Feature

Preparing the journalists of the future

Student journalist Max hard at work. Photo: Ben Loughran.

As you slowly walk up the long, white corridor to the room there is a growing sense of excitement and anxiousness from knowing it will be a long and arduous day. The room is filled with people quietly sipping coffee and making small talk as they try to get the blood pumping and wear away the nerves, all while the rolling newsfeed creates a sort of background music

Then a switch is flipped and like busy worker bees the students fire into gear chasing down contacts and agonising over the best possible photos for their stories. The details matter. A ringing phone will be the overarching motif of the day as frantic dialing and redialing presses the urgency into the young group to try and get the story done before deadline. 

This passion for storytelling and the want to inform the public is not only alive in Curtin University’s student newsroom, but in university newsrooms all around the country. 

The journalists of the future learn their craft in these rooms and take the lessons given to them here and apply them at the highest levels of political, economic and social debate in this nation. A constant wave of new journalists who are inquisitive, informed and resourceful is exactly what every functioning democracy needs.

Irish writer and poet Jonathan Swift once penned ‘falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.’ If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything it has shown how quickly false and misleading information can permeate the masses. This is why accurate and ethical journalists are more important than ever.

Good journalism is currently fighting job cuts, funding cuts, increasingly polarised audiences, increasingly lower audience numbers and increasingly more fake and fraudulent news. But make no mistake, good journalism starts at the student level and these are issues students face. 

An initiative designed to display the great work student reporters do was launched by Andrew Dodd out of University of Melbourne. The Junction is a platform created to allow students to publish their stories to a wider audience than they would typically garner on their own university news outlet. But more than just a news outlet Dr Dodd said the Junction is a merging of academia, a place to explore ideas and push boundaries.  

“It’s a meeting of minds, a meeting of universities in order to experiment to do things where you create things that are greater than the sum of their parts. When you think about it, by being brought together we’ve created the largest newsroom in the country,” Dr Dodd said.

The responsibility of being a part of the biggest newsroom in the nation is not taken lightly by the students who Andrew Dodd says no longer surprise him with the quality of the work they produce.  

“I’m no longer surprised by how good it is, there’s so much great stuff,” he said. 

“So, the education is better, the public is better served, we create some diversity in the media, everyone wins.”

This same feeling is shared by educator Mignon Shardlow, a journalism lecturer at the University of Notre Dame. She has been a teacher for 13 years and says the rise of fake news has only made the role of journalists all the more important.

“[Fake news] makes it difficult for people to understand the role of a journalist…there are very few solutions to this problem of the conflation of ideas around fake news. The one solution I can see is journalism,” Dr Shardlow said. 

A major issue plaguing journalism is the consistent dropping number of news consumers. People who actively seek to know what is happening around them are becoming fewer and fewer. Those who actively avoid the news do it for a number of reasons and they are only growing in number. According to the Constructive Institute this is called news aversion and it is dangerous for society. 

study commissioned in 2017 by Oxford University and the Reuters Institute found 48 per cent of respondents avoided the news because it had a negative effect on their mood, while 37 per cent said they avoided it because they could not trust what they were consuming. 

To combat the fall of news consumers the Constructive Institute is trying to implement constructive journalism into the curriculums of journalism programs. Constructive journalism is a three pillared structure designed to change the way reporters approach stories all while maintaining the core principles of journalism. The three pillars are: to focus on the solutions of a story rather than just the negative details, to cover nuance by examining a story through different sets of eyes and to promote democratic conversation. 

Dr Kayt Davies from Curtin University and coordinator for the Junction says constructive journalism has found its way into the mainstream education of journalism courses. 

“The constructive institute has, through a number of connections, made its way into the curriculum of 25 universities in Australia this semester is pretty exciting,” she said. 

This evolution of the journalism curriculum is happening in real time and shows how new research is being implemented today for students to be used tomorrow professionally. 

Dr Davies says aside from the technical abilities, journalism graduates also are capable and aspiring young professionals. 

“Yes, you come out of this [university course] and you can structure a news story, and you can ask a professional a question, and you can do some research and sort the fact from the opinion…you can also edit some audio, edit some video, put all these things together. But really what you become is a confident professional, and I think there is just as much need for confident professionals in a rapidly changing world as there ever was in the world of newspapers,” she said. 

Another major pressure  put upon the institution of journalism is funding cuts. Losses in funding often leads to losses in jobs and with $84m cut from the ABC this year 250 jobs have been lost and certain programs have been cut.  

