Food for Thought: Slideshow Assignment

Anna Badkhen Slideshow

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I didn’t choose my issue, it chose me: Deciding what to cover for my feature story

After having conquered the news story, it was time to learn how to proceed in tackling a longer issue story. However, finding an on-campus news story was one thing, I had no idea where to even begin in looking for an important or relevant issue to cover! Surely we are faced with noteworthy issues on a daily basis, ones that would benefit from the proper coverage, but in the same way that you can never come up with the right answers under pressure, I felt that even though I was so sure that there was much to be covered nothing specific would enter my mind.

Luckily, my issue was literally handed to me by a student and friend of mine who is a member of Peers Educating about Responsible Choices (PERC). As I absentmindedly did my daily stroll from class in Rabb to lunch on lower campus, I didn’t know that I was about to be introduced to the perfect topic for my article. I heard them shouting something about the recently popular drink “Four Loko” and I normally would have just passed by, but since my friend was in charge of the campaign I figured I would at least take the piece of paper she was shoving at me.

As I continued my walk, I read the small piece of paper in my hand (before I was about to spit out my gum inside of it…) and was shocked by its contents. I had heard of Four Loko very briefly in passing when my roommate had discussed how she had one one night and how drunk they make you, but I had no idea that they were becoming the latest trend in under-aged binge drinking.

The sheet gave some important facts about the drink, including commentary on its appalling advertising campaign marketing under-aged college students. My jaw dropped when I learned that the contents in one can were 660 calories and the alcoholic equivalent of a six pack of beer!

Throughout my entire lunch, my friends and I discussed how terrible this product was and how people must have been uninformed about the reality of what they were drinking. I hoped that the beverage would receive the proper media coverage, and wondered if there was anyway that I could cover it. Yet, despite this assignment, it still didn’t dawn on me that this was appropriate.

It was only during a brainstorming session in the library that I realized this was exactly the kind of issue that was meant for this assignment. I located that tiny piece of paper, and began to come up with ideas of how to write the piece and who I could talk with about it. I hadn’t seen any coverage of it at all on any big news outlets.

However, a few days into my work, my friend posted a link to the New York Times article about the dangers of Four Loko. He joked, “looks like the times beat you to it!” Though I thought I was the first, I didn’t realize how quickly the cause would gain momentum. So, despite the fact that the times beat me, I was glad that I was able to cover such an important and relevant controversy.

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Covering a News Story: Applying my skill set in a brand new way

The piece that I wrote about Anna Badkhen was the first real news story that I’ve ever written, so I undoubtedly faced some bumps and bruises along the way. The first obstacle: the actual coverage of the event itself. How could I make sure that I would get every single quote that I might potentially need…and get them word for word? On top of that, how could I make sure I figured out the heart of the event as well as the general environment and feeling of the crowd. And, if my brain hadn’t been scattered enough, how on Earth was I to simultaneously photograph the event.

But, once I sat down, I found that this multitasking was simpler than I had given myself credit for. Surely, as a journalist, you must be a completely active and engaged listener– tuning your ears to hear the juiciest quotes or the most newsworthy statements. This kind of active listening has been a part of my life as an undergraduate for years, so it was not too much of a stretch to apply it to this news piece.

Yet, there are at least two parts to crafting a news story– the event itself and then the creative part…the writing. Writing has always been my strongest suit, so I hadn’t anticipated it to be particularly challenging or time consuming. However, I was wrong. I attempted to pay close attention to the guidelines of a news story and the concept of an inverted pyramid. However, I ran into trouble because though I found the speech important and entertaining–it felt to me more deserving of a feature story than a news piece. Though the issue was timely, the information wasn’t urgent. I struggled with that balance in my draft.

After I handed in my first draft, I thought it was well-written but not necessarily what the assignment called for. Then came time for the revision– something which I am also not generally accustomed to. I am definitely stronger at writing from scratch than at rearranging my own writing to incorporate changes, and it’s a difficult process decided which sentences can remain unchanged, which need to be tweaked or moved or set up differently, and which need to be omitted in general. Another difficulty I encountered was the passed time between the event and my second draft. Once I knew what needed to be added or changed, I couldn’t go back to the event and focus in on those aspects more closely. Though I had notes, they weren’t as in depth as I would have liked them to be, so it was hard to add new material to the piece.

I’m looking forward applying this new skill set to the feature piece, and incorporating more of the interview aspect to it. Hopefully my experiences and struggles with writing the news story will shed light on how I prepare for, and ultimately draft my longer feature story.

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The “Original” Sin: Do blogs constitute original journalism?

Earlier this year a court decision in New Jersey caused quite a stir for bloggers. Judge Anthony Parillo ruled that a woman named Shellee Hale was not protected by New Jersey’s shield law because she was a blogger and not a journalist, effectively ruling that the two are mutually exclusive. In his decision, Parillo got right to the heart of the matter, “Simply put, new media should not be confused with news media.” On Andrew Breitbart’s site Big Journalism columnist Jim Lakely outlined Parillo’s reasoning,

“[Hale] exhibited none of the recognized qualities or characteristics traditionally associated with the news process, nor has she demonstrated an established connection or affiliation with any news entity.”

“[Hale had] no connection to any legitimate news publication.”

“… nor has [Hale] demonstrated adherence to any standard of professional responsibility regulating institutional journalism, such as editing, fact-checking or disclosure of conflicts of interest.”

These distinctions indicate that this New Jersey court repudiates blogging as a legitimate form of original journalism because it lacks certain features inherent within the journalistic process. However, Lakely attempts to derail these arguments by pointing to situations where mere bloggers were crucial in exposing the truth, which is ultimately the primary responsibility of a journalist. He cites the fact checking in the inaccurate Dan Rathers fiasco among other examples to solidify this reasoning.

