The Accidental Publisher

By: Kathleen Bartzen Culver

The Accidental Publisher

Boston University journalism professor Michelle Johnson’s students had covered the Boston Marathon for years, providing text, image and video updates to their student audience as well as established media partners. But as her reporting team of 20 began to finish their work and wander back to campus on April 15, 2013, she got a call from a student, saying she’d heard two loud bangs and now everyone was running away. While wire services had no information, a quick check of Twitter showed Johnson that chaos was unfolding near the race finish, with her students peppered all around.

“I sent out an SOS to check in and tell them to let us know you’re OK,” Johnson said. “Then, start reporting.”

In the hours and days that followed, Johnson’s students were at the epicenter of reporting the Boston Marathon bombings, the biggest national news story of the year. But she couldn’t escape being struck by how close they were to harm’s way and how her role as their teacher had changed.

As more programs embrace clinical approaches to journalism education—known to many as the “teaching hospital model”—educators within these schools are becoming something akin to accidental publishers. Two bombs spaced just 12 seconds apart opened Johnson’s eyes to her transformation: Educators now need to tackle the legal, ethical and fiscal issues news publishers have long encountered. And while some are well-prepared for and supported in this endeavor, others may find their institutions’ responses lacking.

Experimentation in Live News

Proponents of the teaching hospital model use the metaphor to urge journalism programs to serve their communities by engaging in real-world reporting and published news coverage that both serves the local area and benefits from the latest academic research. Like an academic medical center that trains tomorrow’s doctors while treating cancer patients and researching new chemotherapies, an academic journalism program should teach students, report on its community and develop cutting-edge technologies and storytelling approaches. These clinical evangelists heavily emphasize experimentation and innovation, urging J-Schools to realize the promise of digital media for journalism and help students both master the skills needed in today’s information economy and imagine new means for gathering and communicating news.

Boston University News Service is one such effort. Though not a fully formed teaching hospital, it’s certainly a functioning journalism clinic. Conceived as a place to enable students to publish their work publicly, the news service ties together young reporters across a range of classes, including multimedia reporting and photojournalism. As its faculty adviser, Johnson considered herself a teacher primarily, but when the bombings struck, she found the publisher role unexpected and unnerving as crisis arose.

“We were right next to everybody else covering the story, but we had not had that conversation in advance,” she said. “That’s the one thing every school doing this teaching hospital model has to think about. How do you handle the need to be careful and safe?”

And while BU’s situation was particularly dramatic and traumatic, schools are dealing every day with questions large and small that once were kept far more in the domain of professional news organizations.

Start with the Lawyers

For Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, most institutions he encounters that are doing clinical journalism are not fully versed in the possible legal ramifications of that work. The very first question almost always unanswered is who owns the work itself. Does a student who takes a photograph for a class hold the copyright? The answer in the past would almost certainly have been yes. But what if she takes it for Boston University News Service? Does the journalism department now hold it?

In Johnson’s situation, a student had captured images of bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev for an earlier profile of him as a boxer. A fellow faculty member, recognizing the monetary value of pictures virtually every news outlet would want, helped the student negotiate sales. Yet because faculty-student collaborations are common in the teaching hospital model, LoMonte fears situations will become murkier when an instructor is a co-creator with fiscal interests in works produced in an educational setting.

Far more money is on the line with questions of defamation, which have not yet been tested in the clinical model. Yet experiences with student media—when plaintiffs often try to go after the deeper pockets of the institution—tell LoMonte that journalism programs should proceed with caution. The first and most critical issue is whether students working on live news experiments in classes will be defended by the university’s legal counsel and covered by its insurance carrier.

LoMonte said if a plaintiff were to sue the university and a student jointly, the answer to both is likely yes. But if the students alone are sued for their individual actions, they’re far more likely to be on their own without university defense or coverage. This flies in the face of what many educators see—and value—as their primary role with students, serving as mentor, guide and, at times, protector. The transformation to a different role, according to LoMonte, can be difficult for individual professors, as well as for the institutions that employ them.

“Part of the reason these conversations haven’t been had is that people don’t want to know the answer,” he said.

Equally counterintuitive are considerations when lab journalism courses get into the business of covering sensitive issues involving their own institutions. Student media have encountered trouble in these interactions, including a noted fight between Oregon State University and its campus media adviser when she filed a request seeking salary records.

