The New World of Citizen Journalism

I had the opportunity to visit Mohawk College’s Journalism program recently. It’s very impressive.  I learned that the job of “reporter” has changed dramatically in the last 5-10 years. A reporter for a newspaper is no-longer primarily a writer. A reporter is expected to be a one person multimedia producing, cross-platform writing,  social networker. It’s very exciting and the students at Mohawk were learning every aspect of the business. Which leads me, funnily enough, to the debate over vaccines. 

On  February 5th, The Toronto Star’s front page cried out, “A Wonder Drug’s Dark Side”. What followed was a long story that as The Star’s publisher was subsequently forced to admit, “led many readers to conclude The Star believed its investigation had uncovered a direct connection between a large variety of ailments and the vaccine”. That quote is from the disclaimer that now appears on The Star’s website where the article used to be found. The Star has “unpublished” the original story.

The flaws in the original story were laid out in an LA Times report on the controversy: “How A Major Newspaper Bungled A Vaccine Story and Then Smeared Its Critics“.

 

In Our Classes

From an English class point of view this is rich material. 

  1. What a great opportunity to discuss research and bias. This blog post by Dr. Jen Gunter –Autopsy of Toronto Star HPV article and the real dark side of Gardasil they missed –is a terrific example of a persuasive research based essay. It’s a masterful example of effective organization and word choice. I especially like her title and its invitation to readers to discover the “real dark side”.
  2. The controversy is a terrific opportunity for students to examine the specific curriculum expectations of “critical literacy” and “production perspectives”. Gunter’s blog post highlights the need for readers to consider motivation and conflicts of interest when reading. This idea for a “Two Sides to the Story?” – research assignment uses the issue of “false balance” to teach the curriculum expectations of critical literacy and production perspectives.
  3. Finally, back to the students at Mohawk College. This story is a fascinating example of the shift in power caused by the Internet. 10 years ago the front page story written by The Star’s professional journalists might have been challenged by a few letters to the editor, perhaps The Star would have chosen to publish this rebuttal – “Science shows HPV vaccine has no dark side” –by Canadian scientists. But the debate would have happened entirely within the newspaper and would have been controlled by the newspaper.  As the publisher’s very defensive retraction proves, The Star does not back down easily. Today, the Internet provides a platform that democratizes voices. This story is a great opportunity to challenge students to consider these curriculum based issues:
    1. Confirmation bias;
    2. How to corroborate sources;
    3. Why we site sources in our research;
    4. Language usage – is Dr. Gunter’s critique of the language used in The Star’s retraction fair?
    5. False Balance” in news reporting (as comically represented by John Oliver as it relates to Climate Change – warning PG-13 for language – start at 1:08 to avoid profanity).

Stream of Consciousness on Racism in Canada

Watching an old movie with my daughter led me down a stream of consciousness about race and culture and prejudice that reminded me of some texts that could be useful in the teaching of character analysis or persuasive writing.
I was watching the old John Grisham film A Time To Kill with my daughter. In the film, newly minted Klu Klux Klan followers plant a burning cross on the lawn of a lawyer defending a black man. My daughter asked a very sensible question, that I’d never processed before, she wondered how a burning cross became a symbol for white power.

This led to a Google search which led to a Wikipedia article and the uncomfortable discovery that the most recent example of a racist cross burning mentioned in Wikipedia happened in Nova Scotia in 2010.

That story reminded me of a terrific Radio Lab podcast about a young woman who rejected her family’s imposed identity (her mother’s birth certificate listed her as “negro”) and adopted a new identity for herself as a white woman in a high school full of racial tension.
And finally, that story reminded me of a pair of articles from last month about racism in Winnipeg.
None of these texts are particularly uplifting, but all challenge us to confront our stereotypes and prejudices.

As part of an examination of the depiction of character traits or an analysis of the inner conflicts faced by characters in short stories or novels I wonder if these stories / articles might provide some interesting fodder for discussion.

Ally’s Choice – Radio Lab podcast about racial divides in a family. The Radio Lab podcast challenges the scientific validity of the concept of race.

