College Students Not Engaged With Political News — Even in an Election Year

It’s a presidential election year. Chances are you’re paying attention to politics – or are at least aware of the state of the 2012 campaign.

Maybe you’re a news junkie. You seek out political news. Maybe you’re a headline grazer. Political news finds you. Maybe you thrive on political discussions. Maybe you just scroll past them on Facebook.

This never-ending election cycle gives you ample opportunities to gauge your political engagement. But how often do you actually take stock of the ways in which you follow political news and how much time you spend thinking or talking about politics?

In early March, I asked more than 200 college students to spend three days tracking just this. The assignment was timed with Super Tuesday, one of the most important dates on the election calendar.  More than 150 students agreed to have their time-stamped diary entries and responses to a subsequent survey reported in a forthcoming study. Part I of this study found that students are largely disengaged with politics and political news this election year. They typically spent less than 30 minutes over three days following political news and rarely discussed politics with their friends or family.

I co-wrote a piece in Huffington Post (with Susan Moeller, director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda) that gives more details about the study and its findings. Perhaps one of the most striking findings: Students commonly say they don’t see the relevance of news to their lives.


Musings on the Zakaria/Lehrer Plagiarism Scandals

Five mostly related comments about the recent scandals involving Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer:

1. Get Used to Nuanced Cases of Plagiarism. For every Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass there are dozens of Zakarias and Lehrers. That is to say, while the clear-cut, tisk-tisk cases of fabrication and stealing others’ work are fodder for films (Shattered Glass, anyone?), far more common are cases in which journalists make some cardinal errors but don’t completely blow up their careers. In Zakaria’s case, it seems as if he didn’t go far enough in citing the original source. Lehrer “self-plagiarized” and fabricated some quotes in a book. No one would put these two in the Glass/Blair category. Even as of this writing, there’s still some uncertainty about how to classify what Zakaria did or didn’t do. But these cases of nuanced plagiarism (or whatever you want to call them) are more representative of the common mistakes made by journalists in the present day.

2. The Hazards of Being a Multitasking Journalist. It’s hard not to see similarities in the two cases: Two prominent journalists with perhaps too much on their plates cutting corners or not checking their work properly getting busted. Lehrer was balancing Wired, the New Yorker, book writing and the lecture circuit, among other things; Zakaria has his magazine column, work for the Washington Post and his television show. This isn’t to excuse their sins or say that every journalist with a full plate is lifting passages or reusing his work. But there are only so many hours of the day, and room for sloppy journalism increases with this type of schedule. 

3. Superstars, They Do Fall. Several of the best reaction pieces on the Lehrer scandal have pointed out that our society tends to fall in love with the next big thing. This is true in sports, music…and journalism. No longer do reporters have to pay their dues for decades. Lehrer was quickly spotted as a superstar and was treated as one. This episode — and to a certain extent the Zakaria case (though he is much older) — again should teach us the lesson that we shouldn’t lionize the rising star.

4. Outing Sinning Journalists Has Become a Cottage Industry. We read interviews with the reporters who break these plagiarism stories and those who pile on to find further cases of indiscretion by the journalists in question. These journalists covering the scandals often say they feel bad about the disgraced reporters being fired. Maybe, but they sure get a lot of attention for their breaking news. Journalists self-policing each other is a positive in theory, but there’s a fine line between doing a public service and trying to benefit from others’ misfortunes. 

5. This is a Classic Teachable Moment. Journalism educators: As the school year begins, you have been handed two case studies that should be brought into the classroom. Teaching students about the perils of working in this cut-and-paste culture and the dangers of fabricating in an age when people can easily catch your lies online is an essential lesson.

Journalists Don’t Understand Fair Use & Signs of an improving journalism job market

I’m just back from the 2012 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Conference in Chicago. It was a whirlwind four days of presenting research, listening to panel discussions and networking with other journalism educators. Among the most fascinating panels I attended was a discussion about fair use hosted by American University’s Center for Social Media. The center earlier this year released a code of best practices in fair use.

A hot topic of discussion at the conference panel on fair use was the recently released paper by American University researchers about journalists’ understanding — or lack thereof – of fair use. Interviews with 80 journalists revealed “significant evidence of delays, decisions to limit coverage and failure to disseminate on the basis of insecurity and misinformation about fair use.” In other words, journalists often self-censor and do the public a disservice by not knowing the basics of fair use.

Fair use rules are intentionally vague because the idea is to weigh the facts on a case-by-case basis. It’s difficult to explain the specifics of fair use in the classroom, as I’ve done many times to students in journalism courses. And it’s easy for journalists to assume that someone else in the news room (maybe the lawyer turned reporter?) will be the expert on fair use. But this is a wake-up call for everyone to inform themselves about a topic that isn’t going away.

Another report released — this one at the conference — revealed that the journalism job market for recent graduates is on the upswing. This is, of course, welcome news, even if it comes with the caveat that “gains in the job market were modest, the researchers said, and 2011 graduates faced job prospects still much more limited than did graduates four years earlier.”

Still, good news is good news when it comes to getting students into actual paid positions in the field they want to be in. Among the main findings from the University of Georgia report:

  • The level of bachelor’s degree recipients’ full-time employment was 53.3%, up more than three percentage points from the same date in 2010.
  • The percentage of journalism and mass communication bachelor’s degree recipients who found a full-time job in communications increased slightly, from 52% in 2010 to 54.8% in 2011.
  • More than seven out of 10 of 2011 bachelor’s degree recipients reported that they had the skill when they completed their studies to write for the web, edit for the web, use and create blogs, and use the social media professionally.

Lots of other interesting nuggets from the report, which is required reading for current students and educators preparing students for the workforce.



Teaching The Youngest Journalists

My journalism career launched in earnest many summers ago at Northwestern University’s Cherubs high school program (it has gone through several official names, but ask any program alum and he’ll refer to it as Cherubs). I’ve since had the pleasure of teaching twice at this long-running Northwestern journalism program, which is somewhere in between summer camp and summer school.

In more recent years, I’ve taught newswriting at American University’s Discover the World of Communication program. Both teaching gigs have given me the chance to teach the youngest journalists in an environment that encourages exploration and is without grades. Teaching high school students is particularly refreshing because they are just starting to find their voice as a writer. I’m often students’ first introduction to journalism — and I take that role seriously.

With that in mind, let me introduce you to the Teen Observer, the summer program’s web site that features students’ work. They write about guest speakers and events they attend, craft features about other students and pitch their own ideas. By the time they leave they are vastly improved writers and have a catalog of at least three stories to show colleges and future employers.