The Urban Journalism workshop Program: A Case Study

There is not a single journalist in the United States who has not witnessed—or been personally affected by—the chaos that has befallen many newsrooms in the past few years: mass layoffs, furloughs and slashed news budgets. For those of us who have spent many years engaged in programs to get high school students to pursue journalism careers, we have asked ourselves if it is even responsible engaging in such pursuits.
Ironically, at the same time the news business has seen massive cutbacks, news consumption has remained steady and even increased. Therefore, it is essential that educators train young people to be responsible media consumers. Due to the advent of technology, younger generations are constantly bombarded with information. As a result, students must be taught to distinguish news from all the media and information masquerading as news.
About Urban Journalism Workshop Program
“Is it responsible to even suggest careers in journalism, given the state of the industry?” The answer is yes, but we must expand our missions to include training responsible young media consumers and news creators. Over the years, the Cleveland Urban Journalism Workshop (UJW) program—which is solely operated by journalist volunteers—has prompted several students to pursue journalism careers.
Beginning in the 1980s, many chapters of the National Association of Black Journalists began holding journalism workshops. The primary goal was to encourage minorities to pursue journalism careers. Most UJWs, like Cleveland’s, held six-hour sessions on Saturdays for eight weeks.
Even if many of us did not realize it, news literacy was one of the several unstated goals that had emerged in UJW over the years. Workshop alums in non-journalism careers say that the lasting impact of UJW helped them become better writers and to understand important concepts like fairness and balance. In addition, many say that the socio-economic and racial mix of their workshop peers was the first time they had meaningful contact with students unlike themselves. According to the U.S. Census data, Cleveland persistently ranks as one of the most segregated cities in the country, and learning about journalism and news is important to get accurate information to diverse audiences.
The UJW is not sponsored by a school district or academic institution; however, for about a decade we have partnered with John Carroll University in University Heights. The college assigns a faculty member to attend the workshop and the University sponsors our graduation ceremony. The program recruits about 30 students per workshop from throughout Northeast Ohio across inner city and elite schools. Some of our students are sent by guidance counselors identified as “challenging” since program participation typically results with increased critical thinking skills and improved academic success.
The UJW structure includes:
• morning sessions
• a news quiz
• lectures on journalism principles and news literacy
• a “newsmakers” segment, which simulates a press conference
• multi-media projects
Like most programs that focus on storytelling or journalism, we start with the five Ws and H: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? These are not only key to news writing, but news literacy, as it frames learning with creating savvy news consumers. As part of our newly expanded mission, the committee decided to sprinkle news literacy into our existing format. Next year, we hope to implement more formal components.
Media is a big part of the workshop. For example, we held a session at a television station; and, another was based entirely on still photography and some video. The last three weeks are devoted to writing articles and doing multi-media projects for the UJW print and online products.
The multi-media projects students produce can be viewed at the following link, which includes a video commentary on censorship, a short feature on teen robotics and a sidebar interview on teen stress with a young woman who is the only working member of her family. Student work also appears throughout the workshop on the UJW blog.
News Literacy
As the UJW has evolved, news literacy has become more and more important. Instead of quizzing students about a week’s news events, we now ask students to offer opinions about how different media cover a story and analyze news content overall. Instructors teach a lecture titled, “What is News?” and many volunteers work one-on-one with students, who reinforce and apply news literacy principles in their teaching.
We found that although news literacy was introduced in the lectures, many students did not fully grasp the concept until they worked one-on-one with journalists in reporting/writing their own stories for the UJW newspaper. Students needed educators to help identify and point out the differences. We emphasized how students should scrutinize clues to accuracy before accepting information as reliable. Students explored the difference between news and gossip—a topic that is close to the fabric of their school experience. In this era of social media, blogging, text messages and emails blur what news is reliable.
This year, we introduced a question asking session to elicit the students’ opinions about how an event was covered. The answers often sparked lively discussion about fairness and balance and how a single topic is covered in different forms of media. Students learned how to identify reliable sources of information—for example, government data and reports or academic citations—to critically analyze whether or not mainstream media used reliable sources in their stories.
Students were given different types of examples in which media failed to use reliable sources. We discussed phrases like “Channel X News has learned” and contrasted that with the use of anonymous sources. This gave instructors the opportunity to discuss relying on rumors or hearsay versus reporting involving anonymous sources. The discussion revolved around how many print and broadcast operations have very strict guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources. Instructors discussed why many of them prohibit the use of anonymous sources all together.
Critical to these discussions was the importance of knowing opposing viewpoints. For example, the class analyzed a radio report on trans-racial adoptions. Sources quoted as supporting trans-racial adoptions included representatives from academic institutions and professional organizations that had done research on the topic. The only sources quoted as opposing trans-racial adoptions were random customers at a local barbershop.
Next Steps
Students benefit from a habit of critically analyzing information they consume. Youth journalism and media programs should incorporate news literacy into their curricula. By doing this, they are giving students a skill to use immediately and throughout their lifetimes. For youth media educators, the UJW is a case study that helps present how accuracy is the most important element of news and that correction is necessary to inaccuracy.
Thinking like a journalist includes seeking truth and reporting and interpreting information; minimizing harm and treating human beings with respect; acting independently, free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know; and, being accountable to one’s listeners, readers, viewers and one another. Steer youth media producers away from Wikipedia as a primary source of information and help train youth to analyze different forms of information and sources from the internet, radio, video and print. As storytellers, students require insight into the principles of journalism—fairness, accuracy, balance and objectivity.
Olivera Perkins is a reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She has been an Urban Journalism Workshop volunteer for more than 15 years.