October 2015 Podcast: Making the Case for the Educational Value of Journalism

By Student Press Law Center

A conversation with University of Oregon journalism professor Ed Madison about his new book, “Newsworthy: Cultivating Critical Thinkers, Readers and Writers in Language Arts Classrooms.”

Frank LoMonte: Hi everyone, and welcome again to another monthly edition of the Student Press Law Center podcast. The Student Press Law Center is a nonprofit advocate for the rights of student journalists, and we provide free legal research, help and information to students and educators working in journalism from K-12 all the way to graduate school. SPLC can be reached on the web at www.splc.org, through email at splc@splc.org or on Twitter @SPLC. We hope you’ll connect with us, use the SPLC’s educational resources and let us know how we can help your journalism.

Well, it’s getting more and more discouraging to try to make the case for scholastic journalism in the 21st century, as a number of factors conspire against it. It’s more difficult to say with a straight face that newsroom employment provides stable and gainful career prospects for young people given the hemorrhaging of some 3,000 jobs a year from the profession. STEM education and standardized testing is distracting schools away from what they sometimes perceive as nonessential electives. And young people themselves are growing up in households where a newspaper may never have been read and where there’s often not an especially high quality of news being consumed.

All those factors conspiring together may make it an uphill battle to defend or to create journalism in the public schools, but our guest is not bearish on the prospects for journalism. Our guest is Ed Madison, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications.

Ed has just released a book that’s available through Columbia University’s Teacher College Press that tells a much more optimistic story about the educational value of journalism and how journalism can advance the objectives of teaching English language skills, even outside of a traditional newsroom setting. Ed Madison has a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, he’s a distinguished broadcast veteran who was one of the very first producers hired by CNN, he has been a successful producer in the film and television arena for just about three decades and he’s also a very innovative and creative educator who works with high schools across the country and who is going to start us off by talking about an experience that he had more or less embedding himself in a very high achieving high school journalism program in California as part of his doctoral research. Ed Madison, I should add, is also a member of the Student Press Law Center faculty steering committee, somebody whose advice we count on quite a lot and we’re especially delighted to have him join us on the podcast. So thanks for doing that, Ed, and I guess let’s start us off by, if you don’t mind, talk about the research that you did that was part of your doctoral dissertation that led to the current project.

Ed Madison: Sure, and thanks, Frank, for having me. I should say when people say that I’ve been doing things for three decades, I always have to add that I was in high school, so I’m not that ancient. I know firsthand the value of working on my high school newspaper and just the benefits that it allowed me, especially since I was growing up in Washington, D.C. during the height of the Watergate scandal. There was just so much going on, it was just an incredible time.

But after about 23 years in Los Angeles, which included working for CNN and CBS and other networks and studios, I moved to the Eugene area and decided to go back to school in about 2009 and was kind of in search with a dissertation topic. You’ve got to come up with something that’s going to add to the body of knowledge in the discipline, mine being communications and journalism, and I stumbled upon Esther Wojcicki, who is really best described as the matriarch of Palo Alto High School.

We were both on a panel at Stanford on journalism innovations and she brought about four of her students with her. I’m sitting with her and listening and talking to these students and just, you know, was pretty much aware to be that there was something unique about the level of engagement that they have and they had. The thing about Palo Alto when you bring it up, everyone knows, it’s one of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation.

LoMonte: Right.

Madison: So it should be expected that affluence will bring about students who are pretty sharp. But these kids were more than sharp. They just had a level of inquisitiveness that really was obvious.

The more time I spent with her, the more I learned that they actually have what many consider to be the largest scholastic journalism program in the country. There’s some 500 students out of 1,800 in their student body who are participating on about nine different publications that are generally student-led and it’s a wonder to see. You’ve got not only a newspaper that’s been on that campus for about 100 years, but you’ve got an online news service, three or four lifestyle publications, their own sports magazine, their iteration of Sports Illustrated — it’s amazing. What they’ve done there is, I think the best way to describe it, is they’ve created a culture where journalism is the cool thing to do. Students are engaged, and they understand the sense of respect and power that it gives them in terms of just covering the events that are important to the community there.

One of the things I think sometimes journalists take for granted and what was immediately obvious to me as I studied and spent two-and-a-half years just looking at this program was the publishing component that defines journalism as being journalism. Rather than to have an assignment that you turn into one teacher to be graded, you are publishing content that is being consumed and read by your peers and by the community, and that in and of itself has kids bring a higher level of commitment to the work and a higher level of engagement to the work. They also are being asked to write about topics that are relevant to their daily lives. We often in education hear about reluctant readers, reluctant writers. The question I always ask is what are we asking them to read or write about? Not to discount the value of the classics or just other types of writing, but often if you start with looking at where kids are in terms of their own intrinsic interests, it gives you a way to not necessarily coax them, they’re actually motivated to write about the things that interest them.

