Sunday, December 5, 2004

Journalism programs of the new millennium, including the one at the University of Maryland at College Park, are increasingly incorporating the Internet in their curricula.

Melissa McGrath, a senior at UMCP, uses the Internet to do some of the initial work for her classroom assignments.

Miss McGrath, 21, conducts her primary research and identifies potential sources online before making her first phone call. In some of her classes, she is learning which Web sites are useful and credible and how reporting and writing articles is different for print versus online publications.

“I don’t think the Internet replaces good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, but it has become a facet of journalism and a facet of reporting,” says Miss McGrath, who is double-majoring in journalism and government and politics and has a goal of becoming a political reporter.

As such, journalism programs include Web research and writing for the Web in their teaching of journalism skills.

“A lot of courses do incorporate some elements of new media in them,” says Thomas Kunkel, journalism professor and dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “We try to introduce this to our students because this is an age of convergence.”

Convergence is the bringing together of media formats to report the news, such as a daily newspaper with a Web site that publishes updates and breaking-news items before the next day’s issue is delivered.

The University of Maryland’s new-media courses teach students basic skills of formatting stories for the Web and uploading stories, photographs and other material onto Web sites.

The courses focus on teaching students how to report in a multimedia format. The students learn how to use different media’s tools, such as tape recorders, cameras and video recorders, to gather information and how to write and report what they gather for the Web, print, audio or television.

“What we’re teaching students is how to use different media and to report their stories in multiple dimensions,” says Mr. Kunkel, a newspaper and magazine journalist with 25 years of experience.

Students need to know how to work in print, broadcast and online formats before they enter the work force, says Steve Klein, journalism professor and coordinator of the electronic journalism program in the communication department at George Mason University.

“You need to have a variety of skills to work successfully now,” Mr. Kunkel says, “because newspapers aren’t about the paper. They’re about the news and how you deliver that news.”

Howard University’s journalism program does not offer a specific online course but does provide instruction on using the Internet for news gathering, says Phillip Dixon, chairman of Howard University’s department of journalism. He has 28 years of experience in print journalism.

Students learn how to use the Internet, as professional journalists do, to conduct background research, find information and sources, prepare for interviews, and verify what they find, he says.

“They learn how to test reliability. Who put this here, and when did they put this here? Can I reach them?” Mr. Dixon says.

Rick Rockwell, associate professor of journalism at American University, teaches students how to identify whether the sources they find on the Web and elsewhere are primary or secondary sources.

A primary source can be a person with firsthand knowledge of a fact, or a document or survey. A secondary source has information two or three generations removed from the primary source or that is an interpretation of the original material, he says.

“Much of it is good. Much of it is credible,” says Mr. Rockwell, a broadcast and freelance journalist with 25 years of experience, “but there is material lurking there that is rumor or from an ideological point of view.”

In addition to learning how to use the Web, area students are learning the fundamentals of journalism from both a practical and a theoretical approach.

Practical skills for print journalism students, for example, include knowing how to write different types of stories, conduct interviews, use multiple sources and work a beat.

The students are given assignments that require them to interview real people and to conduct primary research by attending events, interviewing sources, and reading documents and studies. This type of research is encouraged in some of the advanced reporting classes at metropolitan-area colleges.

“In journalism, we think it’s something you learn best by doing,” Mr. Dixon says. “That’s not to say we don’t believe in teaching the theory.”

Miss McGrath says her professors act like editors rather than teachers.

“They expect us to meet strict deadlines and to treat in- and out-of-class assignments as if they will be published,” she says. “They’re expecting you to fully report every angle of the story, to make the phone calls and to talk to as many people as possible.”

Brian Costa, a 21-year-old senior at George Washington University, wants to get experience in addition to learning the academics, as his professors advise, he says.

“Just by going out and covering things and being expected to act professionally and do a quality job of it, that forces you to learn,” says Mr. Costa, a history major and editor in chief of GW’s independent student newspaper, the GW Hatchet.

“You’re learning by doing. You certainly make mistakes along the way and do things that make you realize how much of a student you are,” he says.

In addition to learning basic journalism skills, journalism students are learning how to analyze the field by taking classes on topics such as media criticism, the sociology of media, the history of journalism and multicultural media. A class at American University, for example, analyzes the news, how it is put together and the impact it has on society.

“I want the students to be thinking. I don’t want them to completely be accepting of how things are done now,” Mr. Rockwell says. “Our program adds the ideas component. Students think about why they are doing what they are doing [and] question standard practices.”

Students also are taught to think about the practical side of the field.

Mark Feldstein says the journalism program at GW aims to teach students to analyze information and synthesize it, to get to the heart of the matter, and to be able to write it up in a way that is clear for the reader.

“We try to give them the basic tools to be good journalists and good citizens, both in terms of a broad education and also the more practical skill courses to get a job,” says Mr. Feldstein, associate journalism professor and director of the journalism program at GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

A journalist with 20 years of experience, he holds a doctorate in journalism and mass communication.

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