These two articles consider the reality of prejudice and injustice in Canada towards First Nations people: Winnipeg the Most Racist City in Canada and a rebuttal, Is Our City the Most Racist In Canada?

These could also be useful as part of a study of persuasive writing. Students could consider the reporters’ attempts to create a convincing arguments to support ideas.

PuppySwap – The Puppy Subscription Service

This clever video is a great example of “selling the problem” — and it’s horrifying.  People are abandoning dogs as puppies outgrow their cute stage and become a nuisance… so let’s create “PuppySwap”.  The viewer is left to wonder where is the man taking the older dog?  What’s going to happen to the dog?

This could lead to some great critical thinking.  Possible prompts:

1. At some point did you start to doubt the authenticity of the ad?

2. Why do we consider the idea for this service to be morally unacceptable? Do dogs have rights?

3. How big a problem is pet abandonment? How could we find accurate information about this issue?

It might be mean, but I’d be inclined to pause the video just before the title comes up at the end and ask the students to react and comment prior to revealing the true purpose of the ad.

Getting Lost: "The Last Days of Peter Bergmann"

What does it mean to get lost in our social media saturated, closed circuit tv monitored, and Googlable world? This poor man, whose name wasn’t really Peter Bergmann, decided to lose himself in a small Irish town. His final days are documented in this haunting short film:

//player.vimeo.com/video/78337126?byline=0&portrait=0&color=ffffff
The Last Days of Peter Bergmann Trailer from Fastnet Films on Vimeo.

The full 19 minute long film can be watcher here at Aeon Video: The Last Days of Peter Bergmann.
The film explores how unsettling we find the idea of a lack of identify, and deliberate efforts of a man to leave this world anonymously. Randall Sullivan’s article from WIRED tells the fascinating story of a modern bounty hunter: “The World’s Best Bounty Hunter is 4’11” – Here’s How She Hunts” — in it we follow the hunt for criminals trying desperately to stay off the grid and out of prison. These are people who would love to gain the anonymity of Peter Bergmann. Contrast these present day stories with the heartbreaking documentary “No Place on Earth” and the efforts of a group of Ukrainian Jews fleeting nazi troops and disappearing into a cave for over a year.

//player.vimeo.com/video/61687673?title=0&byline=0&portrait=0&color=ffffff
NO PLACE ON EARTH TRAILER YOUTUBE 5D from Janet Tobias on Vimeo.

Each of these texts examines how deeply rooted in our societies we are and how difficult it is for individuals to vanish.

Additional resources:  Interview with Ciaran Cassidy (writer/director of “The Last Days of Peter Bergmann”)

MTV’s Teen Mom Is Good For You?

Few things push my moral outrage button harder than Keeping Up With the Kardashians or The Bachelor or 16 and Pregnant. It’s so satisfying to pontificate about these exploitive messes, while quite enjoying other reality tv programs such as Dirty Jobs or Ace of Cakes.
Now I’m faced with this article from the Aspen Journal of Ideas that declares that Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant have been causally linked to declines in teen pregnancies in the US. Should educators be showing episodes of Teen Moms in health classes?

This assignment tasks students with reading the Teen Moms article and to think about the history of reality tv programs and also to consider how they celebrate / exploit the skills and behaviours of their stars.

Another useful Reality TV reference:

Tiki-Toki – Timeline of Reality TV

The Strange & Curious Tale of The Last True Hermit

Michael Finkel’s story in GQ The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit is a great read. Finkel tells the story of Christopher Knight – a recluse who managed to craft a life of isolation living in the woods of Maine for nearly thirty years. Knight opens up to Finkel — to a point and reveals a complicated set of interests and tastes. Knight describes his difficulty returning to society and his experience in prison, “I am retreating into silence as a defensive move,” he wrote. Soon he was down to uttering just five words, and only to guards: yes; no; please; thank you. “I am surprised by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates, puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable”.
The article connects with Into the Wild, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Glass Castle and any other text about escape, independence, mental illness or isolation.
Here’s a version of the article with a few study questions added at the end:  The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit.

Unintended Consequences

The European Space Agency landed a robot on a comet only 4 km in diameter after a 10 year journey covering 6.4 billion kilometers. It’s like shooting a bullet in Toronto to land on a balloon in Tokyo. Magic. 

