Two student journalists set up a camera on a street

Interview

The Murrow News Service’s Community Commitment

Student journalists at Washington State University take a solutions-oriented approach to reporting on the rural Northwest—and they're in it for the long haul

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Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow was a legendary journalist who brought Americans news from the front during World War II, then, in the 1950s, exposed the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy. But he’s perhaps best known now for his pithy aphorisms. Among his best is one that’s particularly resonant today: "Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions."

Finding real solutions to real problems is a reporting approach that has been reinvigorated by organizations like the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) and newsrooms like the Murrow News Service (MNS) at Washington State University. MNS’ student journalists cover a variety of stories important to rural communities in Washington and across the border in Idaho, with a priority placed on moving conversations forward rather than grinding out clickable conflict content.

Founded in 2001 by department chair Benjamin Shors, Murrow News Service pairs its student journalists with regional news organizations like Northwest Public Broadcasting to produce stories initially developed in journalism classes. There is some monetary compensation for students—interns in the Olympia Bureau receive a $250 weekly stipend from their sponsoring news organization, for instance—and up to 12 academic credits for the semester from Murrow College.

But MNS reporters recently received a financial boost in the form of a $10,000 Solutions Journalism Student Media Challenge grant for the 2022-23 school year. It was one of eight student-led newsrooms to receive the award.

WSU professor Lisa Waananen Jones is Shors’ partner in MNS’ solutions-oriented newsroom. She teaches multimedia content creation, reporting across platforms, and professional multimedia content creation as a clinical assistant professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. Waananen Jones recently spoke to The Elective about the Solutions Journalism Student Media Challenge grant, how it will help her students, and the importance of solutions-focused reporting in rural communities.

Headshot photo of a woman on the left, logo for the Murrow School at Washington State on the right

Lisa Waananen Jones, Washington State University

Have you had previous interaction with Solutions Journalism Network?

I am a big fan of SJN and the solutions journalism approach in general. I did the Solutions Journalism Educators Academy at the University of Oregon in 2019 and just did the updated 2.0. version this summer. I was also part of the LEDE Fellowship in 2019. So solutions journalism has been a big emphasis of mine in teaching and trying to answer some of these questions that we're always working on, like how to have better engagement with rural communities in our region.

What are your thoughts on the SJN challenge offering not just training and support, but also $10,000 to newsrooms?

I love that it's really student driven. It was really open to students to apply and be involved throughout the process. That doesn't surprise me coming from SJN. But to have it be student-centered in education is really important.

Providing that financial support is critical. We're at a state university; I think a lot of the other [challenge] institutions are state universities, community colleges. The Solutions Journalism Network, probably as much as any other group in journalism I can think of right now, doesn't just say they're committed to working with programs that serve historically marginalized, lower-income students. They actually put the money out there to make it happen. That's really important for us. Otherwise, we don't have a budget to do things outside the classroom.

Tell me about the Murrow News Service challenge project.

We have a history of doing rural reporting programs. Specifically, our journalism program started this outreach and engagement project in 2018 with a grant from the Online News Association's Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism that allowed us to cover travel costs for students to spend time in these communities, with the idea that if you're always on campus you're never going to be able to do meaningful journalism in communities. That has been a really good exchange. In some ways, it's modeled on an international reporting program that we have that's only open to a couple of students each year. This is a similar experience, but open to all of our students.

It's also somewhat modeled on the program I was involved with in grad school, which is in New York City. People might think that's a totally different setting, but in many ways it's very similar. The difference here is that they have to drive 50 miles instead of walking two blocks.

Two photos, one of a young man shooting video of an older man inside a dark theater, the other of two student journalists setting up a camera on a street

Yasmeen Wafai (top), Claire Martin-Tellis

Murrow News Service student Luke Hollister reports at the Bovill Opera House in Bovill, Idaho, while Murrow News Service students Ricky Hester and Malu Santos set up a shot in the rural town of Nezperce, Idaho.

You have to be immersed in the community you're covering to be able to do meaningful coverage. What we found in some of our initial experiments was that it is hard to build relationships and overcome some of the problems with parachute journalism. I've talked to professional journalists who care about what they're doing, and it sounds intimidating. Students are really wonderful because they're not intimidated, or they're open to new experiences. They really embrace that. I think communities have recognized that, too. They've been really eager to talk to students and welcome them instead of feeling standoffish, and also talk openly about issues they see in traditional media coverage of rural communities.

We’ve found that if you are approaching somebody who's a community leader in a rural community, you can’t just ask them, “What's wrong with your community?” Nobody wants to be approached that way. Instead, you say, “Hey, what works here? What is everybody trying? What are you proud of?” We've gotten a lot more interesting story ideas, helped build those relationships, and learned a lot about what communities value from their perspective, rather than us coming in and saying, “This is the thing we're covering—what have you got?” We're trying to avoid an extractive relationship, and solutions journalism has been a key component of that.

What's an example of a rural community MNS is reporting on?

One really important component of our project this year is a focus on arts and culture. That is something that very much comes from students. When they've gone to these communities in the past, that's what they found really surprising and interesting and vibrant. It also really speaks to some of the more unexpected parts of rural communities in our region.

