Inaugurations, Civil Rights Anniversaries and Newsroom Diversity: A Reflection

As I write this, the United States is re-enacting the second inauguration of Pres. Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. In a nod to the Civil Rights Movement that did so much to make an African-American possible, Myrlie Evers-Williams will give the invocation. Her first husband, Medgar Evers, was martyred nearly 50 years ago for registering black people to vote in Mississippi. Evers was a colleague and of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is being marked today as a national holiday.

Tomorrow, I begin teaching the latest version of my Race, Gender and News class, which is cross-listed between TCNJ’s journalism/professional writing major and our African-American Studies minor. At this moment, I happen to chair the African-American Studies Department while teaching in journalism and interactive multimedia. I watch this moment as a child and student of the Civil Rights movement, an American, a journalist and educator committed to building structures for peaceful change through civic dialog. My friend and college classmate, legal scholar Adrien Wing, articulated the challenge of synthesizing and acting upon through the prism of these multiple perspectives in her insightful and poignant 1990 essay for the Berkeley Women’s Law Journal, “Brief Reflections Toward a Multiplicative Theory and Praxis of Being.”

As Wing says, ” [F]eeling is first,” so I’ll begin there. The President is a man of my generation, with a personal narrative that bears some similarities with my own. His wife is one degree of separation from me, many times over, because we share the same undergraduate alma mater. I knew her brother there, as well one of their closest friends and supporters. As an undergraduate, I knew Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who administered the oath to VP Biden. I have grown more used to seeing these friends of my youth on the national stage in the last four years, but part of me is still awestruck. Their ascendance represent impossibilities that became possible in my lifetime.

And yet, they also represent something else that we Civil RIghts children used to repeat to each other during our undergraduate years — that human progress does not come through the actions of charismatic leaders, but through the concerted efforts of many people over time, most of whom will only be known to those who loved them. Feeling and inspiration have their place, but clear-eyed assessments are what matters.

Both the power and limits of charisma, smarts and inspiring personal narrative have been evident during the Obama years, and have been the focus of contentious and sometimes mean-spirited debate. Whether one loved or loathed Pres. Obama in January, 2009, he has defied easy categorization. The president who extended an open hand to Iran also gave the order for the drones that regularly strafe outposts in Yemen and Pakistan thought to harbor terrorists. Those up in arms about his recent executive orders on guns might do well to remember that one of his first acts after his 2009 inauguration was to order the closure of the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay. That hasn’t happened, although administration officials reportedly say they will keep trying. According to Politifact, Obama kept about half of his campaign promises during this first term, compromised on another 20 percent, and broke about 25 percent.

Some of this, of course, is the reality of ordinary politics. No president fulfills all of his promises. And perhaps it is predictable that a president who prepared for his first term by studying Lincoln and FDR would, like them, endure accusations that he was overstepping his bounds and trampling on liberty. But  race is inevitably part of the equation. Ta-Nehesi Coates and William Jelani Cobb have provocatively written on this; I need say little more here than to urge a reading of their words for those who haven’t. But I will note this –   students of the Civil Rights movement note with concern the fact that, as Dr. King once said of Alabama’s pro-segregationist governor,  the lips of some gun-rights advocates and Obamacare opponents are, “dripping with words of interposition and nullification.” Nor have they lost sight of the pro-segregation lineage of some Obama opponents, such as the Council of Conservative Citizens.

We’ll be using Eric Deggan’s new book Race Baiter: How the Media Uses Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation as one of core texts. As Deggans puts it:

“This book is an attempt to decode the ways media outlets profit by segmenting Americans. I call it the Tyranny of the Broad Niche; what happens as the biggest pieces of an increasingly fragmented audience are courted at the expense of many others.”

In communities such as Mercer County, New Jersey, where our journalism undergraduates and alumni play a critical role in news coverage, progress during the Obama administration’s second term will likely be gauged by personal measures of well-being: whether the capital city of Trenton’s long economic decline can be stemmed, whether the states’ above-average unemployment rate can be reversed, whether something can be done about the almost-daily deadly shootings and abysmal graduation rates. While much of the Trenton news media’s focus in 2013 will likely be consumed with the pending corruption prosecutions of Mayor Tony Mack, et. al. and the latest sound-byte from the blustering, contrarian Governor Chris Christie, I’ll strive to keep my students focused on the processes and dynamics that affect people’s lives but don’t readily lend themselves to twitpic or SEO-optimised clickbait accompanied by top-dollar contextual ads.

