This Spring, our Public Journalism class at Southern Oregon University produced a number of insightful works on our blog "Student Matters". The issues covered ranged from popular entertainment to politics. Overall, the project was a welcome and exciting exploration into the brave new world of Internet communication.
Unceremoniously, we approached “blogging” and its environs the “Blogosphere” with a good bit of trepidation. As a first of its kind experiment on the SOU campus, our goal was relatively simple –Open up a conversation on campus about issues that matter to students.
This is what blogging does, for better or worse.
Blogging opens up to the world conversations between students and teachers, students and students, and community and students.
Stephen Downes in the online magazine Educause Review defines educational blogging as a form of personal publishing.
A blog, therefore, is and has always been more than the online equivalent of a personal journal. Though consisting of regular (and often dated) updates, the blog adds to the form of the diary by incorporating the best features of hypertext: the capacity to link to new and useful resources. But a blog is also characterized by its reflection of a personal style, and this style may be reflected in either the writing or the selection of links passed along to readers.
Blogs are the core of what has come to be called personal publishing in an increasingly hyper-staurated world of information.
We explored the potentialities of public journalism through blogging about our college campus in both theory and practice. We took what we learned from listening to others in the community that have come before us. We followed the discourse about blogging and how it can affect change.
Ultimately, we created the Student Matters blog as an online journal and a space to explore the principles of community-based learning.
Essentially, community-based learning signifies proactive engagement in problem solving. In this case, students determined that our community was on campus and that it would generate a sufficient number of issues worthy of reporting. Some of these issues included, the Higher One banking system, the search for a new university president, residence hall and health center policies, free speech on campus, and other matters students deal with while enrolled in college.
Writing assignments were divided into three categories: journalistic reportage, opinion and commentary and arts and entertainment reviews. Right from the start, the biggest obstacle in this class centered around learning how people define “public journalism.”
In the emerging world of Internet communication, especially in the Blogosphere, we quickly discovered that there are more questions raised by the activity than there were answers. Everyone seems to define public journalism differently.
At the heart of the issues of surrounding public journalism, also known as participatory or citizen journalism, resides a tension.
Cynthia Care, a student who investigated community-building and sustainability issues, comments, “Today there is a conflict between corporate interests and the accessibility of communication, information and knowledge via the Internet.” The very public nature of blogging, one that is inherently more personal in tone than practiced by traditional “objective” or “impartial” journalists, produces a dialect of incredulity.
Jerry Clarkson eloquently explains the problem with blogging and public journalism is mostly one of perception. As Clarkson argues:
“Public journalists tend to more activist in their approach. While this activism role might appear to create a biased approach and therefore foster trust issues, I believe that it works in reverse. Once we acknowledge our biases those reading our critiques can understand our frame of the story and accept the honesty with which we approach it.”
Care observes that the oft-noted public frustration with corporate media as provided the impetus for public journalism.
In her essay, “The Internet as a Tool for Common Good,” Care examines the historical context between private and public interests. She explores the notion of “the commons” as a “set of inherited gifts” that everyone has access to. Historically, these “inherited gifts” were assigned to natural resources, but later included social and cultural gift. It is this second set of “gift” (cultural and social) that the writer notes as “gifts” of language, art, science, and now, the Internet. For Care, and many others, the Internet has become a social and cultural commons, “an inexpensive forum for public expression, which is easily accessible to independent voices.”
Tensions or conflicts between public and private forms of expression and reportage are rooted in how people perceive one form over another.
Matt Gemmell, a photojournalism major, defines public journalism as “any news produced by someone other than a professional journalist.” Now, the user is faced with the challenge of choice.
During the quarter, students analyzed online stories from the local newspapers to find that feedback forms on the Internet allow readers to correct inconsistencies and incongruities of the account.
In one story about a motorcycle accident in front of the University, comments about the story ranged from eyewitness accounts to the incident that were not reported in the newspapers, as well as a correction posted by the sister of the motorcyclist. In this way, readers could hold the newspaper more accountable on the Internet than they could in the antecedent traditional print format.
Jeremiah Page sums up the phenomenon by contending, “People can hold
the journalist responsible for accuracy, bias, conventions, and
relevancy. Instead of simply learning about something and being told
about an event we can be part of the solution. This is revolutionary!”
Gemmell points out further by claiming that, “public journalism is redefining the way we think of tradition journalism.”
For Page, “Public journalism takes journalism into a completely new sphere that has never been possible before. Public journalism has transformed the recipient into a potential participant.”
