Think global for journalism education

Could internationalisation be the future for journalism education, asks Bruce Woolley from University of Queensland.

If journalism today is in turmoil, spare a thought for journalism schools. Plenty of ink has been spilled – and electrons spun – analysing why traditional print and broadcast outlets are losing audiences. Even so, no one has a very clear idea about what future news media will look like, except to say it will be digital rather than paper-based.

So how can J-schools train journalists for this uncertain future? Everyone, it seems, is experimenting.

At the University of  Toronto’s Munk School, which I visited last November, only graduates with substantial expertise in another subject area are enrolled in a journalism “boot camp” that teaches them how to write, produce and pitch stories for traditional media.

At Columbia in New York, students can also join a program that combines journalism with specialised subject area courses.

The University of Melbourne is pinning its hopes on a Masters of Journalism program at the Centre for Advancing Journalism.

American academic Thomas Patterson has recently published a provocative volume called Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-based Journalism that argues for a wholesale revamp of journalism education to ensure reporters have as much detailed knowledge about a subject as the people they write about.

Here at The University of Queensland, journalism and communication academics are involved in the same process – trying to figure out what new skills our graduates will need to have beyond what we have been traditionally teaching them.

The answer is tentative and unfolding, but includes the following:

  • they will need to have strong critical analytic skills;
  • they will need deep knowledge about subject areas they are reporting on;
  • they will need to demonstrate intercultural awareness and sensitivities to work in an increasingly global news media;
  • they will need to be skilled at identifying a story worth telling and be able to tell it well;
  • and they will need to have all the technical skills to produce those stories for multimedia outlets.

UQ is creating new Work Integrated Learning (WIL) courses to develop students with these attributes – the most recent is called ‘UQ in Vietnam’ and has just ended. WIL courses are intensive, immersive, experiential and intercultural and this one was all of those things.

‘UQ in Vietnam’ was funded by a grant from the federal Department of Education under the Short-term Mobility Program, valued at $21,500 to cover the costs of travel and accommodation for all the students. The cost of sending a lecturer and two tutors with technical and editorial expertise was covered by UQ’s School of Journalism and Communication.

This funding meant that no students were excluded from selection based on their ability to pay. Indeed several of those chosen for the project would not have been able to afford to go without it.

Whether the venture succeeds or fails of course depends on the abilities of the students chosen to take part so we were careful to scrutinise the candidates who applied very closely.

We looked at their Grade Point Averages to indicate their academic abilities. We asked them to write a short essay about why they wanted to take part, to assess their commitment and interest. We asked for a portfolio of work they had done in other journalism courses to illustrate their abilities across several media platforms. We also considered their track-record of working well with other students in class and on extra-curricular projects.

In the end, 42 very talented second and third year students applied – 10 were chosen.

UQ in Vietnam 2014

When 10 students who barely know each other head off on a joint reporting venture to a foreign country, it is no surprise to find they are daunted by the sheer complexity of the undertaking.

Flower Vendor in Vietnam. Photo: John Bryant

Flower Vendor in Vietnam. Photo: John Bryant

Between 18 April and 29 April, such a diverse group from The University of Queensland’s School of Journalism and Communication ventured forth to southern and eastern Vietnam to report on social and scientific research projects being conducted there by UQ in partnership with Vietnamese institutions. They were accompanied by a lecturer and two tutors.

A Foreign Press Officer from Vietnam, Nguyen Vu Thuy Duong, helped to arrange interviews, interpreted many of the conversations that involved Vietnamese speakers and dealt with logistical and organisational details for the group.

The students were assigned to research and produce their own radio, television, print and photojournalism stories. They had to record the interviews themselves using professional TV and radio equipment and edit the stories as well.

Academic and professional staff were there to help if technical problems cropped up and to coach the students as they performed their tasks but most of the work was done by the students themselves.

Those stories as well as photographic essays and slide shows can be seen at a dedicated website: www.uqinvietnam.com

Anna Hartley is in her third year of a dual Bachelor of Journalism and Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in International Relations and German.“Before leaving for Vietnam I was unsure if I was prepared, or even skilled enough to produce stories in such a foreign environment,” Anna said in Ho Chi Minh City, on her way back home to Brisbane.

“However sitting in the airport now at the end of this whirlwind of a journey I feel that the goals we set out to achieve here have been met,” she said.

That is a sentiment shared by fellow student John Bryant who is in his fourth year of a dual Bachelor of Journalism and Bachelor of Laws degree.

