Desperate times unleash digital creativity, flexibility for Pacific journalism schools



Josefa Babitu, a second-year journalism student at the University of the South Pacific, working remotely on stories for Wansolwara News at Fiji’s Laucala campus.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and so it is with journalism schools throughout the Pacific with each of them trying new and innovative methods in the age of Covid-19 coronavirus.

Faced with the global pandemic, they are following an overarching dictum, safety of students first and then looking at ways of teaching them – albeit remotely.

Without a doubt The Junction, a collaborative university student journalism publication covering Australia, NZ and the Pacific, is a highly creative and enterprising website – and it’s ahead of the game.

READ MORE: Student journos form ‘biggest newsroom’ to cover election

Covering Covid 19 and Cyclone Harold
Covering Covid 19 and Cyclone Harold … the Wansolwara News team at the University of the South Pacific: Clockwise from top left: Wansolwara editor-in-chief Geraldine Panapasa, Josefa Babitu on Fiji’s Laucala campus and Harrison Selmen from Vanuatu working remotely. Image: Wansolwara

It cut its publishing teeth back in 2018 with the UniPoll Watch project covering the state elections in Victoria and then quickly took off with a national newsroom and live television presentation from Melbourne for the federal election last year.

The coverage was supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Some 24 universities, including New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Massey University, participate in producing The Junction and it has regularly published special collaborative team projects such as climate crisis – and now coronavirus.

The Junction is published by the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia (JERAA) as its first news website, although it has published a successful research journal, Australian Journalism Review, since 1978.

As pioneering editor and founder Associate Professor Andrew Dodd, director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, says, “The Junction reflects the output of 24 universities”.

The website adds that The Junction “showcases the best university student journalism from Australia, [New Zealand] and the Pacific and allows universities to work together to produce impactful and creative reportage.”

It takes the students’ work to wider audiences and encourages those audiences to visit the publications of university journalism programmes.

Check the tabs
“The best way to gauge what the universities are doing in Covid-19 coverage is to check their output under the Universities tab. You can click through and see what they’re filing,” says Dr Dodd.

Sri Krishnamurthi
Working on this story remotely from home with appropriate PPE … postgraduate journalist Sri Krishnamurthi. Image: PMC

“We’re coping well because we have a diffuse publishing approach. We empower our member universities to publish their best work.

“We set projects (of which coronavirus is one) and parameters and keep watch for quality, but we are unlike The Conversation because our members are experts at commissioning, editing, writing and publishing. So, we encourage them to do just that.

“It’s unlikely they’re coming into a newsroom. The kinds of stories they are working on can be seen by what’s being published.

“But it would be safe to say that many students have embraced the challenge of reporting on coronavirus. One of the parameters we set for that is that it’s done safely.”

Dr Alexandra Wake, journalism programme manager at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), says the current challenges are when innovation takes precedence. She is also president of JERAA.

“RMIT University transformed overnight from face-to-face teaching to a virtual teaching place. Some classes have required little change other than to the parameters of assessment, while others have needed to be re-imagined in light of new production techniques required in the COVID-19 era,” she says.

‘Operating remotely’
“Everything is now operating remotely, publications, radio and television programmes. All sorts of industry-based technologies are being used as well as normal teaching tools.

“My journalism teams are using a mixture of tools – including Teams, email, Canvas Collaborate Ultra, Skype, Slack, Trello.

“Some classes have become Covid-19 free zones, others are drilling down into life around the virus. It depends on the class and the learning outcomes.

“Looking after our student’s mental health is equally as important as their technical skills right now, and it’s important that for at least some of the week they aren’t being consumed by Covid-19.

“We’re finding huge engagement in our online classes, and requests for extra work to be done. We’ve happily obliged and suggested courses in coding, podcasts and books.”

A similar approach has been taken by Professor David Robie, director of AUT’s Pacific Media Centre, a postgraduate research and publication unit.

David Robie home office
AUT’s Dr David Robie working in his home office … “biggest challenge for journalism schools.” Image: PMC

“I would describe this is as the biggest challenge to journalism schools in my experience since covering the George Speight rogue military attempted coup in Fiji in 2000, when our students at the University of the South Pacific formed a courageous unit and covered the crisis through their newspaper Wansolwara and website Pacific Journalism Online for three months,” says Dr Robie, director of AUT’s Pacific Media Centre, a postgraduate research and publication unit.

‘Character building’
“It is times like these that are tremendous for character building. I always remember the headline on a Commonwealth media freedom magazine that, after interviewing our students, captured the quote, ‘All I needed was a coup to become a journalist’. In a sense, it was true because that bunch all went on to do great things as journalists.”

The PMC last month launched a special coronavirus reporting section on its Asia Pacific Report website with a two-person core and contributors from journalism schools around the region.

“This is an extraordinary pandemic challenge; it is devastating and requires extraordinary response and sacrifices from journalism schools just like most sections of our imperilled society.