While LoMonte recognizes that many instructors would like to stand firmly between their students and any looming trouble, educators would be wise to get out of the way.

“Do not ever put yourself into a position that makes you directly adversarial and a possible legal plaintiff against your own institution,” he said. “The name of a student needs to go on the request for records and not an employee. If it becomes necessary to have a legal confrontation to have access to records or access to meetings, the face of that confrontation needs to be a student’s face.”

Ethics in Action

Beyond the questions of what the law says students and professors can do lie the thorny issues of what ethics tell them they should do. It’s in this arena that the University of Oklahoma’s David Craig sees tremendous promise in the clinical model. An accomplished ethics scholar, Craig has been at the center of OU’s live news experiment as part of the Online News Association’s Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. As his students have reported on poverty within low-income communities, they’ve had rich interactions with questions of confidential sourcing, interviewing on sensitive issues and expanding their own perspectives. Craig appreciates seeing them take the lessons they learn in class and apply them in real-world settings.

“I certainly find in teaching my ethics class, students get most excited in talking about issues that are happening than they generally do with what’s in a textbook,” Craig said. “If they’re engaged in these experiences, they bring that to the classroom, and it can enrich and deepen the discussion of ethics.”

Jacquee Petchel, executive editor of News21 at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, agreed. “Editors and professors and people who are working with students in a hands-on environment teach ethics not just in the classroom, but as situations arise as you go.”

News21, arguably the most robust and successful clinical journalism education experience in the country, has involved more than 500 students across nearly 10 years and produced major projects on drugs, health, diversity and energy, among others. Its recent efforts covering guns and heroin raised many ethical considerations, Petchel said. She sees her vast newsroom experience combined with academic resources and support of ASU as essential in helping students navigate both law and ethics as they wind their way.

“I think we all know collectively how to cover the bases,” she said. “I feel like I’m doing the greatest thing on earth because they’re all there, and there’s all this brainpower.”

Underwriting Experimentation

The legal and ethical questions that arise in real-world journalism experimentation mirror those in the newsrooms Petchel has inhabited throughout her professional career. But another consideration on the minds of news publishers takes a morphed form in higher education: money.

Anyone with even a whiff of awareness over the last decade well knows the business model travails in news. At the outset of the disruption, some saw academia as one solution. If journalism schools could engage in and support local reporting, they might help offset job losses and thinning local and state coverage. But while efforts like the Capital News Service at the University of Maryland have grown as newsrooms shrank, other innovative outlets could not sustain themselves. The University of California at Berkeley cut loose Mission Local, saying it could no longer absorb the cost of something not central to its core curriculum.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I spent a dozen years running a magazine class that gives students a clinical experience in long-form and multimedia journalism. As publisher over the endeavor—which includes development of strategy to sustain print, online and tablet versions of Curb magazine—I was constantly engaged with students in figuring out how we would negotiate print contracts, sell ads and fundraise our way to getting on press and into the app store.

Students learned a great deal from selling t-shirts and trying to convince a golf course to advertise in a magazine that comes out once a year in winter. Yet we never had the full set of fiscal demands a publisher actually faces. From a free Web server to unpaid staff, we had advantages a city regional magazine would never know. One of the most important things to remember in teaching students in a clinical environment is showing them how different the world outside can be.

Learning from the Lessons

For Michelle Johnson, the stark reality of her “kids” out on the street as a dangerous situation unfolded called for a more thoughtful approach to planning for their safety. Educational experimentation is all well and good, she says, but faculties need to think about issues before they arise. BU held and participated in staff and townhall meetings following their coverage and has focused planning on safety, as well as ethics discussions about graphic coverage in breaking news.

“This stuff can happen, and we have to talk more about that,” she says. “It’s not just overseas in some war-torn area. Sometimes just in the commission of journalism, you can get hurt.”

For educators trying to learn from Johnson and others, a visit to the BU News Service archive of the marathon coverage is a lesson in what is possible when big news erupts. As more courses and programs take advantage of the many means to now publish publicly, they will be wise to learn the lessons of publishers and attend to the fiscal, legal and ethical issues that arise.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for PBS MediaShift.

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Published: September 15, 2015

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