Second Arab Women‘s Media Conference, October 24-27, 2002, Jordan

Online Journalism and Development of the Arab Media

— by Magda Abu-Fadil

Computer-Assisted Research/Reporting, or CAR:

Teaching reporting and editing with the use of computers is part of every curriculum I know of in schools of journalism in America. Without it reporters perish. Web course tools, or Web CT, are often found on the pages of faculty members who teach these courses and students are expected to communicate with their teachers via the Internet and email where they find much of their course work posted, where curricula are listed, where reading lists are available, and, often, where even exams are taken.

In 1999, I presented a conference paper based on a semester-long study about internationalizing a journalism curriculum using distance education technology. It was a pilot project in which I was involved, between the Lebanese American University, where I work, and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

I exchanged assignments of my students via email and the Internet with a colleague in Missouri and we corrected each other’s students' papers and graded them in almost real time – given the eight-hour time difference. My one problem was that Israel had bombed the power plant down the hill from my house so I was without electricity quite often and had to work in the dark, or whenever I had enough power for my computer. Thank God the phones still worked so I could log onto the Internet and send email.

As the Internet has provided endless accessibility to information and newsrooms, that growth of data has meant that journalism in the old traditional sense has changed, as well. Which, in turn, has meant a need to teach new methods of collecting the information and using it in stories.

But as Nora Paul and Cary Perez Waulk of the Poynter Institute in Florida told participants in a seminar on online journalism, the genre needs grounding in good old journalistic ethical decision-making.

“Research takes time and patience. And while there’s a lot of important information on the Internet, there’s also a lot of junk and spoof and sound-alike sites,” opined Chris Harvey, the online bureau director of the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism, adding that journalists should approach their results with a critical eye.

He recommended the use of more than one search engine for an important search since no single search engine indexes more than about 20 percent of the Web. In evaluating sites and pages, he advised journalists to check and see who is authoring web pages, if the publisher is a scholar on the topic, if the writer is unbiased, or someone with an agenda, if the writer lists a bibliography or source or web link list and if the information is updated in a timely fashion since currency is important.

Last, but not least, the author said a site should prominently list a contact phone number and/or email address.

Public records and databases fill up cyberspace but the trick is to find them quickly. The US government is probably the largest user of the Internet but since the September 11 attacks, it has removed much of the data it found out to be of national security importance and which it feared was being used by terrorists against the United States.

These records can be used to research people, check out telephone directories, find out about property transactions, professionals and their professions, read countless online specialized publications, connect to trade associations, learn about businesses, research political parties, investigate economic issues, and more.

Courses at universities can familiarize students with the basics of browsers, buttons, shortcuts, bookmarks, finding information, finding ideas, assessing data quality and reliability, and interviewing the sources of data. Other courses teach writing and editing content for the web.

We, at the Institute for Professional Journalists at the Lebanese American University, teach all the above to practicing reporters and editors. “Journalism students and educators will need a change of mindset,” wrote Dr. Stephen Quinn, a seasoned journalist, faculty member at Zayed University in the UAE, and author of Newsgathering on the Net. “We need to accept the need for ongoing or lifelong learning.”

He advises his students to pick up new skills for the new century by running their own web sites, sending email CVs, learning hypertext markup language, understanding the other Internet languages, staying on top of industry trends, participating in online discussions, picking up design skills, looking outside traditional media organizations, and freelancing online.

“The Internet will prove to be the most significant human development since Guttenberg’s invention of movable type in the middle of the 15th Century. Indeed, it may prove to be the most significant development since the discovery of fire. Its possibilities for journalism are only limited by the boundaries of the imagination of individual journalists,” he wrote.

That’s why The New York Times Foundation, among other organizations, launched an initiative in the United States to give high school students and teachers information and tools to publish online newspapers at schools.

But it's also worth remembering, as John Lenger wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, that cyberspace isn't the answer to all our media problems. "Those of us who learned our journalism before the mid-1990s, when Internet use started to grow astronomically, understand that not all of the world's accumulated knowledge exists on web servers, and probably never will."

Download the full text of the speech (PDF): English, Arabic

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