International Content Production – Audience Engagement (8 ECTS)

Course description

6th semester at Hochschule der Medien, Stuttgart (Germany)

Credits: 8 ECTS
Class: 14 weeks – 4 hours per week

Mandatory course for students in our international Minor “Journalism & Communication Management” which fills the 6th semester of our B.A. programme

Learning outcomes relating to dialogue-based journalism:

  • Students distinguish between different types of dialogue and audience engagement. They know best-practice examples and when they can be fruitfully applied in the journalistic process.
  • Students learn strategies on how to facilitate input from the audience and integrate it in the journalistic product. They also learn strategies for moderating debates online and in real life.
  • Students are able to analyze the quality of various forms of dialogue and set realistic criteria for their own projects.

Overview

Constructive journalism attempts to critically assess not only the challenges to society but also the options available for progress. In this course, we will use this approach – which emphasizes dialogue with the audience – for a variety of journalistic storytelling formats. Every team will research and produce a journalistic product and implement it in cooperation with a media partner. The product should serve as a best-practice example of constructive and dialogue-based journalism. It should be available in German and English.

Additionally, every team will provide a short reflection on its story which addresses these four questions concerning the journalistic approach they chose: (1) For which topics, channels, and audiences is this approach suitable? (2) What research is needed in addition to research for a traditional story? (3) How is the audience included and what difference does this make? (4) How does the approach differ from traditional ones and in which respects is it constructive? The teams will hand in preliminary answers to these questions in preparation to the four “newsroom discussions” in class which guide them through the semester project.

Because the course brings together students of journalism and public relations, as well as German students and Internationals, a number of exercises and coaching sessions are included. Student teams, of course, also have to meet with the respective media partners – if possible, they are invited to online newsroom conferences where they pitch their story ideas and get feedback on their drafts.

Systematic overview of the course

Week 1-3 First phase: Introduction
Theoretical input
  • Data on public attitudes towards journalism
  • Defining constructive journalism
  • Related concepts: tabloidization, activism, and gatekeeping
  • Research on the effects of constructive reporting
Week 1-3 First phase: Introduction
Classroom discussion
  • Aims and quality of journalism
  • Examples of constructive and dialogue-based journalism
  • Merits and limits of constructive journalism
Week 1-3 First phase: Introduction
Assignments
  • Reading on constructive journalism
  • Making a traditional news report more constructive
Week 4-12 Second phase: Production
Theoretical input
  • Distinction of different types of audiences
  • Factors that contribute to trust and loyalty
  • Role of journalists and the public in a democratic society
  • Methods of engaging the audience and moderating a debate
  • Methods of data journalism and hypothetical journalism
Week 4-12 Second phase: Production
Classroom discussion
  • “Newsroom discussions” to reflect and brainstorm on all projects
  • Moderating a mock debate with student hosts and participants
  • Thinking about future scenarios
Week 4-12 Second phase: Production
Assignments
  • Critical and constructive interviews with strangers
  • Preparation of “newsroom discussions” in class
Week 13-14 Third phase: Reflection
Theoretical input
  • News ways of defining the aims of journalism
Week 13-14 Third phase: Reflection
Classroom discussion
  • Evaluating the team projects
  • Evaluating constructive and dialogue-based journalism 
Week 13-14 Third phase: Reflection
Assignments
  • Writing a final reflection paper on the team projects

Topics, didactical methods and learning goals

Week 1: Negative reporting, news avoidance and the aims of journalism

We start by asking students to reflect on their own news consumption. We discuss current examples of news and look into statistics on news values and public attitudes towards news (e.g., using the Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute). We have students write a news report on a fictional disaster to discuss various approaches to the topic. At the beginning of the Erasmus+ project, students were largely unaware of constructive and dialogue-based journalism. But today, they have heard of it before and they often bring ideas – and also objections – to the classroom discussion. Both students of journalism and of public relations have strong opinions on the quality of journalism. We let them voice their opinions and frame the course as an exploration into the merits and limits of constructive and dialogue-based journalism. There is no clear definition of this type of journalism so they are free to pick elements which they like. 

Week 2: Core concepts of constructive journalism

Using a combination of books by practitioners (especially Catherine Gyldensted and Ulrik Haagerup) and papers by media and communication researchers, we try to define what difference constructive journalism wants to make. Our reference point are the three “pillars” which the Constructive Institute defines: focus on solutions, nuanced reporting and promoting democratic debate. We teach a sample of methods that are recommended by proponents of constructive journalism – especially asking future-oriented questions. Students then edit a traditionally written article to make it more constructive. We analyse all of these texts in class.

Week 3: Common objections to constructive journalism

We discuss three types of objections often raised against constructive journalism: (1) that it tries to “sell” solutions to the audience, (2) that it does not accurately inform the audience because it downplays important problems, and (3) that it has little effect on journalism because it merely rephrases core values that have been at the centre of journalism for decades. After having discussed the motivation for and the objections against constructive journalism, students prepare for a controversial classroom debate on the need of being more constructive and dialogue-oriented in journalism. We also use this debate to reflect on the style of the debate.