Lakely and his colleagues were infuriated by what they considered an egregious disregard for the protections of the first amendment. In fact, Sam Karnick from the Heartland Institute vehemently stated that, “We do not have a truly “free press” in this country when the government — through the myopic opinions of judges — is defining “legitimate” journalism.”

This then begs the question: how do we go about defining legitimate journalism? It seems absurd to disregard blogging and new media on principle, yet it’s simultaneously problematic to protect any average Joe who wants to take a whack at reporting.  If this cannot be decided in the courtroom, how can journalists set guidelines for the evolving world of the new media?

In his book Digital McLuhan, media commentator Paul Levinson addresses this very issue. He discusses an extension of McLuhan’s theory of the global village, and applies it to the internet. He contextualizes this idea by comparing it to the notion of invention. He says,

“the internet, by allowing anyone and everyone with a personal computer to come to the party, affords attention to inception and careful detail to a multitude of potential Edisons. If the internet allows us to do everything well, it will be not just because of the time for careful work that its speed sets free, but also because the “us” in that hopeful equation is a vastly bigger grop of minds than it ever was in the past. “

Is blogging original journalism? Artist Natalie Dee certainly doesn't think so.

What remains is essentially a “too many cooks” dilemma. Of these many bloggers, it is difficult to discern whether blogs are original news sources or simply serve as a means of aggregating and discussing the news already presented by more “legitimate” journalists. Often blogs are a way to target a certain demographic and create a discourse about a given issue. When I grapple with larger issues, I turn to blogs to give me a fresh perspective on current events. Internet news allows the reader to sort through the news by his or her list of priorities and beliefs. Blogs can offer a deeper and more interactive way of keeping up with the news, but can they be original?

As Lakely pointed out, there are certainly situations in which a blogger might uncover something monumental and do better reporting than any seasoned old media reporter. However, as a general rule of thumb, it seems as though the main function of a blogger is not to originate but to aggregate, a role which has nearly equal importance in a world reliant upon new media.

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United we tweet, divided we blog: Is the internet bringing us together or tearing us apart?

It’s hard to imagine life before the internet, but for a moment I’m going to travel back to a time where the only webs belonged to spiders. Long before the rise of the internet and the advent of social media, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman had entirely convergent ideas about the role of technology  in our lives. McLuhan coined the concept of a “global village“. He argued that before the rise of print media, people–or villages–had more or less equal access to information. Once newspapers and books gained momentum, this common ground was depleted. Only when television and radio news came into proximity was the feeling of a village restored, yet this time the village expanded to become a global village.

Postman on the other hand decried this value in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” It was his belief that media (in this particular case study, television) would tear us apart. Not only did television hinder our ability to think, it affected our attention spans and created a barrier in interpersonal relationships.

Despite myriad technological advances, these two schools of thought remain fairly intact. Anyone who has read McLuhan’s early works is likely to question “what would he say now?” Media commentator Paul Levinson attempts to reconcile this theoretical query in his book “Digital McLuhan.” In the book, Levinson extends McLuhan’s theories to the larger world of modern communications. He argues that the internet continues to unite us and not only  extended the global village, but improved upon it; before the internet, the “villagers” were mere spectators, but the interactivity of the internet allows for a truly communal experience.

Postman’s later work, “Technopoly” delves further into media, and specifically the internet. He discusses how we are overexposed to information, which ultimately separates us. We are readily willing to believe whatever we read, and we are no longer united by a common news source.

Yet, these two books were written well before the most recent surge in social media. Our access to information has grown enormously since Postman published his work in 1992, and Levinson wrote his in 1999. Social media has a huge impact not only on our internet lives, but on our real lives. In an article for Wired Magazine, Andrew Blum discusses this phenomenon,

Conventional wisdom says that technology is bad for real-world communities, that we are often alone at home in front of blue screens. This is no doubt true. But we are also out on the street stealing glances at smaller screens, and interacting in more meaningful ways because of it. When it comes to technology and cities, today’s thrilling development – “thrilling”, that is, if you like real cities and corporeal people – is that social networking is enhancing urban places. I may have been only affirming face-to-face the interactions I just had in cyberspace, but that act was significant for the future of our cities.

The bandwidth of urban experience has increased. The ancient ways are still there: the way a place looks, the neighbours we wave at and the hands we shake. But now, there is an electronic conversation overlaid on top of all that: tweets and status updates, neighbourhood online message boards, detailed mobile electronic maps, and nascent applications that broadcast your location to your friends. This is far more interesting than what we were promised a decade ago: the proverbial coupon blinking on your mobile as you walk past Starbucks. (I have yet to experience this.)

It’s interesting to posit what Postman or even McLuhan would think about the world as it is now, with the “real world” considerably dictated by the world of social media. Blum’s article truly addresses the notion of a global village, in a way that McLuhan could have never even predicted. Now that internet is available on our cell phones, we are linked in even when we’re surrounded by other people. Though Postman’s problems lie inherently in the media itself, it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on modern communications.

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to agree with the idea of the global village, recognizing that it has its limitations. It’s true that we no longer have one common source of news that unites us all, but the communicative properties of internet journalism allows for a discourse that was never previously possible. In that sense, the internet is more of a global village than any predecessor. And, it’s hard not to acknowledge the profound impact of social media on the way that we communicate. Postman’s warnings are valid, and the internet has the potential to separate us if we do not distance ourselves from it. But for now, I’m happy to be a global villager.

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