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Classroom Learning Amplified through Live Newsroom Experiences

By MOLLY A. CROUCH

In a lecture hall below a live newsroom at the University of Texas, nearly 100 students watched multiple media outlets as polls closed across the nation. R.B. Brenner, director of the School of Journalism, and professor Robert Quigley occasionally muted the live feed to deliver a hands-on lesson for the undergraduates in their Digital Storytelling Basics class. The students not only watched history unfold on Nov. 8, 2016, the rising journalists also learned valuable lessons in how to document it.

“There’s nothing like experiencing something in real time, because that’s the way journalism is reporting on it,” Brenner said. “By waiting another two days and having it in a lecture removes the sense that it’s immediate and that it’s happening, and journalism doesn't have two days to reflect on it.”

The excitement of a live newsroom for student journalists was apparent throughout the night. Despite a multitude of personal and political opinions, students remained professional and focused on the journalism lessons.

“I’m very mindful as a faculty member that you have students from all different points of view and backgrounds, so I wanted us to try real hard to not have it turn into some partisan kind of thing,” Brenner said. “I thought our students were mature with how people handled it no matter if they were happy or sad.”

Meanwhile and throughout the day, graduate and undergraduate students in the Reporting Texas course participated in a live newsroom experience, led by Kathy Warbelow and Fred Zipp. Anticipating the site wouldn’t draw as many readers as major news outlets by analyzing the results of the election, Reporting Texas collaborated with Propublica and Election Land to investigate polling places for any irregularities. Students from Reporting Texas were then assigned a specific county to examine the local polling stations in the surrounding Austin area and update their election day blog.

“We heard about Election Land, asked the students to look at it and a consensus developed that it would be a good way to spend our time,” Zipp said. “There’s not much point to us staying here until four a.m. trying to report on results because we just don’t have that big of an audience, but we thought that by focusing on how voting was going and the potential for irregularities that we could carve out our own niche.”

Reporting Texas writers Swathi Narayanan and Qiling Wang, second year Master’s students, visited Williamson county at the Round Rock Randalls. In one of their stories, a woman was turned away because her I.D. was issued in a different county, even though she had recently moved to Williamson county.

“I think each one of us can say with pride that it’s some of our best work,” Narayanan said. “To be able to fan out and cover other counties like most of the national media would overlook, even the local media here. I don’t know if they went out to every county and really far locations and spoke to people. I think that was the best thing about this entire coverage.”

The election illustrated clearly the essential role of the media to bring attention to a wide variety of people and issues. Brenner emphasized the importance of continuing to properly cultivate journalism students and said that journalism as a whole will need to continue to become a protector of future events.

“My big takeaway is that journalism is more important now than ever, but it’s also really important that journalism does its job well and not contribute to dysfunction,” Brenner said. “I think it’s really important for journalism to play its watchdog role and to make sure journalism is an appropriate watchdog against power.”

Students in the Digital Storytelling course saw first-hand how news outlets reacted to an unexpected turn of events as the night unfolded. Many became hesitant to call key states, even after a majority of the polling was complete - a stark contrast to the bold predictions prior to election night.

“I would say more than anything that it makes me re-double my efforts in how important it is that we keep doing a good job at training the next generation of journalists because I think this election showed that we have a country going through very serious issues that we are going to have to work through as a society,” Brenner said. “We are in uncharted territories because we have never had anyone in my lifetime who is going to take this office without having any of the obvious preparations for it and who has been campaigning and saying things that a good segment of the population will find concerning.”

Crouch is a freshman journalism major.