“I honestly cannot think of a better way to learn”

As teachers in the Student Reporting Labs program, we are charged with developing journalism skills and an interest in public media in our students. What better way to do this than to see the NewsHour pros in action?

This summer, the NewsHour was filming a feature piece about the medical-legal partnerships in Omaha, Nebraska. Devon Wood, a recent SRL grad, and I joined journalist Jackie Judd and producer Jason Kane for a day. The SRL program has brought so many opportunities to my students, my school and me, personally. This is just one of the many cases going into my fifth year of our program.

The story was an in-depth look at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Nebraska Legal Aid, Iowa Legal Aid and a few case studies. The concept of a medical-legal partnership is not unique to these organizations, however the successful implementation at UNMC is one that other hospitals and communities strive to achieve.

To show an example of how these partnerships can play a critical role in the lives of patients, the story focused on two cases. One was a 5-year-old boy from Sioux City, Iowa suffering from cancer and recovering from a recent stem cell transplant at UNMC. The hospital contacted Iowa Legal Aide to help the boy’s parents find a better housing situation while he recovers.  

The other case study for the story was a middle-aged woman. She had aggressive breast cancer and was receiving Medicaid. When Medicaid denied coverage for a recommended procedure, Ann had no way to pay. With no pay to pay out-of-pocket, UNMC put her in touch with Iowa Legal Aid. Legal aid was able to help the woman fight through the courts and was ultimately awarded coverage.

As Devon and I listened to these stories unfold, we realized how skilled Jackie Judd is as a journalist. Her questions were in-depth and demonstrated how much she had been listening to the subjects as they shared their personal stories and passions. Often when finishing an interview, Jackie would receive hugs and heartfelt thanks from the subjects. We want to incorporate this into our stories as well. News pieces are not just about the facts; they are about the people. Watching Jackie definitely helped me think about the types of questions we ask and how to teach students to think more critically before and during an interview.  

The producer, Jason, had so many events happening in one day. The planning and coordinating that took place before actually flying to Omaha was eye-opening for me. As a novice journalist, I am learning alongside my students.

Shadowing Jason for the day made me think about how to emphasize the planning and research phases of a story better. By doing so much research and coordinating ahead of the interviews, the producer is able to direct the story much more efficiently. He already had relationships built with the subjects and knew background information about them. A pre-interview would be really great for students to implement. When contacting subjects for an interview, rather than just setting up a date and time, it would be really beneficial to the team to have some preliminary information.

In one day, Jason was able to capture footage of a surgery and a doctor’s appointment, interview in three locations, collect b-roll of a bike ride and finish by dinnertime. Again, the strategy and detail in thinking through the entire day was something that stood out to me. Jason was managing the shots, making phone calls, coordinating with Jackie and planning how to capture b-roll.

This multi-tasking also played a huge role with Mike, our camera operator. Mike was not a direct employee for the NewsHour, but flew from his home base of Austin, Texas to work on this story. Mike’s efficiency in transporting and setting up equipment was amazing. As was his flexibility and intuition in capturing video and audio. In looking at the way Jackie, Jason and Mike worked together, one may have thought they had been a team many times. There was a professional respect for each other’s strengths and a natural collaborative team effort that came together to create this story.

As with any SRL event, we had to have a little fun too. In capturing b-roll of the interview subjects, Jason wanted to see one of them riding her bike. The rental van followed her around and around the city blocks of Omaha. Mike captured footage out the front windshield, the side window, sitting in the back of the van with the rear door open and standing with a tripod as the riders passed. Their creativity and ingenuity is something that fuels my spirit and sparks excitement in the students as well.

As a social studies teacher, my primary training is in political science and history. Those subjects touch on media, but focus more on the effects than in the production. Being a part of SRL has opened a new world for me. Working alongside PBS NewsHour professionals is something that still gives me a sense of awe and wonder and fills me with excitement. Because of this program and this opportunity, I can show my students so many new, important skills in a way that is engaging, hands-on and helps them create a final product.

I do not know if my students can fully grasp the work they are doing, but I can imagine how it will affect them years down the road. As consumers, they are selecting news sources that provide accurate, in-depth analysis that focuses on a wide variety of topics. As citizens, they will engage in discourse using valid sources and consider all angles of possibilities seriously. As parents, they will pass on these skills and ideas to their own children.

As a part of this particular experience, Devon was able to ask Dr. Rodabaugh interview questions, learn from Jackie many of the wonderful experiences she has had in her career and capture pictures alongside professionals. Devon has grown so much as a part of this program. She has the ambition and drive to go places in life. This program enabled her to push herself in ways a regular class just does not provide.

I honestly cannot think of a better way to learn. These skills are assets to any career path a student may take. I have begun modeling my other classes on the principles and techniques I have learned as an SRL teacher. I am more engaged on social media, connecting with other educators and professionals across the country and the world. I truly believe all my students benefit from this program, not just the SRL participants; I am a better teacher because of this program. I am so thankful for these opportunities. I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for all SRL programs.

Jennifer Cole runs the SRL program at Shenandoah High School in Shenandoah, Iowa.