Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Math for Journalists

The head of the UTSC joint journalism program, Dr. Karen McCrindle, recently told me she was concerned that journalism students need more teaching about the importance of math. When we met last summer to overhaul the course I teach, called Intro to News Reporting, she suggested we spend more time covering how to count, how to do business stories and how to understand percentages and ratios...all with the goal to enable the students to write more in depth stories.

I agreed with her, as on a personal level, it's a little discussed but often true anecdote among journalists in my circle that many journalists (including me) are weaker in maths and sciences then we are in other subjects. Lots of students raise their hands when I do a straw poll in j-school classes when I ask them "Who sucks at math?"

This is ironic because I spent many years as a business reporter/anchor for CTV News net and Report on Business Television, where I learned to understand and report on financial statements, stock market movements, gold futures, and other business stories.

In fact, aside from business stories, one of the most useful skills I learned over my nearly 30 years as a journalist, has been how to count crowds at an event. Why is this useful? Because the officials will usually overestimate the crowds (stories usually go something like this: "Organizers say 1 million people attended the Caribana Parade in Toronto.") while police and other law enforcement authorities like to underestimate the crowds, especially at riots or protests.

But numbers matter for journalists, not just in story writing, but also in calculating how long a story runs in seconds, how many stories will fit into a radio or television newscast, and how many seconds you have to trim from a piece of video to meet the lineup editor's request that your story run 1:40 and no more. So as a writer, editor, anchor, and executive producer of our college radio and television students' newscasts, I have become pretty good with counting.

Plus, you'd think that being married to an accountant and having helped to write parts of his three financial accounting textbooks would have also raised my number literacy.

Well... think again.

Talking with Anne Lavrih, a colleague from 680 News yesterday, we discovered plenty of similarities: she has a son the same age as as mine, she's been in radio for a hundred years, as I have, and we will both be teaching at Centennial this winter. She also mentioned that she's turning 47 on Dec 31.

"Ha ha I'm older then you by 2 months," I said, thinking that on October 11 of this year, I turned 47, too. She replied that she was born in 1962. "Impossible," I retorted. "I'm 47 and I'm from 1961."

Friends, two months after my birthday, I have now realized, that journalists really do suck at math. The bad news? I'm not 47. I'm 48! My husband says it's not my lack of ability in math -- it's just that I've now started counting backwards.

Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How much is it worth?

As we come to the final day of classes in journalism school, many students (and their teacher!) are frantically trying to finish all their projects and assignments, writing them, and..in my case, marking them.

It's been a tough semester for me personally, because I caught swine flu (H1N1) in November, and was in bed for a week, too sick to leave the house for a second week, and too weak to do much more then the minimum of work in the third and fourth week. I know a lot of my students have had their own problems this semester, too: family troubles, illness, financial issues, trying to juggle work and school and life. We are all trying to balance all our commitments.

But something happened in one of my classes that was so unexpected, something I hadn't encountered before, that it's made me pause to try to make sense of it.

I was teaching a workshop about a skill they will need to use to survive in journalism --writing obituaries. It was on the course outline. The students knew about it. And these obituaries aren't the ones you have to pay for when a loved one dies and you pay by the word. These are news features which are run the next day, written by a journalist, when someone famous like actor Heath Ledger, or Michael Jackson dies..and also, when not-so- famous people die, but who lived interesting lives.

They will need to be able to write a feature obituary about someone's life whether they work at small newsrooms, or large. People die, even not-famous people, and journalists serve the public by writing sensitive, creative and interesting features about how these people lived, and what their big achievements were. And introducing the value of this person's life after they die, to an audience that didn't know them when they were alive.

Like covering sports, city hall, a court story, an accident, entertainment, or politics...writing an obit as a new feature has its own formula, and code words. And they will need to know this stuff not only once they have graduated, but as soon as in a few weeks time, in the next semester, when they start work as card-carrying reporters for the local community newspaper and online site. And that will be for marks!

After the first hour of class today, a student holds up their cellphone, in class, telling me there is another student on the other end of the line, who is calling in from somewhere else, to find out "How much is this worth?"

I was dumfounded. And then..incredulous. And also -- angry. Then I thought it was funny. But it's not funny.

Do I have to make everything worth a lot of marks, in order to get someone to receive the gift of knowledge and self-discovery? Doesn't that have any value on its own? Why will some students not read an assigned chapter, or research a website that I ask them to look at, so that we can talk about it in class, unless it is "worth" marks for them to do it?

How do you measure worth? For some students, only in marks, I guess.

And that's too bad.

Sure I get it. It's a busy time of year. They have other commitments, other assignments for other courses that are worth more. They have family problems. Work. Other issues which I don't even know about. So it's not a personal thing and I'm trying not to take it personally.

In fact, I experience this "weighing" and "worth" by students all the time. In another course where I teach television news reporting to senior year students, if they have a big project due in my class worth 16%, and one worth 12% in another class, but that one is a print story, they probably will do the print story first, and on time, because it's easier for them, then do the TV story late, because this video story requires lugging gear around, editing, booking cameras, fighting with Final Cut Pro, and writing. This is especially true if they don't see themselves using video skills in their careers (this is a mistaken belief, by the way.)

But not coming to class unless it's "worth" something for marks? Well, what does "worth" mean?

You can learn a lot of "worthy" things in classroom discussions, from interaction with peers, and hearing from a mentor who has experience and advice to share with up-and-coming rookies in the profession.

Marks don't matter in the outside world, where you might be asked to take out someone's cancerous tumour, but if you didn't come to class to learn how to do the proceedure while you were in med school, and you didn't do the reading because no marks were attached, well, then, what was the "worth" of that session you missed? A lot. Especially to the patient.

