Thursday, November 04, 2004

How students get information

From Doug: I belong to a journalism professor's list, JOURNET, and last week a poster started a thread by posing the question (paraphrased): We talk a lot about students' difficulty with writing, but should we also be talking about their diffculty in reporting -- especially their reluctance to go and talk with people and an overreliance on electronic sources?

That prompted a post from University of Alaska student Chris Luth (one of the querying professor's students) that I thought was very insightful. I've reproduced it here with his permission. I'd like to get reactions:
Well, I'm not an instructor, but I thought I'd give a student's
perspective. (My experience is limited, so don't take me too seriously.)

I think your first contention is correct. We are an impatient generation. I've got Google searching (Googling?) down to a science. If I'm eating eggs for breakfast and suddenly am struck with the question of which came first -- the chicken or the egg -- I can have the answer (or at least some interesting opinion) within three minutes. (This happens a lot.)

My computer never shuts down, and my Internet is always on. So I type "Chicken egg first" right in my Google toolbar, and within a half a second I get 647,000 matches, the first of which is -- well, that's a bad example.

But you get the idea.

I even have Google set to display the first 1-100 matches instead of the default 1-10. My eye is trained to quickly skim for (relatively)reliable results.

Conversely, finding people to interview is slow work. First, finding the right person is much harder than Googling. Sometimes a phone number or email address will appear on a Web page, but often you end up spending a few hours hopping from one referral to the next.

Second, you actually have to converse with a person. Sometimes it's a nice, easy, natural conversation. Other times, especially when you're new, you're not sure what to ask. I'm getting better, but I still feel inarticulate when I'm interviewing. I would have felt much more comfortable if my journalism teachers would have worked more hands-on with me in interviewing. I remember being sent out on my first practice assignment in my media writing class and not having a clue what to ask people. I came back empty-handed and with a belief I wasn't any good at interviewing.

But that's me.

Third, online communication is competing with face-to-face communication. E-mail and instant messaging is very common. Today's generation writes much more like they talk, at least in those media.(Of course, that's no excuse for "ppl writnig 2 uthers liek this." That duzn't du it 4 me.) I communicate with most of my friends via e-mail or
in a chat room we've set up, and online communication satisfies most of my needs. I tend to subconsciously think that if an online communique won't work, it's not worth following up on. There are easier fish to catch.

Fourth, today's culture is so bombarded with information and analysis that we can sometimes err on the side of not forming our own ideas. I saw a newspaper article recently that said people with cell phones are shown to be more reliant on others to help them make decisions. (Why does a guy need to worry about deciding between Best Foods mayonnaise and the in-store brand when he can call his wife and ask her what she wants?) There's a balancing act between satisfying curiosity and information overload.

As I said above, I can quickly Google anything I want to know. I'm still curious. I look up a lot of information every day. But that information can quickly become too much, and the Internet can sometimes think for me. There's so much analysis already done that sometimes I don't need to analyze it for myself.

I don't think your second idea is as true. I can recognize the difference between newsworthy and non-newsworthy material, and I'm developing that sense even more through journalism classes. Your first hypothesis has to do with students lacking a desire to act while your second one has more to do with a fundamental lapse in students' ability to perceive. I don't think that this generation is less aware -- if anything, we're trained to see everything all of the time -- as much as it is just lazy.

I hope I've given you some good food for thought. Hope your article goes well!

Chris Luth
Journalism/Public Communications junior
University of Alaska Anchorage


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brock Meeks chimes in...My what difference a decade makes.

I remember speaking at journalism conferences about the wonders of all the information and resources one could find online only to realize that 90 percent of the audience was staring back at me with glassy eyes… I remember a year after that, speaking at the same conference 90 percent of the audience staying awake, but not taking notes… and a year after that, people taking furious notes after they’d all realized I was kicking their “mainstream media ass” despite being “just” an “online journalist.”

I was asked at the time, “Why are you so willing to give away your ‘secrets’?” And I fired back, “because I know 90 percent of you listening to me are lazy s.o.b.’s and won’t do a damn thing with all this knowledge and I’ll still be kicking your ass at this time next year,” and I was.

Now “everyone” is online and using Google and chained to their desks. Ugh.

In this message Chris says, “I've got Google searching (Googling?) down to a science.” Really? I’d throw good money at a bet that says Chris, or any other j-student or working journalist doesn’t know or use 90 percent of Google’s power or that of the other BETTER search engines out there.

And what’s this about “finding people to interview is slow work”?! I don’t want to slam journalism school… but what the hell are these students being taught? Using Google interview sources are the low hanging fruit of reporting!

Here’s a big clue: Interviews are NEVER easy. But get over it. I’ve been doing this gig for about 20 years now and I still hate calling people I’ve never talked to for the purpose of asking questions about sometimes touchy subjects. And even when the questions are about their “life’s work” I still feel funny asking them to talk to me, someone they have never met, will never meet; as if I’m imposing on their time.

But that’s me.

I find it incredulous that Chris here states so cavalierly that “I don’t think that this generation is less aware--if anything, we’re trained to see everything all of the time—as much as it just lazy.”

This entire message of Chris screams “less aware.” Having one’s nose stuck in a search engine, gobbling up conversations in chat rooms and spinning e-mails back and forth tells me Chris is trapped. No big surprise.

A lot of my professional colleagues are just as trapped, just as lazy and just as reliant on the Internet.

I discovered something in 2003 that carried over into this year as well: getting out of the office and meeting sources face to face; what used to be called “shoe leather journalism.”

Where once exploiting online sources and resources put me ahead of the pack; today I find that tearing myself away from the keyboard and getting my face in front of sources is giving me an advantage. Go figure.

12:01 PM  

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