A lot of our students are coming from big cities on the west coast, Seattle, and California. They've never been to tribal lands or a Native reservation. They've never seen that there can be long-standing and vibrant Hispanic culture in places like Idaho. So that's something that we're really trying to focus on: arts and culture, and how that fuels the unique identity of a lot of these smaller places.

One example is efforts for preserving the Nez Perce language in Idaho. That includes creating a class in the local high school, so that it doesn't become something extra. It just becomes part of your education if you're a kid who opts into that. We've been looking at some local efforts on things like theaters and venues and ways to preserve historic buildings and make them vibrant again, which is always expensive. That's a good example of something where a lot of communities are facing a similar problem, but they also have unique aspects where they can learn from each other and see those insights.

There's also a lot of work going on with things like museums and historic recognition and how to recognize difficult parts of our regional history. For instance, some facilities and parts of federal lands that were used as internment camps during World War II that have now pretty much been dismantled. There's nothing there anymore, so what is the proper path forward for recognizing that legacy?

Black and white photo of single-story barracks in a wooded valley

University of Idaho Library

Long shot of buildings at Kooskia, taken from the Kooskia Internment Camp Scrapbook, a project of Digital Initiatives at the University of Idaho Library.

Is there a particular camp or site that MNS journalists are reporting on?

The one I'm thinking of is in Idaho. We're really close to the border, and this is one that's come up for a few years, as far as there's nothing really there anymore. So what is the proper way to remember something like that? There are people who feel like maybe it should not be remembered. Then there are people who think they should put up some sort of plaque. Or is it a monument? Is it more of an educational thing? What is the right approach? These are important questions, especially when there are still some mixed opinions about how Americans should even feel about that particular part of history.

Does this work fit into the architectural preservation reporting you mention? Or are there other places where MNS is focused?

There are a couple of things that come to mind. We have some gorgeous photos from a couple of years ago from this historic theater in a town called Bovill, Idaho. It's something where people living in Bovill now who've lived there their whole lives remember going to movies at this theater as a kid, and it was a big part of cultural life in the town. But once it was no longer commercially viable, it wasn't really updated.

So there's a proportionately large group of people in that community who've been looking for ways to preserve it and  make it useful to the community again. There’s a similar situation with a historic theater in a place called Tekoa, Washington. They actually did renovate their theater, but are now kind of in the phase of looking at how you maintain it as a business and what is the best way to have long-term sustainability.

So it's kind of fun to see how different communities tackle these similar projects in different phases, especially when, in many cases, this wasn't something where one philanthropist or rich person came in and bought it. It really was a community effort to try to find the funding for it.

You mentioned museums as well. What's an example that MNS is covering?

In Cottonwood, Idaho, a religious community of nuns, most of them quite old, were hit really hard by covid. So that's a resilience story. But they also operate a museum that was recently renovated, and they got some grants to do it, specifically to change some omissions of the past, for instance leaving out the role of local native people in building this community.

There's a long history of Catholicism in the Northwest, which is an interesting thing. In many ways, Catholic missions and schools were involved in the oppression of Native people. I know some of the schools have been in the news recently for that. A little later in history, too, a lot of Catholic communities were forced to isolate, because of resurgent anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. The Northwest was a pretty strong area for the resurgent KKK outside of the South. So it's the kind of thing that's especially interesting for students to see how the Catholic community represents their own history, when it involves both sides of oppression.

But they've also done just a really beautiful job of renovating this museum, trying to preserve a broader portion of the regional history rather than just the self-serving narrative. It’s an interesting example of revisiting what a museum should be.

Two-story, wood-siding building on the corner of a street block

Ian Poellet/Wikipedia

The historic Bovill Opera House, in Bovill, Idaho, an important cultural site to the residents of the rural community and the focus of a Murrow News Service reporting project.

What format will publication of MNS challenge reporting take?

A lot of Murrow News Service is focused on text, and we expect to have some really great written and narrative stories. But we also have a really strong broadcast program, and we hope there'll be a lot of collaborations between our broadcast and multimedia print students.

Basically, this project is in phases. First, we just have students out looking for and finding good story ideas. Then part of the educational component is bringing those ideas back and being able to talk about the right format for the story. So, it's not like, “I'm a video student, I have to do a video,” but really working together to talk about what is the most effective format for any given story that we pursue. In the past, we have had award-winning videos that involve students from all our majors, which is really cool.

We’ll also include some mapping and graphics components. I'm a data and graphics person in my own professional work, so I'm always excited when students have the potential for making maps as well.

How many students will take part in the challenge project this year?

Along with the students who are actually enrolled in Murrow News Service, we allow all of our students to be involved in some of these specific trips. In the past, we've had about 50 students. We're hoping to have at least that many this year.

Is this going to be across different ages and different years of enrollment?

Yes. While Murrow News Service is geared toward being a capstone class, mostly for seniors, it's really important to us that we use this and some of our other projects as ways to build peer mentorship and peer learning. To that end, we have a lot of opportunities for sophomores, juniors, even freshmen sometimes, if they're really go-getters, to be involved with this. A lot of times, that's maybe a student who has done some work with the school's newspaper, or they have some TV and radio extracurriculars. Then they work with seniors on a project that's going to be published, which is often a really great opportunity that they otherwise wouldn't be able to do immediately. A really important part for us is trying to build student teams and help them learn amongst themselves. We don't know everything. We get ideas from them, too.
 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.