“Regardless of our preparation prior to the trip, I think were all ‘thrown in at the deep end’ to some extent,” John said.

“The challenge meant we’ve all come out of the trip as more competent reporters.”

The ‘UQ in Vietnam’ course was deliberately developed as an intensive work-integrated learning exercise where students are coached by mentors while working in sometimes stressful real life situations. It is as close as it comes to being a real foreign correspondent for a student journalist.

Laura Walkley, who will graduate from UQ with a Bachelor of Journalism in June 2015, admits it is not an easy way to learn but it can be very rewarding.

“The overall experience was very hands-on and the difference in what I knew on day one and what I know now is exponential,” she said. “I also learnt a lot of valuable knowledge about the Vietnamese culture that you can only find out while being immersed in the country.”

Aimee Hourigan is a third year student studying a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Communication. She said the experience allowed her to reflect on her own personal goals and aspirations.

“Being able to look at work that is, for all intents and purposes, published like real journalism would be, really helped me to justify why I want to work as a journalist in the future,” she said.

John Bryant is thankful for the opportunity to take part in the course.

“We learnt things that could never be taught in a classroom,” he said.

Anna Hartley agrees: “Despite the challenges that we faced I am very proud of the quality of the work we managed to produce. In no other course would we have had the opportunity to create such interesting and wide spread stories with the constant guidance of a lecturer and mentor.”

Laura Walkley summed it up: “This course is by far the most valuable course offered in the journalism school.”

 

WIL-power

The ‘UQ in Vietnam’ project follows similarly experimental and effective short-term intensive courses developed by The University of Queensland: ‘Vietnam Reporter’ in 2012 where students travelled to the north of Vietnam; as well as ‘The International Olympiad in Informatics’ in 2013 and the ‘International Indigenous Health and Knowledge Conference’  – both of which were held on the UQ St Lucia campus.

These courses work, whether at home or abroad, because Work Integrated Learning allows students to experience the reality of reporting intensively on specialist stories in an unfamiliar situation. They are superior to internships (another, more familiar form of WIL) because the students are actively involved in the newsgathering rather than observing other professionals at work.

The support they receive during the assignment involves direct coaching from industry professionals: in this case a former foreign correspondent, a tutor who is an award-winning photographer and a former student who was involved in the previous Vietnam project. The staff-to-student ratio is very high and can only be achieved because the courses are short-term (i.e. ten days).

All these WIL projects share something else that sets them apart from other run-of-the-mill journalism courses: they involve conducting interviews and creating stories about people from other cultures who do not speak English as a first language.

As the teacher leading all these groups, I have found it inspirational to witness students’ emerging awareness of the importance of intercultural communication and their growing understanding of cultural boundaries. Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan described the beginnings of the social reality he called the ‘Global Village’ as long ago as the 1960s. It is fascinating to see today’s UQ students grappling firsthand with the realities of cultural differences, similarities and interconnectedness – all while refining their professional crafts as well.

At the end of these WIL projects, students come away with a powerful record of their experiences. Stories produced by the students have been picked up by ABC Local Radio stations and Vietnam Television. All content on the website is available free to news media around the world under Creative Commons arrangements. A feature article about their enterprise was published in Queensland Country Life. It was written by Ali Francis, a UQ graduate who took part in the first Vietnam project in November 2012.

More overseas programs like this one are in the works.

There are good reasons for choosing Vietnam in the past: Australia and Vietnam share a common history through war and peace; Vietnam since the ‘doi moi’ economic reform policy of 1986 has been opening up to the rest of the world; the ‘Australia in Asian Century’ White Paper of 2012 identified the importance of South East Asia to our nation’s future; and international students from Vietnam overwhelmingly choose to study in Australia compared with any other country.

But we are concerned about the Vietnam government’s continuing harsh crackdown on bloggers and websites and the fact that we were unable to report on that story or others that the Vietnamese Foreign Press Office felt were too controversial.

Nevertheless, most of our goals were met. Our students reported on stories of significance – creating almost 200 multimedia, print, television, radio and photojournalism pieces over the course of our two visits in 2012 and 2014.

Perhaps the best illustration of WIL-power is that the majority of students involved in these courses have found good jobs in journalism after graduating. Not a bad outcome in a tumultuous and rapidly changing news industry.

Bruce Woolley is a lecturer in journalism at The University of Queensland in Brisbane. He was a journalist and broadcaster for the ABC for 13 years – including three years as a foreign correspondent based in London – and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for 20 years. He has won a Grand Award, a Gold medal and a silver medal at the New York International Festival for radio programs created for CBC.