The world is watching, and not just in obvious places, such as London, Jerusalem, Nairobi or Caracas. This past September, I was privileged toFICHAR Nepal spend a week in Nepal at the behest of the US State Department, where I participated in conversations with students, human rights advocates, legal experts, journalists, educators and government officials about building democracy through a strong and inclusive civil society. Many of our conversations were about the applicability of the US Civil Rights and feminist movements to Nepal’s very challenging and complex political situation, and I was asked more than once to opine on the role of racism in the opposition to Obama. As the International Crisis Group notes, Nepal is at an impasse in its efforts to adopt a new Constitution largely because, “Nepali actors are deeply divided on the role of identity politics in the proposed federal set-up.”  In the face of these divisions, activists groups such as Fichar Nepal wage a valiant campaign for peaceful and inclusive change.

Conversing with civil society leaders in Biratnagar, Nepal.
Conversing with civil society leaders in Biratnagar, Nepal.

As a journalist and educator, my job is to seek and encourage that broader, richer understanding of moments such as these. That’s akin to asking a chef to deliver a multi-course banquet to diners conditioned to the microwaved info-snacks continuously served up by cable news and its social media extensions. I plan to try some new things in the classroom and with class projects to encourage healthier news production and consumption; we’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, here are a two story angles that I do find interesting in relation to today’s events that probably won’t get much press attention:

  • Robert Moses’ birthday. The key architect of Freedom Summer and founder of the Algebra Project turns 78 on January 23. It’s a perfect occasion to finally focus attention on what 30 years of research and civic action around math education can teach us, as well as his contention that making quality education a constitutional right is the logical extension of the Civil Rights movement today.
  • The impact of Michelle Obama’s healthy-eating initiatives. According to a recent Washington Post article, feminists are “divided” over Obama’s characterization of herself as “Mom-in-chief,” and find her focus on childhood obesity “trivial,” especially compared to former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s prominent role in her husband’s administration. (As is too often the case with such political stories, the story appeared in the Style section, with and referred to her ‘work’ in literal quotation marks.) One might have hoped for some investigation of the actual impact of her Let’s Move  initiative, given the importance of childhood obesity as a public health issue, and the considerable effort being expended by advocates, non-profits and local governments to improve healthy food access.  In fact, I’ve only seen one such investigation: an October, 2012 article by Bridget Huber of the Food and Environment Reporting Network judging the results of her strategy of forging public-private partnerships to be modest and controversial among activists. More local follow-up on this matter would be welcome, especially pared with analyses of the impact of the Administration’s 2010 $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

And so we all begin again.

As we change journalism education, we need to study journalism learners

After years of exhortation and industry convulsions, journalism education is changing. The argument for infusing digital  media education – even programming — into the journalism curriculum is over. The questions are mostly logistical – what type, in what sequence, how much and to what ends? Driven largely by business needs, college newspapers are becoming sites of experimentation with new business and management models. Professional news organizations are expanding their relationships with journalism schools beyond their traditional roles as providers of internships and first employers. In some cases, they are collaborating on beat coverage and special investigations. In at least one instance, the local professional news outlets have physically moved on campus.

At the graduate level, Medill’s Innovation program helped spawn Narrative Science, a company that programs robots to generate stories. We faculty at small programs, who have thinking through what these changes mean for institutions like ours, finally have our own journal, Teaching Journalism and Mass Communications. The 2013 edition of Georgia Tech’s groundbreaking Computation + Journalism Symposium will likely drive the conversation even further.

All signs of progress, but something important is being lost amid the frenzy.

As former President George W. Bush famously put it, “Rarely is the question asked, ‘Is our children learning?'” Mindy McAdams speaks for many of us who have spent years looking for ways to infuse digital skills into the journalism curriculum:

“We can offer a course that focuses on Web technologies — HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc. But there is no data journalism in that class. And a lot of the students are going to hate typing those little brackets and so on. They’ll be so happy when that course is done and they never have to do that again.

“Moreover, they won’t practice what they learned, and very soon, they will forget all of it.

“We can offer a course about scraping and doing stuff with large data sets. We can teach students how to find stories in data. Students who like this, who learn how to do it and want to continue doing it, are probably among those most likely to get a journalism job. Like the Web technologies course, though, this is a class that many students will either avoid like the plague or take and then count the minutes until it’s over.”

