Coverage ideas: Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has come to affect every aspect of life: school, work, home, social. For a period of weeks in the late spring and early summer, nearly every story in media had some connection to the pandemic — only a few other stories broke through, and even they typically were presented in the context of a stay-at-home order, social distancing or health/safety.

The pandemic also provides student journalists with numerous coverage opportunities. Every school news outlet should have a regular beat related to the pandemic, and every yearbook should have at least one spread to cover these events. So much student journalism is reactive to planned events and spot news, and there is a disappointing lack of enterprise in most student media. Of course you will want to cover the daily or weekly events — changes in policies, cancellations. The challenge with coronavirus coverage is to find ways to cover the impact or the less obvious stories, most of which will not fit neatly in a daily news story. But part of the work of student journalism is to document not just events but feelings, opinions and trends as a way of capturing history of this time.

Below are two story ideas that relate to the coronavirus pandemic. There are more, such as lasting economic impacts and sports.

Social-emotional learning. One of the biggest areas for potential stories will be the social-emotional learning and wellness around returning to school after being isolated for so long. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued recommendations to reopen schools for in-person learning because of the negative effects of social isolation. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) also issued guidelines and tools to “Reunite, Renew and Thrive.” A related but distinct story that deserves coverage: gaps in equality and achievement that have been exacerbated through the pandemic.

Focusing questions (What is the point of this story? So what?) for main story:

  • What has the school done to assist students and adults with the transition back to school this fall?
  • How are students and adults in the school coping with the transition back to school — likely distance learning at first but eventually in person?
  • What are some ways students and others recognize that they have changed? What are they doing to accept that change or to try to counteract that change?
  • Are there new activities in school (through classes or advisory programs), clubs, lunch or afterschool activities that are designed to assist with this transition and to help people cope?

Possible sources:

Students and teachers, counselors, school psychologist, mental health professionals in your community or at a college/university

Possible sidebars:

  • Quotation collection about feelings of isolation or how sources have fought isolation or set goals
  • Tips from metal health professionals on how to stay connected or to deal with isolation
  • Listing of resources or of curricular/pedagogical changes
  • Profile of one person’s experiences
  • Compare distance learning with the revised in-person format or a hybrid plan

School opening and safety. Late summer was a time of much debate about whether and how schools should reopen. Soon after the first schools began the school year, among those that started in person were several coronavirus outbreaks. Schools likely spent a lot of time and funds on reorganizing school to be safe for distance learning or in-person classes.

Focusing questions (What is the point of this story? So what?) for main story:

  • How have people and the culture changed? Did people follow stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines?
  • Did students, employees and parents feel that the campus was safe for in-person instruction? What made them feel safe?
  • What is the budget impact from distance learning or to modify campus for in-person classes?
  • Even when social distancing was relaxed, how comfortable were people with “returning to normal”?
  • What role did the teachers’ union play in the decision about returning to school?
  • What are some of the longer-term impacts and lasting changes from the need for different types of instruction (revised in-person, distance, hybrid)?

Possible sources:

Principal or other administrator, school budget officer, school nurse, teachers and students, public health official in your community or at a college/university

Possible sidebars:

  • Profile or Q&A of someone regarding their experience recovering from COVID-19 — or their experience of having a relative with COVID-19
  • Listing of physical changes for safety such as modified water fountains or plexiglass partitions in the food-service area
  • Listing of other changes to the curriculum or teaching methods, such as an ability to work remotely and a desire for more group work (or continued independence)
  • Quotation collection on what made people feel safe or unsafe
  • Quotation collection about the first day that was unlike any other
  • Examples of individual safety routines
  • Gallery of face masks and how people balanced safety with personal expression
  • Timeline of school reopening decision and key events
  • Statistics list of expenses: distance learning (computers, wifi hotspots, software, training), in-person classes (plexiglass partitions, tape markings, new furniture), cleaning, transportation, operations (thermometers, masks, tests)

 

Story ideas from Summer 2020

Each summer, several topics emerge that are appropriate for including in student media with a localized angle. Some of them have cultural impact, while others are one-time news items that can be made specific through an interview at the school or in the community. I compile these into a list that I use in teaching summer workshops and to spark my own students’ ideas for coverage beyond the obvious.