Sadly, at the press conference to discuss the landing of the spacecraft, the lead scientist made a wardrobe choice that distracted much of the Internet’s attention away from his team’s accomplishments.  Mika McKinnon has written a very thoughtful, clever personal essay about the issue:  Thanks To That Shirt, We May Get a Shirt Celebrating Women In Science.

Unintended Consequences Assignment: McKinnon’s essay is a great opportunity to examine the idea of unintended consequences. This assignment challenges students to read and understand her text and to consider how she maintained a wonderful balance of anger, frustration, humour and purpose in her word choice and ideas to create just the right voice for her text.

Beyond that, students could explore other examples of unintended consequences and create their own blog entries detailing cautionary tales telling the story of a small decision that led to unexpected consequences with interesting links for further exploration.

Our Man in Tehran vs Argo

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 9.24.39 PM.pngThe films “Our Man in Tehran” and “Argo” both tell the story behind the smuggling of six American diplomats out of Iran in 1980.  One is a documentary that was featured at the Toronto International Film Festival and played on pay television, the other was also featured at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win the Academy awards for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and editing.
It would be great to read the books these films are based and watch the resulting films with students and analyze the choices the filmmakers made in adapting them, but that would require a significant time investment… instead we could accomplish many of the same curriculum outcomes with the study of the trailers for the two films.  



For close reading, Slate article about the accuracy of “Argo”: “How Accurate is Argo?

Some key questions we could consider with students:

  1. Referring to specific details in the two trailers thoughtfully explain how the fictional version of the story (Argo) differs from the documentary version of the story (Our Man in Tehran).
  2. How might a Canadian audience respond differently from an American audience when watching these two versions of the events in Tehran? Refer to specific details in how the films are being promoted that you think might be perceived differently from the points of view of Canadians and Americans.
  3. The film Argo was a huge financial success. Identify the elements apparent in the trailer that you believe may have contributed to the film’s popularity?
  4. Why do you think documentary films are rarely presented at the local Cineplex?

And finally…


One of the most commercially successful documentaries was Bowling for Columbine.  It earned nearly $21 million.  Watch the trailer for it and explain why you think it was more popular than Our Man in Tehran.


Pivot on Self-Interest and Learning

Adolescents are wonderfully self-involved.

Their universes have space for their interests and little else. Many are driven by a degree of academic engagement that motivates them to do what’s necessary to succeed in school — not because of any enthusiasm for learning or curiosity in the subject matter, but solely due to the expectation of their parents or peer group or some other external focus that tells them that success in school is important. These students do their work, raise their hands, and complain about their grades, but they are not interested. How can we intellectually engage these teenagers? How can we nurture their curiosity? How can we hasten the “big bang” of their social and emotional maturity that seemingly overnight turns a purely self-involved teenager into a crusading young adult ready to change the world?  — Too much?

Alright, then perhaps a more reasonable goal might be, how can we pivot in our work to use our students’ very normal degree of self-involvement to help us achieve academic goals?

Self-Help & Learning Skills

The self-help industry pulls billions of dollars from people seeking to achieve personal goals. Lets challenge our students to consider the learning skills and work habits we expect from them as opportunities for personal growth. We can use our students self-interest as the prompt for a research project:  “Think about how one of the learning skills or work habits could help you to be more successful in your personal, school or future life.  Find out as much as you can about the relationship between the learning skill or work habit and success, and learn how a person could develop the learning skill or work habit you’ve chosen”.

When the students are investigating responsibility, self-regulation, independent work, initiative, organization or collaboration – they will be using our curriculum of reading, writing and critical thinking to explore topics that will feel relevant to their needs.

Extension Questions:

  • Which careers require particular strength in the learning skill or work habit you’ve researched?
  • How do adults who feel they need to improve the learning skill or work habit you’ve researched try to change their behaviours?
  • How easy do experts on human behaviour say it is to change a habit or develop a new skill?
  • How will you monitor your progress in improving your skill or changing your work habit? 

Sample Task: Your Personal Self-Help Program