LoMonte: Right. Well one of the things I thought was really interesting when you did your doctoral dissertation, you did sort of a comparison looking at Palo Alto’s AP English program, the standard traditional AP English that many of us took in school and put that up against the experience of journalism students and surveyed participants in both of those. There were some interesting takeaways — to bottom line, it seemed like students got very comparable educational benefit and value out of both experiences, but there was an extra sense of empowerment or individualized and self-motivated learning that came out of the newsroom experience that was not matched by the standard AP English experience.

Madison: That is true, that’s exactly what I found. First of all, students — AP courses are also an elective, although there’s a motivation to take an AP course because theoretically it’s going to offer you credits that will cut your cost of college down once you’re on a college campus. But you know, it also looks good on your transcript and I think when students look at journalism as an elective, it’s also something that can show leadership skills, communication skills. It’s the kind of thing that can also look good on a college application.

But what I found through that study was the kind of students who are choosing journalism were choosing it for intrinsic value — in other words, it was something that they really wanted to do rather than something they thought they needed to do in order to sort of check off and mark for sort of external rewards. This goes back to the work of some researchers, RM Ryan, who talk about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is those things we inherently like to do whether we’re paid or compensated, it’s not something we’re doing for a grade or to please our parents, it’s that we really feel a sense of internal value about it. Whereas extrinsic motivations are those things that are related to some kind of reward. So when you look at that — as well as also, I looked at learning styles too and various measures around critical thinking and the types of skills that basically help someone be more adept as a student. Those also show a significant difference between the students who were journalism students and the students who were not.

LoMonte: Well, the book that you just published is called Newsworthy. And the subhed to that is ‘Cultivating Critical Thinkers, Readers and Writers in Language Arts Classrooms.’ You’re emphasizing in this book the critical thinking value and benefit that journalism conveys and the message of the book is that the people who are English language learners even outside the traditional newsroom setting could use journalistic principles in order to more effectively teach the language arts. Talk a little about that, about the message of the book and how you envision people using it.

Madison: Well you know, I mean it’s kind of a broken record to state that we are over-testing and perhaps we’re testing for things that don’t really give us a sense of how students think. The high-stake tests are pretty much limited to testing reading comprehension, some degree of writing ability and mathematics, but social studies and science are largely not tested and therefore they’re starting to take a back seat in terms of curricular status within our schools and it’s unfortunate — and also the arts. It’s very interesting when you consider our standing against other countries, we’ll often look at the PISA test or we’ll look at where we stand but … a really accomplished scholar in this area makes note of the fact that a lot of the things we’re starting to abandon are really the things that made our country — when you look at the Silicon Valley and all the innovation and creativity that is really probably the largest source of economic growth for our country in the last decade or so — it’s certainly not based on a curriculum that’s focused on memorization or just anything other than collaborative work and having students work in a way that is going to have a sense of discovery. When I talk about journalistic learning, I talk about four areas that I think distinguishes it from perhaps what we see in many high schools in America.

So I talk about relevance, which is making assignments meaningful so having students engage with contemporary themes so this work becomes less conceptional, and having students look at where in their life — why should I care? Why should I care about what’s going on in class today? So that’s the first thing. The second thing I talk about is discovery. We’re naturally inquisitive. Often school sort of becomes about checking off boxes or circling the right multichoice answer. The third thing I talk about is sharing, so really this sense of personal stories. You know we have a lot of kids who are coming to school from just really challenging domestic issues at home, issues around, you know, having three solid meals. For kids who may come from a culture where therapy is not an option financially or is not something that’s looked upon positively, the act of actually writing about what’s going on in your life can have a therapeutic effect which is valuable and allows kids to really come to school and be there, be present, not be dealing with a lot of stuff they might be worried about that’s happening at home. And then the fourth point I talk about is just collaboration and that’s the sharing of curricular power so that it’s not about necessarily the teacher being in front of the room with all the answers, but really acknowledging and valuing the knowledge students bring with them from their own culture and background, whatever that might be. So those are the four areas that I look at.

LoMonte: And I think it’s important that in your research and in your book, you’re tying journalistic skills back to the core curriculum because there is so much emphasis on many of our states on Common Core and on teaching to those federally-enumerated goals that every teacher is expected to fulfill. You explain that journalism actually can advance the fulfillment of those goals, it’s not a distraction from the Common Core. It can actually be a vehicle that helps you complete the Common Core objectives.

