Expert Commentary

Case study: Knowledge-based journalism and the UNC News21 experience

Case study by UNC-Chapel Hill on giving a group of highly motivated journalism the means, knowledge and training necessary for them to create a innovative news product.

This case study describes what happens when a group of highly motivated journalism students are given the means, knowledge and training necessary to create an innovative news product. The School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is one of the recipients of a Carnegie-Knight News21 grant, and in 2009 and 2010 the school’s faculty selected students to create a website with content about U.S. energy use, titled “Powering a Nation.” The school is participating in a third year of the project in 2011.

Each year, the project was funded for pay, travel and training of 10 students. This allowed for significant creativity, flexibility and experimentation for the students and faculty involved. Because the project called for innovation, new approaches to the development of ideas and modes of storytelling were emphasized and encouraged.

Students were not chosen for this project because of their expertise on the subject of U.S. energy use, but rather because of their skills as reporters, editors, designers, photographers, videographers, graphic artists, programmers and marketers. Strong consideration was also given to a student’s ability to work effectively in a group setting and to bring innovative ideas to the process. The need for interaction, respect and understanding among the students and coaches proved to be a key to fostering creative storytelling.

Given the students’ initial lack of subject-matter expertise, helping them develop a rigorous intellectual framework for reporting was paramount, and to that end, the class emphasized scholarly readings, solicited visits from national experts and facilitated critical discussions. This provided a solid foundation for reporting and laid the groundwork for the success of the final product.

An important expectation of the project was that it would demonstrate to other media outlets what could be achieved through thinking differently about coverage. The following were key points of emphasis:

  • Use of original scholarship and research, building toward “knowledge-based reporting.”
  • Collaboration of students with different backgrounds.
  • Teaching of different journalistic skill sets to participants.
  • Cultivation of a newsroom environment that supported both a dynamic group process and journalistic innovation.

Read the full case study.

Laura Ruel is assistant professor in visual communication and multimedia production at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Tags: training.

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