When the coronavirus situation began and universities moved to replace all face to face teaching with some kind of online equivalent, it felt at first as if the journalism courses were at a particular disadvantage.
Our journalism Masters students were just about to embark on a practical project in which they worked in groups of five to produce a piece of work involving video, audio and other forms of multimedia. They’d been allocated their groups and chosen from a selection of broad subjects (e.g., health, crime, community, etc) their journalism would cover.
And then the campus closed its doors.
All courses faced logistical problems. But for journalism students, the obvious one was that while ‘real’ reporters (for want of a better expression) were allowed to continue working under strict conditions, student journalists were not. The only journalism they could create had to be gathered strictly from their own room.
Because campus was closed, many students went home, not only to disparate places around the UK, but to Europe, the US and primarily China. Like most institutions, within days we switched to online lectures and group chats via Microsoft Teams. The practical workshops, where tutors could figuratively hold the students’ hands, were no longer possible, but we were able to talk through problems one-to-one online.
The newsgathering issue, however, loomed over us. Students expressed anxiety about their ability to create anything meaningful without the ability to go outside or record face to face interviews. They already face barriers from organisations, ranging from police and council press offices to charities and individuals, who take the short-sighted attitude that talking to student journalists is a waste of time, and they feared people under pressure would be even less likely to respond to their requests.
We did not want their ambition for their work would be diminished, so in spite of student requests, we did not change the overall learning aims of the module. They would still have to find a way to work as a group and their output would still have to be multimedia. Of course, the way they traditionally bonded as a group, in the classroom, was no longer available. They were resourceful in communicating with each other via WhatsApp, Weibo, Teams and other platforms and between them managed to overcome the eight-hour time difference between the students in the UK and those in China.
As some students had returned to China, they carried out some interviews in their native language and created English subtitles for their lecturers.
We knew the digital format would allow for powerful journalistic storytelling if the students applied themselves to it, by combining text, images, videos, infographics and data visualizations into a unified whole. They’d spent the previous few weeks of the semester learning how to create interactive websites, so this skill was a useful one; we concentrated our production teaching on how to produce video and audio with limited resources, such as shooting on mobiles or fixing sound and light issues on Zoom or Skype interviews. We learned these skills alongside journalists in local and network news outlets and encouraged the students to observe how mainstream broadcasters framed their online interviewees, or enlisted the help of interviewees in gathering shots on their behalf.
But could the students produce worthwhile journalism? Reassuringly, the results evidence the usual range of student work, although some students really rose to the challenge. A standout piece was by a student who interviewed her peers and local businesses about the increased incidents of racism against the Chinese community since the pandemic began. Another was a podcast-style extended interview with campaigners against homelessness, including a former rough sleeper. There was a surprising strand of optimism throughout much of the work and even in these conditions, students raised money for a food bank whose workers granted them an interview, which went over and above their remit for assessment.
As HEIs prepare for the autumn semester, we have produced multimodal teaching materials in the shape of interactive Sway documents that accompany the more traditional recorded former teaching activities, providing several hours of learning in one accessible place.
Queries from potential applicants show that one of the biggest anxieties is whether students will be taught the necessary practical skills face-to-face. At the time of writing Newcastle is working on the basis that we will use ‘present in person’ sessions for those practical skills, to be taught in groups of a maximum size of sixteen. (Pity the person who was tasked with measuring seminar rooms and working out how may students and staff could be safely there at one time, and then transferring this data into a coherent timetable). Newcastle University will issue approximately 35,000 students and staff with safety kits including a digital thermometer, reusable face mask and refillable hand sanitiser bottle. The personal hand sanitisers can be refilled from the many wall mounted sanitiser dispenser units currently being installed on campus.
In spite of all this planning, the possibility of a second wave of the pandemic lurks. We are leaning towards mobile first journalism, which makes the ability to rapidly switch to remote teaching easy, should a second wave of coronavirus occur. Apart from the present-in-person sessions, no synchronous activity will be held and students will be able to access all their learning materials at a time that is convenient to them.
The research on professional practice in the newsroom shows that mastering a multimedia mindset (Perrin, 2010, 2015) results in three key competences: writing on all channels, working in teams and finding emergent solutions. We’re confident, therefore, that throughout Semester 2, even in peak lockdown, the journalism students gained experience of value to themselves and future employers and can evidence all the above skills in spite of the unprecedented conditions – and that they will continue to do so as the ‘bedroom newsroom’ becomes a new norm.
Perrin, D. 2010. ‘Shaping the multimedia mindset: collaborative writing in journalism education’. In Writing programs worldwide : profiles of academic writing in many places. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press
Perrin, Daniel. 2015. ‘Multimodal Writing in the Newsroom: Paradigmatic, Syntagmatic and Navigational Variants’, in Archer, A. and Breuer, E. (eds). Multimodality in Writing. Series: Studies in Writing, Vol. 30. Pgs. 135 – 152 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004297197_008