With journalism degrees set to double in price next year the financial hardships affecting the professional industry could start to affect the student population according to the Journalism and Education and Research Association of Australia president Dr Alex Wake. 

JERAA released a statement in June labelling the move to hike fees as ‘short-sighted and reckless’ with Dr Wake saying the higher tuition fee might act as a disincentive for people who would otherwise have picked this field of study. 

“So, if you’re making people pay more to do a degree in journalism it will further discourage them from becoming journalists, and we constantly need new journalists entering the field. 

Journalists are there to provide, to put a spotlight, on politicians and their activities and this is one way of ensuring that journalists are not trained appropriately and to the highest levels by discouraging them from doing a journalism degree,” she said.  

With the possibility of less journalists in the future and with current journalists working in under-resourced newsrooms democracy in this country could be put at risk. In fact, since the start of 2019 around 157 newsrooms have closed in Australia particularly affecting the rural and regional citizens of this country as reported by the ABC.  

The lack of news outlets in country Australia was detailed in a report published in September by the Alfred Deakin Institute. It found of the people surveyed, 88 per cent accessed local news regularly but 24 per cent do not have a local television news broadcast, 25 per cent do not have a local newspaper and 33 per cent do not have a commercial news radio station.   

Someone who is well accustomed to working in somewhat under-resourced conditions is Danielle Raffaele, one of two reporters for the Northwest Telegraph, covering the 447km area between Port Hedland and Newman in far north Western Australia.

A simple example of these limited resources is for the interview a landline was needed due to spotty mobile connectivity in regional WA. 

Ms Raffaele’s main role is writing stories for print, but she also goes on air once a week during a segment called the Pilbara Poles on Triple M radio station. She says she learned this kind of resourcefulness while at university and volunteering at RTR radio in Perth. 

“Volunteering at RTR just gave me the confidence, I think, just to be able to talk to people,” she said. 

“I think soft skills are a massive part of journalism, it’s not what you know, it’s definitely who you know and just being able to make connections. 

“Uni is great because it introduces you to those [soft skills].” 

Northwest Telegraph reporter Danielle Raffaele currently resides in Port Hedland. Photo supplied by Danielle Raffaele.

While discussing the importance of journalism, Ms Raffaele cited the continuing battle against fake news and the role journalists play in their communities.

“Social media has absolutely changed the way journalism functions and, you know, the advent of fake news as well is a thing we have to compete with, ” she said.

“But I just think that means it’s even more important to have clear communication, good investigative journalism and advocacy journalism as well. That’s one thing I’m really keen on, finding out what the community need and communicating that.”

Co-chief editor for Pelican magazine working at Bob Hawke’s old guild desk. Photo: Ben Loughran.

Student- run outlets such as Edith Cowan University’s magazine Dircksey, Curtin’s Grok and UWA’s Pelican magazine give students freedom to explore ideas and issues they are passionate about and a platform to publish them while still at university.

Pelican edition for October next to the office mascot. Photo by Ben Loughran.

Dircksey chief editor Shaun Salmon says he got involved with the outlet after a lifelong passion for the craft of magazines. Grok chief editor Maria Capau says her love of writing is what pushed her to join Curtin’s magazine. Pelican news editor Courtney Withes says her friend encouraged her to write for the magazine originally. Although their specific paths into these roles were different, they all shared a desire to inform and entertain their readers, something which is at the core for good journalism.

Mr Salmon says the door is always open for people wishing to write for the magazine.

“Come along, you can write about anything. All contributions from any students on any campus on any subject from any school is welcome,” he said.

Ms Capau says in her opinion the most salient role of Grok is it tells the stories which are important to students.

“Grok’s work is fairly important in the sense that what I consider we do is write what is important to students,” she said.

Ms Withes says the raised fees for certain humanities degrees was disappointing given the value of journalism.

“I think journalism in general is important and I think students studying journalism is important. We need a really good intake of journalists in the future and with the whole cuts to arts and humanities next year, that was really disappointing to see. It means we could not have an intake of students studying journalism next year,” she said.

Dr Alex Wake is adamant student journalism is as crucial as it has ever been. She appealed to the people of Australia to care about journalism at all levels.

“Don’t lose faith. Journalism is, in my view, one of the most important career choices you can make. It is vital to democracy,” she said.  

Dr Shardlow from Notre Dame University explains why student journalism is vital to civic society. Video: Ben Loughran.