October 2, 2008

Undergrad "infiltrates" new media reporting at NYU

Today I received a message in my inbox from the NYU Journalism Department. The mail concerned an undergraduate student who did some unauthorized reporting in the NYU Journalism Department. A student named Alana Taylor "embedded" herself in her journalism class called "Reporting Gen Y" to cover how much new media journalism was actually being practiced in the class.

It wasn't a PR report. She cited, among many other gripes, a requirement that students bring in an actual print copy of the New York Times as an example of "their outdated mindset," according to the PBS blog, MediaShift, that originally featured her work.

I completely disagree with this assessment. The print version of a newspaper or magazine offers an entirely different experience and content than the online version, as I learned in undergrad. I have reaped the benefits of several new media classes that used the print version for a purpose, which is likely the reason at NYU. Students could, for example, compare and contrast the online media with the print version. (The nytimes.com site has a disclaimer at the bottom of all of their articles now that "a version" of the article online was printed in the print Times.) After all, isn't that what new media is about--pushing the boundaries and offering a different way of presenting information? As Marshall McLuhan said, the new medium will mimic the old -- so shouldn't we know what the "old" looks like? Of course.

Taylor has a crass understanding of her professor's intentions, and instead of going with it for a while and trusting that maybe someone knows more than she does, she immediately writes off the possibility of learning something. This article was written this semester, it seems, therefore, she's only given the class a few weeks to deliver when, in actuality, professors are just trying to establish a class's ability level as a whole, and then work from there based on gathered observations.

I can completely understand why NYU's professors and administration weren't happy.

However, at the crux of her account is that little successful blogging is being done in her classes, and she feels that in order to be prepared for the real world of changing media, students should know the importance of blogging in their journalism skill set.

I concur with her absolutely on that point. Like Taylor, I am one of the only bloggers in my graduate school class, and I'm looked upon as a novelty. As many of my readers know, blogging was an important part of my undergrad experience. We were on the cutting edge of journalism (and still are) at Seton Hill -- as it would seem in light of this report. I know about blogging. I know what I need to do to write a good blog. This ability has enhanced my resume and, more importantly, my understanding of online media and its direction. However, it is true that few other students do know about blogging and its ramifications on their future careers.

Okay, so Taylor made a point. So what? She has done much more harm than good to her career by this stunt. Taylor, looking oh-so-Facebookish in the picture posted with the piece, did invade her classroom, as cited by NYU professor Quigley. However, more importantly, no matter if she isn't a traditional journalist or not, she violated a journalistic tenet of disclosure to her subjects for a completely unworthy assignment. If I were an employer, I would think twice before hiring her -- and that's enough in this competitive business to stay unemployed.

And MediaShift should have known better than to exploit a fledgling reporter's in to the NYU establishment -- no matter how attractive the story must have seemed.

Check out the fascinating Ombudsman Report.

An excerpt:

But, I have serious problems with the episode that unfolded recently in which a journalism student at New York University, Alana Taylor, authored a Sept. 5 posting as an "embedded" blogger on MediaShift, writing critically about her class content and professor at NYU without informing either the teacher or her classmates about what she was doing. The headline read: "Old Thinking Permeates Major Journalism School." This column attracted a lot of online attention and controversy, not to mention attention by the professor, Mary Quigley, who was not happy. Glaser then wrote a follow-up column on Sept. 17 about the controversy, headlined "NYU Professor Stifles Blogging, Twittering by Journalism Student."

The controversy was brought to my attention by Adam Penenberg, an assistant professor at NYU and chairman of the journalism department's ethics committee, who raised numerous journalistic challenges to Taylor's "embedded" role and reporting techniques and also questioned whether this was not a violation of PBS' own editorial standards. That's where I came in.

This is a complicated issue involving all sorts of free speech and privacy issues, respect for other students' rights, private versus public institutions, and also whether the classroom should be a place where every word can be recorded, personal opinions introduced, and put on the Web without anyone but a blogger knowing about it beforehand.

I think that teachers and professors need to be accountable for what they say in class, and certainly student blogging (after class would be my preference) can be a useful tool in helping to improve struggling courses, reinforcing those that are really good, or simply expanding ideas and discussion.

But the issue here for me is that Taylor was not just an undergrad posting her observations on her own blog about her journalism class, called "Reporting Gen Y." Rather she was hired — although not for money, according to Glaser — by Glaser as an "embed" to write for MediaShift. So Taylor's post did not simply join millions of other postings in the blogosphere by individuals that may or may not have many readers. This one was sponsored by PBS's MediaShift and had immediate access to the huge PBS.org audience.

Furthermore, this was a journalism student in a journalism department who did this without either telling the teacher what she was doing or who she was doing it for, without asking permission of the teacher or other classmates (one classmate is quoted anonymously, also not a great journalistic habit to get in to), without checking content or asking for the teacher's views of the author's critical assessments, and without, of course, identifying her national connection to PBS. Glaser, wrote Penenberg, assigned this NYU junior "to go undercover in one of her classes to blog about her impressions for PBS." That is more straightforward language in this case than "embedded," but it sounds right to me.

However journalism is going to evolve in years to come, and whatever platform readers and viewers will choose to get their news — assuming they want to stay informed — it seems to me that certain fundamentals must remain bedrock. Among them is the notion that journalists must always, except in the most rare circumstances, announce themselves, go through the front door, say who you are, what you are doing and who you are working for. To avoid doing this in a journalism course is not a great career move or a way to get started, in my opinion.

It is also a violation of the NYU journalism department's ethics handbook that says, according to Penenberg, that "the vast majority of time journalists should make clear to the people they are interviewing that they are journalists. State your name and affiliation up front." But are journalism students journalists? Are bloggers journalists? And does an ethics handbook have any validity? I would argue the answer is yes to all three in this case.


Posted by Amanda Cochran at October 2, 2008 10:18 AM | TrackBack
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