If a famous actor was teaching a class on character, but there were no marks attached to one particular exercise, would it be "worth" it for the student to come and do the exercise anyway? So that when the student acts in their next film, or stage production, they will have learned one way to expand and grow as an actor, and put it to good use?

I am sad that for some students, worth is measured only in marks.

I am also incredulous that when a student who has chosen not to come to class, somehow they or their colleagues think it is acceptable for them to phone up during class to inquire of each other whether they should come to class or not. And then have the chutzpah to ask the same question of me! Do they want me really, to give them my permission to skip? Are they really looking for a parent-figure who will penalize them if they don't show up?

It's like when my friend in high school showed me how to smoke. Afterward, I came home and informed my mother --proudly -- that I had just learned how to smoke. I remember my mother telling me that there are some things she'd rather she didn't know about.

This isn't high school. Students make choices. I understand that. But I just wish that when they make their choices, they realize they will have to live with the consequences...not because they lost marks, but because they lost something more important: learning.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Covering Toronto City Hall "worst day of my life": journalism student

Earlier this week, I accompanied my class of journalism students to Toronto City Hall for what I hoped would be their biggest assignment yet: covering a monthly meeting of council, in Canada's largest city.

We had prepared for it in class the week before, looking at the Toronto.ca website, reviewing how journalists find stories in a municipal reporting beat, discussing how to contact councillors, how city hall works, and how Toronto is a great city for journalists because so much information is posted by the city online, and publicly accessible.

We even had set up a meeting with Toronto Star reporter Vanessa Lu, who spent over an hour with the students in the Colin Vaughan Press Gallery, discussing the ins and outs, and highs and lows of reporting on municipal politics in Toronto. She then took the class on a tour of the building, introduced them to Don Wanagas, a senior communications official in Mayor David Miller's office (a former National Post journalist). She introduced Coun. Frances Nunziata to the group, and was so enthusiastic about what a great beat this was, that I was hopeful the students would be interested in it for their future careers.

On the agenda that day were at least two meaty stories: equal ice time for girls' house league hockey players, and, a controversial new billboard bylaw that could raise $10 million in extra tax money for the arts.

I had to leave at 2:30 p.m. but felt confident the students would be able to bag a story by the end of the session, and advised them they may have to stay quite late, as council often goes to the very end.

I told them to ignore the "notices of motion" and much of the procedural stuff which was underway, and focus on the actual speeches and interviews, post-vote, with the councillors and lobbyists for various sides.

They were supposed to write a hard news story about the council meeting, and file it by 5 p.m. the next day, no matter what.

When I left, my students all had their audio recorders and notebooks out and were sitting in the public gallery trying intently to follow the proceedings.

It turns out their first exposure to a Toronto City Council meeting, shocked them.

"It was the worst day of my life," lamented one student, yesterday, in class, in the aftermath of the marathon sitting, where, by the way, council didn't end up voting on either issue, but instead, postponed debate until Wednesday, or maybe even Friday.

"How do the councillors even know what they are voting on?" asked another student, referring to the recorded votes called by Speaker Sandra Bussin, which just identify the issue by it's number MM - 1234567 , not by the subject matter.

They also were shocked at how one woman, a member of the public, "a crazy lady" was heckling members of council so long and loudly that even she realized she'd better stop, at which point, Bussin agreed with her, thankfully.

I told my students that many council meetings I have covered have been like this one: last year, when another group of students and I attended the December 2008 council meeting, a fleet of taxi drivers sat in the public gallery, cheering or booing a proposal to limit their access to non-airport fare pickups in Toronto. Security guards had to handcuff one taxi driver who was protesting too loudly, and escort him out of the chamber.

In the end, I made them write their stories by deadline, and suggested they mention the vote was put off.

Today, the National Post's Peter Kuitenbrouwer, who I think went to journalism school with me at Carleton University in the 1980s, talked about our class outing, in his column about city council.

Messy? Loud? Democracy in action? Maybe. Certainly it was a good lesson for budding journalists not to get bogged down in the superficial acting of posturing politicians, or fall for the staged public relations events (Leaside Girls Hockey association players attending council in uniform, clutching dolls), and focus on writing about what is important: changes and new laws that could affect the 2.7 million people who live and work in Toronto.

Read some of their stories on the Centennial Journalism online news site, Centennialjournalism.wordpress.com

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

minus 10% - accuracy in journalism

Most of my students know me as "the teacher who takes off 10 per cent" for misspelled proper names and CP Style infractions. I always tell them that the reason I do it, is to encourage them to be super super careful when they write stories -- to check spellings of people's names, and make sure --especially in obituaries -- to be accurate because it will be clipped out, by the family, and laminated, and put in scrap books and kept.

The -10 per cent reputation even prompted some of them to buy me a lovely t shirt last year, with - 10 % on it. I wasn't sure if it was a compliment or an insult, but my husband told me to wear it proudly to school the next day, and take it in a good way.

I know that this -10 per cent is not a happy thing for some students to read on their papers when I hand them back. I know how frustrated they seem to act when I give them one. I don't do it to be mean spirited, and I don't sit at my computer editing stories and rubbing my hands together with glee like the Wicked Witch of the West, when I find one. Truly! I don't.

Today, some of my students in the University of Toronto/Centennial College joint journalism program had a chance to turn the tables on me. And to their credit, they were very diplomatic about it.

I had written a story for them to run in their local news paper, Observer, about a court trial now underway in Ontario Superior Court. We all covered it for a class assignment. And despite being careful, and checking, I apparently spelled the victim's name wrong! Oops. When I came to work today, one of the students showed me where they'd posted my original story on the blackboard, with a nice green highlight through the mistake and a very tasteful -10% mark next to it. "I fixed it," one of the students told me.

They may be dining out on this for a while!

And for the record, Colves Meggoe's name is spelled with an "e".