The list reflects what I have read, heard and seen in my own media diet, so it comes from my perspective. It’s not meant to be comprehensive or exclusive of other ideas.

Many of the topics are related to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — school safety, economic impact and changes to learning. In many ways, the topics are intertwined as it is difficult to separate and isolate health, economy, education and civil rights. Main topics include: coronavirus and school; schools and sports; college and the application process; cancel culture and removing monuments or named spaces; Black Lives Matter, race and reckoning; journalism, media and objectivity; and of course the Nov. 3 election.

The full Summer 2020 list is here. It probably will be updated.

Advisers: Help students cover the world honestly, truthfully, transparently

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today from the Journalism Education Association.

“Is it really OK to be gay?” In the 2003-04 school year, that was the headline for my students’ newspaper cover story and double-truck package on their peers’ attitudes toward the increasing presence of LGBTQ people in media at the same time as LGBTQ issues were front and center in politics. I was teaching and advising at Wenatchee High School in central Washington state. It’s a couple hours’ drive through the Cascade Mountains from the progressive city of Seattle, but at that time, when it came to differences in culture and politics, it might as well have been in another country.

On TV, gay and lesbian people were moving from sidekick to center stage — “Will and Grace” had been around since 1998, but the summer of 2003 brought the debut of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” followed a couple months later by “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” State legislators debated same-sex civil unions and marriages, and Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2004.

The convergence of LGBTQ people in mainstream entertainment and in political news was an important news peg for my students to turn the lens on their school and examine the atmosphere their peers created and experienced. At my current school, 15 years later, editors found a perfect news peg for coverage: Results of the school’s comprehensive wellness survey included data about sexuality and identity.

It’s an adviser’s job to help students cover the world around them honestly, truthfully and transparently. We must help them to tap in to current sentiments and ask how national or regional stories affect them. So it made sense in 2018-19 to explore the role of the school’s LGBTQ+ student alliance in a more accepting school climate, where many LGBTQ students said they didn’t feel the need to join that club. Another story explored why relatively few male students were openly gay at school — fewer were “out” than the data showed — while female students were more likely to be comfortable openly expressing their sexual orientation (about half of the girls said they did not identify as exclusively heterosexual).

Advisers must hold students accountable for their coverage by asking editors and staff what motivates that coverage. Members of this community should be covered authentically, not just in June for Pride celebrations or milestones, or LGBT History Month, which is typically in October to coincide with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. And to be effective, advisers must also learn history and use accurate terminology to be able to coach and question students.

Whether in a print newspaper or yearbook, online or broadcast, journalistic work also documents these attitudes and experiences for history. Student journalists can help the audience understand and make sense of the world around them, and the audience needs stories that explain or show people’s lives and perspectives. If done thoughtfully and not with tokenism, sources will feel well-represented, and the audience will be enlightened.

14 in ’14 — Online Edition

Fourteen things today’s online news staff should think about and do for 2014.

Want to have success online? Here are some basic tips to think about:

Work constantly to improve. What you do, and how you do it, should be in flux.

Experiment. There are not a lot of well-tested best practices online. Figure out the best for your community.

Improve and engage. Better content yields an engaged audience. You want both.

Start with these in mind as you consider the following 14 things and determine how you can use them to improve your online news operation in 2014 — and beyond. You don’t have to try them all at once, but you can get started right away.

1. Stop thinking in issues. Think online first. The website is live. Update it frequently. Don’t just dump your print content online. Post when stories are ready.

2. Don’t assume people are coming to you. Attract them through social media promotions and referrals, commenting and contextual linking. Share more. Make it easy. Referrals matter.

3. Cover the things your audience likes. Include coverage of recreational and leisure pursuits: horseback riding, boating, hiking, etc.  Video games are hugely popular but get little coverage. Don’t be locked into a template of sections just because other news sites do. Suggestions: Health, finance, consumer news. When you commit to a category, you’ll create content for it.