Donald Lind, a gradating journalism major, believes, “Today’s media is easy to dismiss as untrustworthy. But today’s technology can challenge the press like never before.”
At the same time, William Hastings found that the notion of public journalism promulgates controversy. “I feel that we are ‘feeling’ our way through the many [implications] the Internet can have for journalism, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
One of the analytical frameworks used to explicate blogging in the course was Robert Putnam’s idea of “social capital”, which builds upon Metcalfe’s law of the Internet. Metcalfe, who is credited with developing the Ethernet, believes the number of possible linkages between users of the Internet grows as the square of the number of linkages increases. Moreover, Metcalfe’s law states that the community value of a network of users grows as the square number increases.
Imagine the blogosphere as an enormous shopping mall with millions of rental shops. Every time the user selects one shop to browse in they are immediately connected,
indirectly and directly, to all of the others. For Hastings, “Ultimately, public journalism [on the Internet] allows us to connect to one another. This is a central process in making change and broadening … perspective.”
Interconnectivity and social networking, something that is inherently part of the blogosphere, presented itself several times during the quarter.
For example, after a student posted a rather pointed criticism of the financial Higher One banking system, one of the corporation’s founders responded to the blog. In a surprising act of transparency, the executive apologized for any problems the student may have had and encouraged him to follow up if he hadn’t been taken care of soon. Interestingly, other students began posted comments and complaints about the banking service to the site.
Although the students’ comments were in no way journalistic in any traditional sense, the posting could certainly give way to more investigative reportage in the future. Perhaps, this is what the executive understands. That if he were to let even the most seemingly innocuous and obscure blog posts to go unanswered more disgruntlement may emerge.
On the other hand, perhaps the executive’s concerns were genuine and sincere, and that his intentions were socially and corporately responsible. In some respects, the Internet brings journalism back to a time when writer felt free to lash out at corporations and governments – back to a time of Nellie Bly, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, and I.F. Stone.
As Lind contends, “Instant access to the world has allowed citizens to take apart news stories that might have been universally accepted a decade ago.” The dynamic and interactive agency of blogging suggests how the Internet makes older ways of gathering and using information obsolete.
Students learned about their own work through the study of Marshall McLuhan’s four laws of the media, which claim that newer technologies extend media and make them stronger, reverses some of the older media’s characteristics, generates new forms of communication and media, and finally, enhances qualities of media.
The reality many of us are coming to terms with now is that the future is already here and waiting for us to join in the larger conversation that public journalism promotes. As Eric Hidle points out, “With new technology comes the obsolescent of old mediums.” In his research Hidle discovered that nearly three of every four Americans now have access to the Internet.
Along with the growth of the Internet comes social networking Websites, such as MySpace, Friendster, Live Journal, Friendzy, Tribe, FriendSurfer, PeepsNation, Emode, and others, that continue to command increasingly larger audiences. In fact social networking websites have risen 47 percent over the past year and online news sites have risen accordingly with them. Hidle’s research of bloggers at Southern Oregon University is significant.
To put it simply: people are online, they are connected and they are informed. To compare the current state of our student body with the world would be unfair. Students at Southern Oregon University are technologically far ahead of the standard citizen.
Every student enrolled in SOU has access to the internet through local computer labs. And, as of June 13, 2006 1,309 students are registered to Southern’s facebook.com network and 1,873 students are registered to Southern’s MySpace.com network.
This is approximately 40 percent of the student body networked with each other. It can also be reasonably estimated that many students registered with such sites do not belong to Southern’s groups but do network with other members who are enrolled in the school.
For educators as well as students, it is important to consider the obvious implications of such statistics.
Teaching and learning is changing with the Internet. Students are by and large vastly more digitally literate than many of their instructors. This is a generation that was born to and came of age online. The Internet and technology, in many cases, appears second nature for most.
Therefore, setting learning outcomes and educational objective must be concomitant with student behavior. We have entered a brave new world of learning where students are increasingly producing creative and intellectual content for the masses. At this point, there is an imperative in education to meet students, our future journalists, where they live – online in cyberspace.
Not only is this important to the current state of higher education in this country, but this directly applies to incoming students. In a study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life project, more than 57 percent of the teenagers presently using the Internet have created personal content in the form of blogs, podcasts, videologs, and photoblogs.
The study reveals “About 21 million or 87 percent of those ages 12-17 are active on the Internet. “The results highlight that this is a generation comfortable with content-creating technology. Teens are eager to share their thoughts, experiences, and creations with the wider Internet population,” the report concludes.