Aug. 31, 2011
Student journalists to gain real-world experience in caucus coverage course
The course description for Caucus Campaign Coverage reads, "Welcome to the Big Leagues."
It's an accurate portrayal, given the real-world experience reporters-in-training at the University of Iowa will gain this semester. For a brief window of time, the state becomes the center of the political universe. And the two dozen student journalists enrolled in the four-credit-hour workshop will be part of a national press corps covering the presidential hopefuls who use Iowa as a testing ground.
The class will maintain a blog and their best in-depth work will appear on IowaWatch.org, the website of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that publishes investigative and explanatory reports.
"The Iowa Caucuses, on Feb. 6, 2012, will be the first major event in a presidential campaign that will consume the media and the nation over the next year," said Stephen Berry, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter who is teaching the course with fellow UI journalism professor Jane Singer, an expert in new media. "Our students will report, write and edit hard news and features, for print and digital media."
The School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is offering the workshop to graduate and advanced undergraduate students. A few younger students who already have newsroom experience also made special requests to enroll, knowing the opportunity only comes around every four years.
Caitlin Fry, a UI junior majoring in journalism and history, took the course to enhance her understanding of the political process. She believes the hands-on experience of covering the Iowa Caucuses will serve her well as she pursues an internship in Washington, D.C. next year and a career in public service or advocacy.
"I hope to become more informed about the campaigning, election and caucus process," said Fry, a native of Naperville, Ill. "My goal is to be more active in issues facing our country. I believe this real-world experience will build my confidence to go out and find the stories that need to be told."
One focus of the course will be accuracy – and not just getting quotes right.
"We don't want students to just regurgitate speeches. Anyone with a recorder can do that," Berry said. "We'll have fact-checking assignments to take a deeper look at statements made by candidates."
Students will also try their hand at polling, teaming up with the Hawkeye Poll, a series of state and national surveys conducted by UI graduate students and faculty in political science. Prior to the 2008 caucuses, the poll was cited by news outlets such as the Associated Press, the Today show, CNN, TIME, Politico, The New York Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, The L.A. Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe, MSNBC and U.S.News & World Report.
"Polls are a critically important tool for reporting, and learning what's required to conduct a poll is excellent experience as well," Singer said. "We especially like the idea of student journalists learning to ask questions in the disinterested, neutral style that's required for polling."
The students will produce print and video packages, live blog and Tweet, and analyze news coverage of the campaigns. They'll learn the mechanics of the Iowa Caucuses, including partisan differences, with the help of the book "Why Iowa?" coauthored by UI political scientist Caroline Tolbert.
IowaWatch.org hits one-year mark, secures first major grant
The class will provide the core of caucus coverage for IowaWatch.org. Going into its second year, the site has published more than 60 in-depth articles, most of which were produced by UI students.
Berry co-founded IowaWatch to produce quality investigative and explanatory journalism for Iowans, and to train reporters and provide a venue for their long-form projects. In its first year, IowaWatch exposed lax standards on contaminated fish advisories and organic farm inspections, explored end-of-life laws that limit private choices, and alerted consumers to dangerous toys. Reporters examined Iowa's "dysfunctional and splintered mental-health system," resulting in proposed legislation that would put the state, rather than individual counties, in charge. Other projects examined similarities between same-sex and traditional families and pointed out structural deficiencies in the state's bridges.
Now the center is collaborating with the D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity to critically assess virtually all branches of state government in coming months. IowaWatch is joining forces with The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette to carry out the Iowa portion of the 50-state project.
The work has not gone unnoticed. This summer, IowaWatch received a $100,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation in Oklahoma City. Berry, interim executive director/editor of IowaWatch, said the grant provides funding for a full-time leader who will establish a long-term financial strategy involving a mix of self-sustaining revenues, donations and grants.
IowaWatch operates under a "Like it? Steal it." mantra. That means state and national media outlets may choose to pick up the students' work, so long as they credit the center and its contributors. Berry and Singer said the budding journalists in the caucus coverage class can't beat that kind of exposure.
"This isn't a typical class," Singer said. "They will participate in a national political event, rub shoulders with the national press corps at rallies and other campaign events, learn from and analyze the coverage, and produce content for a worldwide audience. It's incredible hands-on experience."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
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