Monday, May 23, 2011

From the Workshop to the Real World -- Teaching Investigative Journalism

Teaching students the fundamentals of investigative journalism is important, but putting those principles into practice is the real test of an educational program.

The journalism school at King’s College in Halifax gets full marks on this front. Over the years, students have produced some impressive examples of investigative work. This year the school was honoured with an award at the annual Canadian Association of Journalists conference.

Students looked into Nova Scotia’s gaming strategy and found that people continue to be driven to financial ruin and addiction by VLT’s, despite government promises to address the problem. The investigation found that half the VLT losses come from people with gambling problems. Since the machines were introduced to the province, problem gamblers have lost more than $1 billion.

Part of the series looked at the gambling profits garnered by First Nations communities. While gambling has brought economic gains for the Membertou and Millbrook First Nations, the stories showed that gambling addictions occur five times as often on reserves as in other communities.

The series was published by the school on its own website, and was also featured in The Coast under the title Terminal Disease.

King’s investigative workshop is guided by assistant professor Fred Vallance-Jones, who has extensive experience in both broadcast and print journalism. Other investigations he has overseen at King’s include an examination of a pulp mill’s toxic legacy, and a computer-assisted look at Halifax police response calls.

The success at creating investigative projects may be one reason King’s College, in conjunction with Dalhousie University, is offering a new Master’s program in journalism that allows for a specialization in investigative work. The 10-month program allows students to choose either an investigative reporting stream, or a “new ventures” stream that will focus on freelancing or new journalistic enterprises.

The investigative stream provides in-depth instruction in public records analysis. It also focuses on data visualization, geocoding and specialized interviewing. A substantial part of the program involves a professional investigative reporting project.

Recognizing the need for students to be multi-skilled, both streams will include training in multimedia reporting skills.

For anyone interested in the future of investigative journalism in Canada, it’s exciting to see a university offer a specialized course of instruction in the field. And it’s an added bonus that the university already has a track record of guiding students to create meaningful investigative work.

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