Today in Berlin, a new piece of journalism was born. Maybe that doesn’t qualify as news, but if you had the chance to be there at the birth, you might share my appreciation. 18 UM J School students put together a web site bursting with articles, photographs, graphs, charts and social media. Their focus is a major story on the world stage: the refugee crisis facing Germany, and specifically Berlin. The miracle is that many of them had never written for publication under deadline before, and no one had every done so in a foreign country. The quality of this work, and the experiences that led to it, is solid proof of what our school believes: the best way to train journalists is to put them in the field.
The UM J School backs trips overseas because they provide a concentrated version of the classic journalism encounter: stepping into a strange world, pulling back the veil and then making sense of it for an audience. Confronting that challenge in a foreign country raises the challenge to the tenth power, making the learning process is that much more intense. Here in Berlin, students have had to talk their way into asylum homes, youth shelters, burial facilities, bike cooperatives and many other nooks and crannies of the refugee world. They’ve struggled with setback after setback: interviews that were cancelled, crabby bureaucrats who refused to return their calls, and the endless challenge of working in foreign languages. They figured out how to move ahead, and save their stories. I can’t think of a better learning experience.
Last Saturday night was our deadline for filing our final stories, and our students experienced the Sturm and Drang of crunch time. Students kept the train on the track, contacting each other about final corrections, and editing copy over and over. At some points, the faculty went to bed, and the students took over. They took ownership of the enterprise, pushing each other to polish the final product. Once again, that’s a learning experience that’s hard to create in the classroom.
As we wrap up our work here, we’re sitting down with students to get their assessment of their three weeks in Berlin, and the months of preparation that got them here. Almost without fail, they remark on how different it is to work in the field versus doing classroom assignments. They all see how they could have been smarter and more successful if they had asked a few more questions, taken photos from different angles, or tried just a little harder. Those are the real lessons they will take into the newsroom, or to whatever field calls to them. You can see their work here. Thanks to everyone who helped our students get here, and watch this space for more news.