4. Do more lists.
Listicle: A simple, arbitrary grouping
Example: “28 duck-face selfies”
Definitive list: All-encompassing inventory
Example: “The 63 best moments from Homecoming 2013”
Framework list: Only exists to structure a narrative; number is arbitrary — whatever it takes to organize/tell the story
Example: “36 reasons you should volunteer for the Red Cross”
More info here, here and here.

5. Let print and Web work together. Don’t assume the audience is reading both.  If coverage spans both platforms, make sure a reader can catch up through a printed summary or a digital sidebar. Use website for updates between printed editions. It’s not just about a story page. Social media posts contribute to communicating to the audience. Consider using Storify.

6. Provide context. Tag or categorize related stories. Use contextual linking, which aids the reader who might be coming late to a story. Use short links, which are based on the database, not the initial URL. (Nerd alert: Kill the “http://yourdomain.com” for internal links.) Use mug shots and pull quotes. A sidebar can also add a list of facts or summarize past coverage.

7. Develop and publish a comments policy. You need one.  Facebook or Disqus plugins are an option, but you can’t truly moderate as a result. Instead, require a verifiable email address and spot-check occasionally. Three insightful comments with names are better than 300 worthless rants from anonymous trolls.

8. Show your background. Put your policies, awards, practices and interesting trivia in the “About” section where people can find them. On the header, provide the name of school and physical address. Make it easy for visitors to contact you. Even a generic “contact” email is helpful. If you use a form, make sure it sends a confirmation after the form is submitted.

9. Engage readers. Allow and encourage comments.  Develop a conversation with your audience via comments as well as social media. Interact. Ask followers for story ideas, tips, sources, submissions and feedback on how you are doing. It’s a two-way conversation. [Nerd alert: Use Akismet (free for nonprofits; flags spam). You’ll be glad you did.]

10. Explore a new social platform. Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit. Each has a distinct audience. Discover the journalistic use for things your peers are already using. Anticipate what’s next: Kik? Snapchat? Something else?

11. Use your analytics. See what people are searching for, how they got to the site, what they are spending time with. Use them as a classroom motivator. Can you get more visitors? Can you increase referrals from certain platforms?

12. Think about your audience. Is the site responsive for mobile and tablet readers? Focus on the content, and make it great. Have a well-designed UI. It’s about the UX, stupid.

Watch this and think.

13. Use the home page as a dashboard and menu. Kill the Twitter feed from your home page. The reader is already at the website. Keep Twitter feeds that aren’t referrals (sports scores, other interesting links). Nobody cares about your PDFs. Showcase the most important stories in the carousel, not just the most recent. Help the reader see what matters. Reconfigure based on the news of the day.

14. The story page is your landing page. Less hub-and-spoke navigation to/from home page.
More inter-category clicking. Make it easy for the reader to find information and understand the story with context and navigation.

Remember: Your role on campus is to inform your audience, not just to write stories or take photos.
You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to take that seriously and to do it well. Your audience needs you to tell the story in a truthful, authentic way. Doing a good job means thinking about what the reader needs and using tools to meet those needs, not just providing digital versions of printed newspapers.

Time for entrepreneurial student journalism

As with their commercial and professional counterparts, student media staffs must look ahead and plan with entrepreneurship in mind. The 20th century model was that staffs were producers of a product — a yearbook, broadcast, magazine or newspaper — funded by advertising or through institutional support. That model is not sustainable. A 21st century model is one where staffs consider themselves as information brokers and use the raw components they have — information in the form of facts, images, video and audio — plus various delivery platforms to sustain the operation.

Be the information experts. The student media operation should be the first source people think of when it comes to facts and data about your school community. For some topics like clubs or non-varsity sports, your media are the only ones documenting and covering the events or history. You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to do a good job. Having quality information and thorough coverage develops your organization as the top news source. These also build an audience.

Develop multiple platforms. When deciding how to cover a topic or a story, every staff needs to have an array of options for presenting them to the audience or readers and viewers. Aside from the print or broadcast, a Web presence is almost mandatory. Beyond at least a bare-bones website, consider social media as well. How can people engage with the stories? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest — all of these are opportunities to connect, share and develop the story. Today, the conversation occurs in both directions with the audience providing key aspects of the story and discussion.

