordinary citizens know that at least some doctors are relaxed, approachable people. But based on my experience these past three years, few citizens have learned that lesson about journalists.

5.   A good citizen journalism class, like a great newspaper, allows for all types of expression – artistic, poetic, literary, photographic, musical, comical and fun. Composed of words and images, photographs and videos, informative one moment and simply entertaining the next, journalism is an extravagantly mongrel mixture of socially-critical literature, photography, social science and graphic art. Only by fully embracing all of these modes and voices can journalism offer citizens the complete picture of society that it should. The same goes in the classroom. I don’t tell students what stories to write, and they repay me by singing their hearts out in every possible way. One of my favorite stories in class was by a Guatemalan immigrant who described buying bottles of “crema” – a fermented sweet-and-sour concoction that tastes wonderful on strawberries – whenever she needed to connect with home. (She brought actual crema and strawberries to class after we read her story and begged for a sample.) Another student wrote about a scrawny feline named Buffer, the pet cat in a home of human castaways, in a way that put the problem of homelessness in a tragicomic new light.

6.   Citizens create vital community consciousness through the discipline of writing journalistically. A magical thing happens in the class, every time. Over six weeks, students in the class write one story (or rewrite one) between classes, then share it with the entire class for feedback. This creates a bond of solidarity among the students. A sense of gratitude builds towards each person in class who shares their personal insights and experiences, often at some risk to personal pride. The insistence on telling the absolute truth that journalism requires, often forces students to reveal personal knowledge beyond what they had ever dared to publicly share. One of my students, a retired business consultant, wrote an article decribing his inner struggle at becoming a peace activist while his son was serving in the Army in Iraq. His story created a sense of solidarity in the room that was mystically strong. This is perhaps a microcosm of how journalism could ideally work in society, creating community day by day. “My view of journalism has changed,” one student emailed me after the course. “At its best, it serves like an amazing expansion of our personal experience, bringing truth into our consciousness.” Bingo.

7.   I’m the one who needs to change. I began as a journalist in the heyday of Woodward-and-Bernstein in newspapers, and of John McPhee in magazines. So I often get nostalgic for spacious, context-rich narratives when I read the new citizen journalism appearing on the Net. “Giant Puffball Found in Clifton,” read a recent headline from the hyperlocal website, Baristanet. Where is the “Why should I care?” paragraph in the story? Not to mention readers' calorie-free comments like one after the mushroom story: “Shrooms rule.” When I settle down, though, I realize the error of my conservative reactions. Change is welcome, adapting smartly is the challenge, and Baristanet itself is a fantastic model. For mixed among its whimsical squibs on cute witches and record-shattering dosas are items reporting on urban trends, crimes, public protests, and so on. Baristanet is doing just what journalism should do. It reports on its community with ethical attention, it has fun, and it follows in word and spirit democracy’s ultimate dictum: Citizens rule.

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