Please, please read the whole post. She points to a real challenge that we haven’t yet cracked: how to engage students who think that journalism is about writing, not math or technology. Students who have convinced themselves that writing is something they are inherently “good” at, while math and tech are something they are inherently “bad” at. Students who don’t see why they need to understand html when they can just use a wysiwyg platform to build a website.

And my colleague and friend Michelle Johnson adds another layer: too often, the students who are least successful in adapting to journalism’s digital evolution are students of color, apparently another manifestation of the racial achievement gap. She writes:

“[F]or the past 20 years, I’ve read literally hundreds of applications for journalism training programs and scholarships, as well as for admission to journalism school. And sadly, I’m seeing some troubling signs.
“This isn’t just hand-wringing about a decline in writing skills among young people with short attention spans who communicate via texting abbreviations — I’ve noticed that among all the students.
“Simply put, I’m seeing that many of the students of color lack experience with the tools and technologies that will be fundamental to journalism innovation going forward. And this comes at a time when funding for training programs for students of color has shrunk, along with the bottom lines of the news industry and professional associations.”

These are exactly the concerns that keep me awake at night, even as I champion interactive journalism as a way of bringing members of under-represented groups into computing fields. (I’d also add working-class students to Michelle’s list, by the way.)

I would submit that amid our frenzy to learn and then incorporate all the skills that our graduates need into our curricula, we need a better understanding of what students absorb, and what affects their sense of self-efficacy as they confront the unexpected skills and content we are asking them to learn. That’s part of what I’m hoping to better understand with the new research project that I’ve embarked upon with Dr. S. Monisha Pulimood, of TCNJ’s Computer Science Department. The formal title is TUES: Collaborating Across Boundaries to Engage Undergraduates in Computational Thinking.(NSF Award #1141170). As we state in our abstract:

“To adequately prepare a workforce for the changing economic and global landscape, the project is developing a model that enables students with diverse perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds to learn how to collaborate and integrate concepts from their respective fields to develop technology-based solutions for complex real-world problems.”

It’s a tall order that we’ve set ourselves, and we are grateful to have Diane Bates, our independent evaluator, on board to help us assess what we are doing.

I’ll share more specific information about our project as it develops, but for now, I want to share some specific questions that I’m working through about integrating computational thinking and integrate it into journalism classes.

What’s the right learning environment to support computational thinking in journalism?  One of the posts that I wrote for a 2010 series about my own early exposure to skills that are currently classed as computational thinking began with this prologue:

“There are, at least, two approaches to education: the mimetic approach and the mathetic approach. The mimetic approach emphasizes memorization and drill exercises and is most efficient in inculcating facts and developing basic skills [Gar89, p. 6]. The mathetic approach stresses learning by doing and self exploration; it encourages independent and creative thinking [Pap80, p. 120]. In the mimetic framework, creativity comes after the mastery of basic skills. On the other hand, proponents of the mathetic school believe that self discovery is the best, if not the only, way to learn…”

Educational Outlook,”

Sugih Jamin, Associate Professor, EECS, University of Michigan

Whether taught in a classroom or newsroom, journalism education tends to be mimetic, while approaches to engaging novices in computing tend to be mathetic. We introduce students to specific routines and rigors of reporting, emphasizing adherence to rules of attribution, AP style, divisions of genre and structure (hard news, features, inverted pyramids, nut grafs, and so on.)  We stress the importance of getting the story right the first time, and then admit that there will likely be corrections and emendations as a breaking news story develops. We do these things for good reason: flubbing the fundamentals can not only get a reporter fired, it can lead to lawsuits, or in extreme cases, endanger innocent lives and reputations. Consequently, journalism students and professionals learn to think of every thing they do in highly instrumental terms, especially when it comes to learning what they need to know to ensure that they will get or keep a job.

By contrast, programming environments for novices such as Scratch or Alice are very successful at making introductory programming concepts more accessible. However, their strategy for engaging learners emphasizes play in ways that can be off-putting to journalism students who feel a need to quickly learn how to assemble a professional product. In the past, I’ve used Scratch in two ways – as a first step in learning Flash (something I’ve abandoned since Adobe made Mindy McAdams’ Flash Journalism text obsolete, and experts such as Mark  Luckie began pooh-poohing it as an important skill for journalists.) I’ve had some success teaching Scratch in game design courses, and I may think about using Alice for this purpose in the future, since its most recent iteration is specifically designed to give students a leg up Java, and that can be useful to aspiring app developers.