Monetize in new ways — no more candy sales or after-game dances. Information plus distribution equals opportunity. How can the student media staff wean itself from advertising? If the traditional ad money is dwindling, find a new revenue stream. Sell photos through a site like SmugMug.com, allowing parents, students, alumni and friends to purchase the photo prints or other items. Create new special editions/sections with advertising or sponsorship opportunities. Special editions such as a back-to-school guide, graduation special or music issue can provide themed coverage and ways for new advertisers to connect.

None of these suggestions should happen in isolation. They rely on each other and will combine for success. They keys are training the staff to think in a native 21st century way rather than modifying old thinking while attempting to keep up today. You don’t want to keep up; you want to get ahead. Discover the free or inexpensive tools that will help the students and adviser to do that. Then, go out and use them to do great work.

Balancing the public’s right to know with its safety

A post to the JEA email discussion list this month asked for response to the actions of a community paper, which published the names and addresses of gun permit holders. This was in the wake of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., which claimed two dozen lives.

The paper’s story. The Poynter Institute’s report about the publication. But should student news media cover this story, and if so how?

The two issues here would definitely make for some interesting class discussion as well as a news story or point-counterpoint opinion article. I hope some news staffs are inspired to cover the debate around public records.

The two issues are, of course, whether the data should be available to the public and then whether the newspaper was right to publish the database with a map.

For the debate on why records are public, I think Washington state has a wonderful explanation from its “sunshine law”: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” That is the spirit behind most sunshine laws — the public can hold its servants and agencies accountable only by knowing what those people and offices are doing.

Minnesota law states that all government-collected data is public unless specifically excluded. Here’s a new wrinkle in the private-or-not debate: The Star Tribune reported in August that cameras mounted in Minneapolis police vehicles routinely photograph license plates and add the plate and location to a database — almost 5 million vehicles in the first eight months of 2012. Turns out that data is public, and people have varying feelings on whether it should be. The report used as example the various locations of the mayor’s city-owned vehicle.

Today, Minnesota Public Radio reported that among the 100 requests for the city’s database were several from academic researchers and business opportunists. The story made me realize there are many other uses to public data besides just curiosity and accountability. The data can lead to academic discoveries and new business. One example was the route of the police vehicle itself (a one-day example video is online) and another explored whether a vehicle reposession agent could improve his job with access to the data. Most people probably don’t want their car’s location tracked, let alone published, but this story helped me see different perspectives.

Imagine the benefit of having a discussion with students about the value of public records and how they serve the public’s interest in many ways. Journalists serve the public interest, too — they are the watchdogs of government on behalf of the public. Then, move the discussion to how journalists can best serve the public and whether publishing a complete database is helpful or causes more problems.

I’d love to see some thoughtful examples of this work by students.

Look for photos beyond the obvious

As part of its Lightbox feature online, the photo editors of Time magazine recently showcased the work of Pete Souza, chief official White House photographer. This article included Souza’s comments on his work photographing the Obama Administration and the Obama Family and the photos that he’s captured since 2009.

Souza said that as he assembled the 100 images for this Lightbox feature that he wanted to create a portrait of the president to help people understand him. Souza had known the president since Obama became a senator in 2005 when Souza was working for the Chicago Tribune. “I was looking for things that I knew that if he ever became President you would never see again,” Souza said in text accompanying the Time feature. “[Obama was] walking down a sidewalk in Moscow in 2005 and no one recognized him. I realized that if he ever became President, you would never, ever see a photo like that again. The odds of becoming President are obviously pretty slim, but I knew he had the potential. And you can’t say that about too many people.”

What Souza recognized that day in 2005 — that something special was to come and Obama had the potential to be famous well into the future — made Souza begin to look for moments that would prove valuable in the course of history.

