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Home > Publications > Quill > Initiative puts students on investigative front lines


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Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Initiative puts students on investigative front lines

By George Daniels

Last fall, Nicole Duarte, Meredith Mazzotta and Carlos Roig chucked their jobs and began formal training for a second career by enrolling in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

They eventually joined 41 other students at four other universities in a program that is part of a national initiative to revitalize journalism education.

The program, called the “News 21 Incubator,” is designed to help students develop innovative media projects. This summer, News 21 joined the ABC News Summer Institute, a 10-week paid internship program that started in 2005.

The two student programs are part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism, which the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation launched in May 2005.

University of California-Berkeley, Columbia University, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Northwestern University and the University of Southern California joined the Initiative “to better teach, challenge, and prepare the next generation of new industry leaders.”

Inaugural News 21 Incubator

After taking a crash course at their respective campuses last spring on topics such as civil liberties, the military, privacy and national security, the News 21 students convened for a strategy session. They laid the groundwork for an unprecedented national student reporting project that will end in news outlets across the country and online.

“Our goal was to bring the fellows together to discuss their projects, exchange ideas and get a sense that they’re part of a larger whole,” said Merrill Brown, national editorial director for News 21. “They now understand the context of their work, and as a result, I’d say it was a successful weekend.”

Under the broader topic of “Liberty and Security,” each of the four investigative reporting teams includes four News 21 fellows and a fellow from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. USC’s team is focusing on local news, Berkeley’s fellows are developing long-form national news stories, and Columbia’s fellows are focusing on online journalism.

Even though the Medill students are working primarily on print journalism, the students know their products will not only be distributed to print news outlets, but will be published along with the other pieces of their investigative reporting on the Web site newsinitiative.org.

“There are these stories that are not being told or are not being told very well,” said Duarte, a new media student in the Medill program who has a background in environmental policy from Wellesley College.

Even in the opening weeks of the News 21 project, the 25-year-old New Jersey native said she could see that the program would be very different from what she had been learning in classes.

Before beginning her graduate studies, Duarte worked as a paralegal.

Many of the students in the News 21 program are adding a whole new dimension to their media experience while developing their portfolios for a second career in journalism.

“One of the biggest pushes of News 21 is to learn new ways to tell stories,” said Mazzotta, a 27-year-old broadcast major. Mazzotta decided to return to school to become a political reporter after lobbying on Capitol Hill on behalf of an HIV nonprofit organization.

Mazzotta sees her investigative reporting assignment as “a watchdog project.”

“We get to try to get information that the government doesn’t want us to have,” Mazzotta said. “Somebody’s got to keep an eye on what they’re doing.”

While Mazzotta is building on her experience on the Hill, her colleague Carlos Roig is making his way toward a third career after working seven years as a classroom teacher and school administrator in California.

Following a short stint as an associate producer researching for public affairs programs at a National Public Radio affiliate in San Diego, the 33-year-old California native now hopes to land a job at a medium to large newspaper and aspires to be an editor one day.

“I come with a few years under my belt, but I can apply what I’ve learned,” said Roig, who has an undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of California-Berkeley and a master’s degree in Hispanic literature from New York University.

This group of qualified individuals represents one key focus of the Carnegie-Knight initiative — to help reporters build specialized expertise that enhances coverage of complex beats.

ABC News Summer Institute

Like the News 21 experience, the ABC News Summer Institute aims to put students in key roles on investigative reporting teams for ABC programs such as Nightline and World News Tonight.

Instead of getting coffee or answering phones, the five students, known as Carnegie Fellows, do research, develop stories and produce reports while getting training in ABC News ethics and procedures.

Now in its second year, the 10-week Summer Institute was the lead-off program for the Carnegie-Knight Initiative. The students who participated in the 2005 summer program worked on a four-month investigation titled “Loose Nukes.”

As part of the project, the students traveled the country testing security at 25 universities housing nuclear reactors and recorded their findings with tourist cameras.