Do we need a journalism-specific programming environment to engage novice journalism students?

There are other, more mimetic, web-based learning environments for learning to code, such as’s CS `101 course, which focuses on Python and teaches students how to build a web scraper. There is an appeal to that approach because it has students build something that has obvious practical use in journalism. However, that course is arguably vulnerable to the criticism made by Bret Victor of platforms such as Khan Academy and CodeAcademy – that is, that they emphasize rote skills, while programming is “a way of thinking.”

Might it make sense to create a hybrid learning environment that combines the low barriers to entry of Scratch or Alice, with the goal orientation of something like Udacity? Will we begin to succeed at teaching programming as a way of thinking if we can more closely articulate between these learning environments and our broader journalism education curricula? (Here I am speaking of curricula not only for the classroom, but also for professional training.) Will novice programmer journalists be more motivated to learn in an environment where they can see direct connections between what their growing computing knowledge, the specific journalism artifacts they are learning to create, and the marketable skills they are developing? If so, what is the best way to create these linkages?

Is learning scripting really a gateway to computational thinking? The notion that journalism students should learn to “code” has gained increasing acceptance, but what that means and how one learns to do it are not universally understood. For several years, I’ve taken a position similar to the one that Miranda Mulligan took in a September 5, 2012 essay for NiemanLab:

I am not arguing that every single writer/editor/publisher who learns some programming should end up becoming a software engineer or a refined web designer. The end goal here is not programming fluency. However, there’s a lot of value in understanding how browsers read and render our stories. Reporting and writing a story, writing some code (HTML, CSS, Javascript), and programming complex applications and services are all collections of skills. A fundamental knowledge of code allows for:

  • More significant conversations about digital presentation, ultimately leading to better, more meaningful, online storytelling. Understanding your medium makes you better at your craft.
  • Deeper thought and understanding of data. Learning more about what goes into writing and programming software teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components, frameworks, object classes, templates, and more.

What Mulligan is referring to here as code (html, css, javascript – or more likely, jquery) is not programming, but web scripting, and as Mindy McAdams noted earlier, doesn’t get students digging into data. Having taught html and css for several years in our Writing for Interactive Multimedia class, my TCNJ colleagues and I can attest to all of the challenges that McAdams cites.

But there may be an additional unexamined assumption here, that learning scripting leads to the kind of computational fluency that, as Mulligan puts it, “teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components…”  I would submit that we need data to support this hypothesis. I certainly agree with her intuitively, but we need to know. These are some of the things we hope to learn in our research project, but there is lots of good work to be done to understand what, if any correlations exist between learning to script and learning to think computationally about the creation of journalism artifacts.

What do we know about the success of CAR courses that teach Excel,  SPSS, Access and SQL? The one place in the journalism curriculum that has come closest to teaching something like computational thinking has been in Computer Assisted Reporting classes (which these days, of course, is arguably a redundant term.)  A syllabus repository for some of these courses is here. We’ve had a required CAR course at TCNJ for 10 years. Many of these classes required that students minimally learn to use Microsoft Excel and Access (something I required when I taught it in the early 2000s). Some also incorporated SPSS and SQL. I don’t know of anyone who has studied these courses to assess the degree to which they affect students’ computing efficacy, programming skill, or acquisition of computational thinking concepts such as abstraction, decomposition, data structures, etc.

We could also use some research on the viability of such classes as points of articulation with emerging computational journalism curricula in computer science. One hopeful example is the work done by my TCNJ colleagues Donna Shaw and Emilie Lounsberry on the development of a database manager, GUMSHOE, that tracked the  disposition of gun-related arrests through the Philadelphia courts, ultimately contributing to an award winning story package on endemic problems in the Philadelphia court system.

These are just some of the questions that I think could lead to fruitful education research. I have others, such as questions about the possible role of stereotype threat on the achievement gap issues that Michelle Johnson cited, and whether learning science might help us better illuminate the real gaps in understanding and engagement that have many of us classroom teachers worried. As I’ve learned from talking to learning scientist  Deborah Tatar, making assumptions about why whole groups of people aren’t grasping particular concepts is often a big mistake.

Much, much more to be learned. I’m hoping that what has been, until now, an understandably ad hoc and organic effort develops into an area of systematic study.