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Old Dominion University Students Take A Fresh Look At Journalism

As part of an upper-level communication/English course, Old Dominion University students are taking a semester to play the role of investigative journalists reporting on public issues.

The course, Public Journalism in the Digital Age, encourages students to explore digital alternatives in journalism while they develop a story on a community issue or concern. The students are taught to interview, frame stories appropriately, engage public interest and integrate citizen voices around the topic of their choice.

According to Burton St. John, who created and teaches the course, "The main objective is to give students the opportunity to practice an aspect of public journalism...a reform movement that started some 20 years ago." Of course this is not the entirety of public journalism, explains the assistant professor of communication, but it is one element that the students can feasibly complete in a single semester.

Selected articles from the class will be featured on the "Student-Voices" section of The Virginian-Pilot's HamptonRoads.com Web site. Although the class is currently focusing on how printed materials show up on digital outlets, the ultimate plan is to focus on video journalism with a written component. In the meantime, students are strongly encouraged to supplement their pieces with audio and visual components.

St. John wants the students to benefit from learning about what they're interested in, and this allows them to write about virtually any issue. Topics range from the Tide, Norfolk's Light Rail Transit System, to the Iris Biometric Identification System, a technology acquired by the city of Norfolk to register inmates and confirm their identity upon release, to the "quarter-life crisis," a term, in the same vein as "mid-life crisis," that applies to adults in their 20s.

"The conceptual elements of developing a story come easy to them," St John explains. The practical elements, like scheduling interviews and time management, are the parts, he says the students find the most challenging.

Some students report that they have been calling and e-mailing state officials for the past three months and have yet to receive a single reply. A few who were able to schedule interviews managed to lose all their notes when their recording equipment failed. And even more challenging, Crystal Tubbs, 25, a senior, said she was almost arrested while interviewing people exiting an abortion clinic in Hampton Roads. Butts says she asked for permission from the clinic employees, but forgot to ask again after their shift change.

This journalism class is a learning experience like no other. The students are experiencing real-life challenges in reporting, and facing all of the consequences.

This article was posted on: April 18, 2008

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