Week 4: Meeting the media partners and matching of teams

Students form groups of three to five students to accept a challenge posed by a media partner. We collaborate with small partners who hope to gain something from working with students. Before students meet with their respective partners for the first time, teachers meet with every team to discuss ideas, strategies, and concerns. We found that it pays off to write down a working agreement including contact details and important dates. Students have difficulty picking up on the unspoken rules of the respective editorial team, so these rules have to be made explicit. We attend the first meeting between students and media partners to make sure that both sides understand the project in the same way.

Week 5: Dialogue with the audience

After having distinguished between different types of audiences, we motivate engagement with audiences on different levels. Some students have had experiences in moderating discussion forums or managing social media channels – and we ask them to share their experiences. In general, we feel that students have no objections against dialogue but hesitate a bit to actually engage in it. As we do not have a large audience to work with, we review the literature on audience engagement. We discuss strategies like the “ladder of engagement” which calls readers to action in small consecutive steps – gradually creating a stronger connection to the newsroom. We stress the importance of making it easy for the audience to contribute, and of making it clear why the contribution is valued and how it will be used journalistically. In this week, we invite guest lecturers who can report on their experiences of interacting with an audience. We also ask our media partners about their strategies in audience development and engagement. Turning to the practical aspects, we try out interviews with future-oriented questions in class at first. Later, students have to record two interviews with strangers on a given topic – one relying on critical questions, the other being more constructive. We discuss their experiences in class.

Week 6: Dialogue among the audience

We do not restrict our concept of dialogue to communication between journalists and their readers, but also highlight the benefits of facilitating dialogue among the audience. We analyse journalistic projects explicitly aiming at dialogue as, e.g., “Your country talks” by Die Zeit. We also discuss examples that Amanda Ripley has collected in her research on resolving destructive conflicts.  Finally, we look at panels in which a representative sample of citizens discuss controversial political issues. We feel that journalism can learn from the success criteria of such “mini-publics.”

Week 7: First newsroom discussion: What do the media partners expect from us?

In our first “newsroom discussion” in class, we take stock after all kick-off meetings with media partners: Students present their story assignments and journalistic formats. Other teams are asked to give feedback. We check whether message and channel are suitable for the target audience.

Week 8: Workshop: Working with data

Constructive journalism emphasises nuanced reporting and often points to the statistician Hans Rosling as a role model. Because not all students are familiar with sources and analysis of data, this course includes a brief introduction to data and science journalism with exercises to be completed in class. The focus is on reading tables and graphs and assessing the method by which the data was collected. Also, we aim at a better understanding of the uncertainties involved. Constructive journalism deals with possible futures, after all.

Week 9: Second newsroom discussion: Does our research challenge our initial beliefs?

After having started research on the team projects, this “newsroom discussion” is to evaluate the initial findings. Our provocative question is: If students are not surprised by their research, have they learned anything at all? In our experience, the largest benefit of this discussion is when students start to brainstorm what other sources might be relevant for the stories. In other words, we look for additional data, additional experts and best-practise examples.

Week 10: Workshop: Moderating a debate

To demonstrate how productive a dialogue can be, we show students how to host a debate among themselves lasting for about 15 to 20 minutes. Students will take on different roles in this setting. In preparation, students not only have to inform themselves about the topic and think about questions to ask, they will also have to set up the rules of the debate. The aim is to assure all participants that they can speak their mind and that complex thoughts and mixed feelings will be valued. This experience is to motivate students to engage the audience of their media partners and include its contributions in their stories.

Week 11: Third newsroom discussion: What can we learn from our audience?

In this “newsroom discussion,” all teams introduce what they know about their target audience. Ideally, they also report on their first contacts with the audience. Together, we try to come up with other ways of including the audience in every team’s project.

Week 12: Workshop: Thinking about the future.

As constructive journalism tries to help society move forward, thinking and talking about possible futures becomes an important part of journalism. In this workshop, students are invited to sketch hypothetical but realistic scenarios – in pictures, videos, oral speech or text. The goal is to make clear that it does not matter whether the scenario is optimistic or pessimistic. It is more important to make it as concrete and interesting as possible so that it stimulates the imagination of the audience. In the end, it should facilitate discussion of the chances and risks associated with this particular future. The audience should be able see what it has to do to makes this future become real – or to avoid it.

workshop with students

Students preparing and moderating an online debate. (Photos HdM/Anna-Katharina Veyhl)

Week 13: Fourth newsroom discussion: What should our content production achieve?

While students are working on the first or second drafts of their content productions, we assess the merits of all projects with respect to constructive and dialogue-based journalism. The first question to ask is whether working on these stories has been different than working on similar projects which were not designed to be constructive or dialogue-oriented. The second question is whether the new approach has made any difference. We make sure that we keep in mind in which settings this approach has been useful as we do not want to judge constructive and dialogue-based journalism in general – yet. That’s left for the final week of the semester.

Week 14: Journalism as a service

After students have given an overview of their project results, we wrap up the course by evaluating the merits and limits of constructive and dialogue-based journalism in general. Before asking students for their feedback in a classroom discussion, we let them fill out a survey individually. The final input from the teachers is to introduce the concept of journalism providing a service to the public: informing it in a way that helps them discuss and decide on controversial issues. We discuss in which ways the team’s projects will advance this purpose once they are published.