That’s exactly what student journalists need to do, too. Even as a photographer captures the action of a game or assembly or flirting in the halls, he or she can always look for the action that’s beyond the field and the obvious photos. Seek the behind-the-scenes moments that will help future readers to know what it was like on that day — at that moment at your school. Look for the stories around school that have the potential to tell us as readers and viewers not just what’s important today but what might be important in the future. These are the observations, the moments, the glimpses that will prove valuable in the course of history as our memories fade – our impressions of the school change.

And advisers need to help students see these moments. Advisers know that moments change unexpectedly. Whether in triumph or tragedy, teach students to anticipate many situations. Doing so will mean that unexpected won’t mean unprepared. Help students see beyond the obvious and to collect bits of observation, sideline images and off-hand comments before assembling a larger narrative.

Sometimes the narrative is not apparent even though students are in the middle of documenting it. That’s why going beyond the obvious is so important. Some photos, quotes or stories are obviously important, while others may prove valuable only later. The challenge as a journalist is recognizing the potential in everything.

Find Pete Souza’s collection of images:
http://lightbox.time.com/2012/10/08/pete-souza-portrait-of-a-presidency/#1

Double truck only for the really big stuff

It happens all the time, and it’s probably happened to you: “What should we have for this month’s double truck?”

The idea of filling two full newspaper pages on a single topic is intimidating, and many staffs believe they must run an in-depth story each issue. Associations, like NSPA, who run contests bear some responsibility for the idea that the natural spread in a newspaper has to be some sort of in-depth coverage. It doesn’t. In fact, it shouldn’t unless the topic really merits two full pages. One-page features can be handled very well. Additionally, organizing the paper in a way that allows for flexibility — one-pagers as the default and double-trucks when necessary.

One way to structure the paper is to develop sections that will yield specific content. Some ideas:
• You probably have a sports section, but do you have a page for leisure? The leisure page could cover everything that isn’t a school sport — hiking, video games, Ultimate Frisbee, Scouting, hobbies.
• Develop a page on health, and you will never have a shortage of topics. Scour newspapers such as The New York Times, which offer a bounty of national news items with health-related news pegs. Localize them. To do this, simply ask questions: Is this happening here? Why? What do our readers need to know about this? Why? I guarantee you could find something health-related to write about (and localize) every week.
• Try a section on something that is of high interest to your student readership. Why not a section about family or faith? Maybe you could have a series of stories that showcase the activities families do together. Make it a quick-read format and go photograph the family. A few of these could be prepare at once and printed over several issues.
• Teens are just entering the world of money and finance, and they need more consumer education. A series of helpful stories on how to get a checking account, be disciplined about saving money, get a credit card, buy a car (and the insurance) or rent an apartment would be of great value to your readers. Alternate story forms would make these more approachable.

Once you have structured the paper into sections such as these, the story idea-generation process is easier. Instead of asking “What should we write about for the double truck this month?” you’re now asking “What can we cover for leisure?” “What’s the most important health story this month?” For a winter issue in leisure, do a creative take on some snow sport. As the weather warms, switch to other pursuits: horseback riding, hiking, geocaching, etc.). Health in the spring could be how students cope with allergies. It’s important to find students to use as your “representative sample” — kids at school who tell the story. Otherwise you just have an encyclopedia report on the topic — boring and useless and something no one will read.

When the editors commit to a section like those mentioned above, it forces better content overall. You have to develop a structure of sections that works for your paper and your school. Don’t just get locked into News, Opinion, Features, Sports (and sometimes A&E). Think about what your readers need and want, and create a paper that serves them. Content ideas will come naturally.

And when you really need two pages to tell an in-depth story with multiple components, it will be obvious. Your discipline in providing the most appropriate space for each story will pay off.

The case for a chart

On the e-mail discussion list for the Journalism Education Association, a teacher asked for guidance on book reviews for beginning journalism students. Since the school has a 30-minute required reading class each day, members of the faculty suggested that the newspaper publish some suggestions for books students might select.

What a great idea. The traditional idea would probably be to publish several reviews as 300-word stories, put a few cover shots to accompany the reviews and call it a day. I responded with the suggestions below, which I have expanded here.
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