How journalism students benefit from class blogs about values, practices

As incidences of checkbook journalism, plagiarism and fabrication spring up, I'm repeatedly struck by the importance of what I teach. It seems we've never needed ethical and excellent journalism more than we do now.

I try to promote the ethical practice of journalism every single day in my teaching and use technological tools to extend the conversation beyond the classroom. I've found that blogs are one way to keep students informed about important values and practices, and they enable me to use current examples to bring lessons to life.

In my intro multimedia course, I use a blog to bring in ethics issues and controversies we often don't have time to cover in class. I populate the blog with items I think will engage the students -- sometimes serious, sometimes humorous. I often introduce items online that we later discuss in lecture and in lab. The students regularly refer to the blog because it's part of required weekly readings -- and thus fair game for the all-powerful weekly quiz.

WordPress is the tool I use for all my blogging needs, though many people enjoy Blogger's easy interface and the seamlessness of using one Google login for everything. Both services are free, and although they do feed in ads at times, I haven't found them overwhelming, intrusive or at odds with my content.

Blog commenting has opened a door for students who feel less comfortable speaking up in class. Independence is a key ethic in journalism, and I want students to know that they can and should challenge the things I present to them. I like it when they use comments on the blog to fact-check my fact-checking.

While some students regularly comment on the blog, I've found that comment activity in general has dropped off markedly throughout the last two years. (This may be tied to an overall downward trend in blogging activity among this age group.)

I experimented with giving students access to add their own posts, but we quickly learned that doing so led to an excessive amount of material, at times unrelated to class. Now I ask them to email me with posts they'd like me to add.

We benefit from the immediacy and interactivity a blog offers. I can point students to their own successes (such as when they sniffed out problems with the James O'Keefe NPR "sting" well before national news outlets) and together we can highlight ethics failures (such as Bill O'Reilly's infamous palm-trees-in-snowy-Wisconsin footage).

In my life outside class, I'm a blogging letdown. I've never been able to keep up the pace and thematic focus that makes a great personal blog.

But as a teacher, I feel motivated to keep class blogs going because I see how effective they are -- not just at getting timely information in front of students, but at helping them keep important values top of mind throughout the year.

How do you use blogs in your own classes, or engage students in ethics exercises?

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    Kathleen Bartzen Culver

    Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication, the James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics.

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