Friday, November 03, 2006

A Bad Idea

This semester I am pulling the plug on a bad idea, that is, a reporting and writing assignment designed to accomplish several things that has, in fact, accomplished nothing. In my beginning reporting course, about halfway through the semester I assign a story that is essentially a single-source interview. For years the story was an anniversary piece of some sort that required the kids to ask their subjects about some traumatic past event -- the 1989 earthquake, the 1991 Oakland hills fire, 9/11 -- and recall what the sources were doing at the time and how it affected them then and how it affects them now.

We got a little re-creation of past events, and we got a little introspection. It was a good assignment, but then I decided if I had the kids interview a USF professor -- not the same prof; one to a customer -- that we would get a nice package of stories that we could put online and produce some good feeling on campus toward the journalism minor.

This has not turned out to be a very good idea. It's hard for the kids to challenge their mentors. About half the class finds it deeply intrusive to ask their teachers how old they are. And it's hard for college professors to be very interesting, what with the life of the mind and all. Or, to put it another way, it's hard for the kids to understand the ways in which college professors are interesting. And, of course, the profs very sensibly wonder if these young journalists are able to connect the dots if the profs were bold enough to offer any of their innermost dots for inspection.

I'm not saying that the profiles are bad. Some are pretty good, though rather thin. But so often lurking at the edge of the prose is the desire to please and to flatter on the part of the student.

Heck, maybe on some level that was what I hoped the profiles would accomplish. One is always looking to show off, isn't one?

But no more. Oh, I also hoped that the professors would appreciate the pedagogical aspect of the exericise and fill out the following questionnaire, which I sent to each of them along with a copy of their mini-profiles. (Note the copout: I refer to the stories as drafts. They weren't ... except in the sense that nothing is ever finished, is it?)


You were recently interviewed by a student in my reporting class. Thank you for your cooperation. A draft of the story for which you served as a source is attached. The student and I would appreciate it if you would answer the following questions, which are designed to guide the student journalist in future interviews. For each question, please elaborate to the degree you feel appropriate.

1) Was the reporter professional in the way he/she arranged the interview?

2) Was the reporter on time for the interview?

3) Was the reporter professional in dress and demeanor?

4) Was the reporter well prepared for the interview, having previously ascertained basic facts about you and the issues to be discussed?

5) Did the reporter paraphrase you accurately?

6) Did the reporter quote you accurately?

7) Does the story indicate competence on the part of the reporter in understanding the import of the interview?

8) Do you feel that the reporter missed opportunities, either in preparation or in follow-up questions, to get at more important issues than those actually developed in the interview?

Any additional comments would be welcome. With your permission, this story will be placed online at the class website after revision.


david silver said...

ok, that project may not have worked perfectly but this one sure did produce interesting - and at times, hysterical - results!

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Ah, yes. The group project. I think Mike Vick did a good job with the interviews, making clear that what we have is a very small and very unscientific sample. But the fact so many of those interviewed thought so many of their fellow students are/were having sex is "interesting" and the discomfort of some in merely talking about sex is "interesting," too. Some newspaper stories are no more and no less than dinner table conversation. We can continue that conversation around our own dinner tables. Does it add up to a story? That was for the Foghorn editors to decide. And they did.