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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Education Toolbox

News engagement starts in the classroom

By Rebecca Tallent

Research show the people known as the millennial generation usually do not read news in print. Newspapers fall far, far behind social media, Comedy Central and other sources.

The most recent Pew Research Center biennial news consumption survey shows that even with news available 24/7 through a variety of outlets, 29 percent of the millennial generation are “newsless”

As journalism faculty, it’s frustrating in a reporting class to ask students what news they are reading and the answer comes back: “The news apps on my phones. I read the breaking news lines.”

Making matters worse, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago shows public trust in journalism continuing to decline, in part because people do not understand what journalists do. While most journalists tend to ignore these types of polls, they should pay attention. As Neiman Reports wrote in 2005, “Lose the trust of your viewers and readers, and you might soon be losing them, if you haven’t already. Even if news outlets maintain their audience, out of habit or inertia, their impact and effectiveness will be lessened.”

That’s why National News Engagement Day on Oct. 7 was such a vital day. Sponsored by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, National News Engagement Day encouraged colleges and universities around the country to find ways to get students engaged in news consumption. Some of the programs included:

• At Ithaca College in New York, students and faculty of the Roy H. Clark School of Communication held a panel discussion on local media and the importance of audience engagement, held an open house of student media and a showing of the film “Silenced.”

• The University of Oregon had a “word bucket” where people wrote a one-word pitch for a non-profit organization.

• The Alabama Scholastic Press Association held a social media blast for all their high school members to participate in the day by sharing their events with others.

• The University of Idaho’s School of Journalism and Mass Media, where I teach, adopted a carnival theme by handing out newspapers and news organization swag, plus managed a news contest that awards the winner a new computer tablet loaded with news apps. Student volunteers also answered questions about news.

• The University of Alabama held multiple events, including making people reporters for a day by shadowing journalists and encouraging students to “get caught reading.”

• At the University of Texas, people were encouraged to ask their newsroom anything.

The list of events is long. More than 41 states, the District of Columbia and six countries outside the U.S. participated. The other countries included Egypt, Canada, France, Spain, Australia and the Netherlands. The cause spread across social media and traditional media alike. The question that remains: Did it work?

It will take time to find out the answer, but it is a great start. AEJMC President Paula Poindexter said the day was one of awareness. “Through National News Engagement Day, everyone can be a part of making engaging with news a national priority again,” she said.

Just the idea of everyday people shadowing a reporter or being able to ask a news organization anything is pretty eye-opening to most citizens. Getting members of the millennial generation to even think about news beyond the USA Today app for breaking news is a positive first step. Now, what is the next step?

There are two positive next steps SPJ members can take:

1. Encourage more news literacy both on the university level and in secondary education. This means helping people learn how to read and use the news. It is also educating them on how being a better news consumer means being a better citizen.

2. Professional journalists reaching out to educational groups — both secondary and post-secondary — to help them understand what is happening in the business, encouraging teachers to learn more about the needs for the modern reporters so college students can hit the ground running after graduation and high school teachers can encourage their students to study journalism in college.

There is no panacea. It means a commitment, not just by AEJMC, but by SPJ members at all levels to help people be more news literate and better news consumers. If SPJ starts early enough with secondary education, it can also mean stronger recruiting into a profession that is far from dead. Rather, journalism is still very much alive and vital to democracy.

Rebecca J. “Becky” Tallent is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho. She is a member of SPJ and the Native American Journalists Association and is adviser to both student groups on campus. Contact her at rtallent@uidaho.edu.

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