“I really consider this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity getting to do real reporting work that will actually be put on the air,” said Dana Hughes, one of the 2005 Carnegie Fellows.

While Hughes and the nine other 2005 fellows came from the five institutions in the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, the 2006 class includes students from five other universities, four of which have received grants to enrich their curricular offerings.

Different Way of Teaching Journalism

“A university challenge combined with a high-level professional experience will put these students at the forefront of journalism for a new century,” said Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation and architect of the initiative.

In addition to convening the deans of the five universities for the Carnegie-Knight Task Force, Gregorian issued a challenge to the universities’ presidents to recognize the contribution that the journalism school can make to the overall university.

Invited by the Carnegie Corporation to submit curriculum proposals, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, the University of Maryland-College Park’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication, and the University of Texas School of Journalism all received curriculum grants. As a result, these four schools will offer new or expanded courses that foster integration between their journalism programs and other departments at the university.

Faculty at the world’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri identified a gap in their students’ programs of study, which were two-thirds in the liberal arts, leaving little time for experiences in the fine arts.

As one of four schools receiving up to $250,000 from the Carnegie-Initiative for curriculum enrichment, Missouri sought funding for collaborative courses with the MU College of Arts and Sciences. The result is six courses in theater, art and music that will each enroll up to 25 students this fall and next spring semester.

Creating depth of experience and understanding likely will result from new courses that start this fall at the University of Texas-Austin’s School of Journalism. Along with courses on covering the U.S.-Latino Community and Covering Technology and Innovation, the UT students are enrolling in a course titled “Journalism, Society and the Citizen Journalist,” which will be open to liberal arts students as well.

Joining Mizzou and UT-Austin in enriching their curricula, the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism named the investigative editor of the Los Angeles Times’ Washington Bureau and Pulitzer Prize-winner Deborah Nelson to lead its Carnegie University Seminar.

“Each semester, three of Maryland’s most distinguished faculty will teach miniseminars for our students in such disparate fields as philosophy, history, politics, society and science,” said Tom Kunkel, dean of the UM-College Park program.

While taking the Carnegie University Seminar, the graduate and top undergraduate students at the Merrill School will enroll in a one-credit practicum that requires them to write a “substantive piece of journalism” to be published.

The University of Maryland also plans to use part of its grant to pay tuition for graduate students who take extra courses that help develop critical thinking skills.

A key requirement of the curriculum enrichment grants is for journalism students to study directly with the best minds in a particular field. In that vein, Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communication turned to its Religion Department and Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs to develop two new minors for its journalism students.

Gustav Niebuhr, one of the nation’s leading writers on religion, will develop a minor in religion while Mark Obbie, the former editor of American Lawyer, is assembling courses for a minor on the courts and justice system.

“We have some outstanding talent to draw on,” said David Rubin, dean of the Newhouse School.

The Carnegie-Knight Initiative also hopes to draw on the experience and expertise of researchers producing scholarship that will ultimately give journalists tools “to do their jobs better.”

Researching New Ways of Teaching

The research component of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative is spearheaded by Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, which issued a call for research proposals in late 2005.

One researcher is developing a model of journalism education more connected to the liberal arts and more open to experimentation.

“My research will mainly involve talking to people who seem to be doing innovative work in the field elsewhere and collecting ideas and materials,” said Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University.

While the Carnegie-Knight Task Force continues to review applications for small research grants of up to $10,000, at least one expert on journalism education has questioned the degree of background research completed prior to the launch of the overall initiative.

Tom Dickson, a former co-chairman of the Curriculum Task Force of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the nation’s largest group of college journalism educators, applauded the noble undertaking but cited recent efforts by his group and the Committee for Concerned Journalism as very similar to this initiative.

“We should be building on what has been done before rather than starting from scratch, which is what this initiative seems to have done,” he said.


George L. Daniels is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

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