Teaching tip for journalism instructors: Record a walk-through of newsworthy location (such as city hall, a trade show, a transit station, etc.) and then ask students to brainstorm story-generating questions based on that footage.
As a journalism professor, I often advise students who are new to beat reporting that they can find lots of story ideas by just observing where their beat takes place – whether it’s city hall, a police station or the theatre.
In providing this advice, I’m sure I’m not alone, having received the same tip myself when I was a journalism student at Carleton University.
But I recently found what I think is a useful tool to demonstrate the value of that tip from inside the four walls of a classroom.
The creation of that tool began by recording a walk-through of one of the brand-new rapid transit stations in Calgary’s northeast, which is home to some of the city’s less well-off neighbourhoods.
That station had been criticized on the letters-to-the-editor page of the Calgary Herald because, according to reader Atul Jain, it “lacks adequate roof cover, has no wind-breaks, no bus shelters, [and] not enough benches” – among other issues.
So I asked my students to watch the first two minutes of the recording and see how many critical questions they could come up with about that station – questions that could lead to potential story ideas.
That meant they didn’t actually get to see the inside of the station. Instead, all they got to see was the neighbourhood around it, as well as its parking lot.
Nevertheless, the results exceeded my expectations. Here’s a smattering of some of the questions my students came up with:
- How do residents feel about having a station so close to their houses?
- Will the station impact property values?
- Why is the station’s park and ride lot so full given that the footage was taken on a Sunday morning?
- Is the lot too small for the station?
- Why aren’t the parking stalls electrified for commuters who have to leave their vehicles there all-day during the winter?
- Why are there warnings about owners leaving their vehicles in the lot at their own risk?
- How much security is there at Calgary Transit’s park and ride lots?
- What is the rate of vandalism and theft at park and ride lots?
- How does the station compare to others being built in wealthier neighbourhoods?
I think this served as a powerful example about the role questioning plays in coming up with original story ideas, as well as how those ideas can be found just by walking around a rapid transit station – or any other location their beat is taking place.
And it all happened over the course of 20 minutes in a university computer lab.