Madison: Actually, Frank, in chapter after chapter, I take lines from the Common Core and show how journalism completely complements if not takes in a whole other level what the Common Core is asking for. And you know I have to say, honestly, there was some discussion about putting Common Core in the title and i’m glad we didn’t because Common Core has become sort of a polarizing term but there’s always going to be standards, you know, and hopefully standards — I think that what’s good about the Common Core is that these are standards that are asking us to really delve deeper than just making sure that kids are being able to memorize and regurgitate information but really asking how did you arrive at that answer? What was your thinking process? And I think this is a good thing. So yes this is very much aligned with standards-based education, not necessarily just the Common Core standards.

LoMonte: Well if you don’t mind, tell people where they can get a copy of the book Newsworthy. I know it’s being published by Teacher College Press in Columbia, how can people get a hold of the copy? And in what form is it available?

Madison: Yeah, so probably the easiest thing to do is if you go to newsworthybook.com, you’ll see their information about the book and a link to where you can purchase it. You can purchase it directly from Teacher College Press or you can also find it on Amazon but if you go to newsworthybook.com, you’ll see information as well as — I’m very proud of the number of endorsements I’ve received for the book. Linda Darling Hammond at Stanford University who was on President Obama’s education transition team had nice things to say about the book, Eric Newton who was formerly with the Knight Foundation who is now innovation chief at the Cronkite School endorsed it, as well as a number of other scholars that people respect. I’m pleased, it’s my first book, it’s an interesting feeling.

It’s even more meaningful to me because it’s been an opportunity to write about something I think is really important in education, particularly as we talk about closing the achievement gap and issues with students from underserved communities because you can hear us talk about this, especially how it relates to Palo Alto High School. And you can think, well did this require a bunch of shiny equipment and expensive things that is prohibitive to schools that are in communities that are more challenged? And the interesting thing about what Esther Wojcicki did with this program is when she came on some 27 years ago, she just brought in old newspapers. And when you go there today, they’re still sitting around with old newspapers. Yes, they have shiny equipment and they actually remodeled and built an incredible facility there of late but that’s not a prerequisite to take a lot of these pedagogical tools and the philosophy of what they do and make it work. And I think the real takeaway here is to really speak about a shift of thinking about education from the standpoint of looking at — how do we empower kids to take ownership in their education? So it’s not about arriving sitting down and passively be receptors to whatever’s going on in front of the room but really more about them being active partners in their learning and that means. The program in Palo Alto, you’ll see a lot of kids in the front of the room and a lot of the instructors in the back of the room sitting — guiding,coaching but allowing students’ own leadership skills to really be expressed.

LoMonte: Well, I think that’s a great wrap-up point, that there may be people who see this work and may be skeptical that with the resources available to Palo Alto — not only an affluent school system but one with highly-educated parents, literally around the corner from Stanford University — there may be skepticism about the ability to replicate the success of Palo Alto. But certainly some of the lessons and principles and takeaways from your observations in Palo Alto could work in a less-resourced school.

Madison: Yes. I want to mention a project — so having experienced and spending two years after those two years in studying Palo Alto, we did a project at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon and if anyone listening to this would go to digitalskillsworkshop.com, they would see the results of that project. Roosevelt is a high school that is often listed on the list of Oregon’s poorest and most-challenged schools. But we did an immersive bootcamp there, a digital storytelling bootcamp, where we worked with students for a week and documented the entire experience and then created learning modules that teachers anywhere can access along with a study guide and everything else.

I think one thing that I want to leave people with is, you know, you might not necessarily be trained, you might think journalism is something above or beyond what you are able to take on or teach, but with working on partnerships with journalism schools which is how we did this program at Roosevelt High School. We took some of our sharp undergraduate students and had them come in and mentor these students, which created an incredible opportunity. Some of these students who may not have had a family member who had gone to college now had a mentoring relationship where they could actually discuss that and learn about it. But also it bridged the generational gap where instead of having grey-haired professors like myself in the front of the room.

So there’s all kinds of ways to get this kind of curriculum into the schools and partnerships with journalism schools is a very strong way to look at how to accomplish it.

LoMonte: Terrific. Ed Madison, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communications at the University of Oregon. I want to thank you for what you’re doing to showcase the educational benefits of journalism in K-12 schools.

The book is Newsworthy: Cultivating Critical Thinkers, Readers and Writers in Language Arts Classrooms. The website is just newsworthybook.com. I want to leave you with one other one — that’s the splc.org website. If you want to connect with one of our attorneys, with a question about your own legal rights, please get in touch with us. The easiest way is by email, splc@splc.org, or you can submit a legal query through our website or connect with us by phone — that number is 202-785-5450. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll look forward to talking with you next month.