“We have a tiny team, but we are flat out producing stories for our coverage through our students and throughout network of academics, journalists and student journalists across the Pacific.

“Apart from doing a series of lockdown wrap-ups each day, we focus stories on Pacific health, climate, social justice, economic, educational, media and political fallout stories as a result of the pandemic.

“At first, we did some Pacific wrap-ups every day, but as other media started doing this, such as RNZ Pacific and Barbara Dreaver’s [TVNZ] Pacific Update – which have far better resources and people at their disposal – we decided to focus on particular stories, either breaking ones that haven’t yet made a mark in New Zealand, or giving a more in-depth background angle.

AUT’s Asia Pacific Report … live reports from around the region. Image: PMC

“Some examples are how we covered the first Covid-19 case in Papua New Guinea (the infected person turned out to be Australian) and the “shoot to kill” order call by a PNG governor on the Indonesian border, which highlighted growing security and border tensions over the virus,” he says.

‘Post-pandemic world’
“It’s all fairly scary really. We also need to reflect on what a post-pandemic world might be shaped like – hopefully a break from the neoliberal economics of our time, so that we can develop a more just and humane world that is capable of constructively engaging with climate change and future health hazards.”

A Massey University news story at The Junction … “Stranded on the wrong side of the digital wall.” Image: Screenshot/PMC

Meanwhile, at Massey University Dr James Hollings, senior lecturer and journalism programme leader, says they have been well prepared.

“Massey was quite well prepared for the lockdown, as Australasia’s leading online or distance learning provider, we already had a lot of online learning – all our courses have an online equivalent for distance students. We had also anticipated the lockdown and set up things for our internal students,” he says.

“Massey University suspended teaching for four weeks. However, before then we had already set up a virtual newsroom for our postgrad students, using Slack as the main communications platform, with Zoom meetings for teaching classes,” Dr Hollings says.

“We are keeping on teaching using these, and they seem to be working. Our students are still required to meet their story quotas and are doing stories and getting them published on Stuff and elsewhere.

“Their spirits were down when they thought the lockdown would stop teaching and waste their year, but were hugely boosted once they realised we could make this virtual newsroom work.

“In fact, this is a really exciting opportunity to be reporting on – a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Zoom tutorials
“For our undergraduate students, we have kept tutorials going by Zoom, and kept up online communication. Zoom attendance is poor, but that may be because they think teaching is suspended,” he says.

However, no such luck with first world problems in Fiji or the Philippines.

Wansolwara News
University of the South Pacific’s Wansolwara News … reporting twin challenges, Covid-19 and Cyclone Harold. Image: Screenshot/PMC

“Classes will be taught remotely while the nation-wide restrictions are in place. Internet connection in Fiji is not that fast, and quite expensive relative to the national income, especially for the students,” says Dr Shailendra Singh, journalism co-ordinator at the University of the South Pacific.

The school publishes the award-winning newspaper Wansolwara, that is distributed as a liftout in one of Fiji’s two daily newspapers, and the digital version Wansolwara News.

“We’re trying to work with the few students who are willing and able to volunteer, to provide some coverage, but it’s quite challenging because of cost and other logistical issues.

“In line with the restrictions in Fiji, and in order to safeguard students, we are not imposing on them.

“We are reluctant to expose them to any risks – safety equipment like masks, gloves, hand-sanitisers are both scarce and expensive in Fiji.

“Our coverage is focused on breaking news in Fiji and the region, telephone or email interviews, and media conferences/releases by government departments and other bodies. Given the circumstances, we have to put safety first, improvise, and curtail coverage,” he says.

Lockdown suspension
In the Philippines, Danilo Arao, associate professor at the Department of Journalism, College of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines (UP) says: “Online classes are suspended during the lockdown here in the Philippines. In fact, all academic activities are suspended.”

“In other schools, where online classes (e-learning methods) are ongoing, students keep in touch mainly through the internet, so it can be challenging for those who don’t have access to it.

“Unlike New Zealand, the Philippines has a relatively low internet penetration rate of only a little more than 50 percent.

Robot communication
Innovative communication in the Philippines … students at the University of Santo Tomas have invented a robot for health workers communicating safely with patients. Story in the journalism newspaper Varsitarian. Image: The Varsitarian/UST

“Our net connection is one of the slowest in the world, and quite expensive too in relation to our low minimum wage,” he says.

“There is, however, some flexibility when it comes to deadlines and there are also cases where requirements are adjusted to ensure, for example, that students won’t have to go out of their houses to do data gathering and interviews.

The platforms vary depending on the university. Moodle is quite common as a “virtual classroom” of sorts.

Consultations and group meetings are done through popular platforms like Google Hangouts and Skype. Zoom is fast catching up as a go-to platform for webinars, and class meetings.

Social media uses
“Social media like Facebook and Twitter are, on the other hand, used for announcements, particularly FB Messenger app to create group chats (GCs).

“It’s safe to say that we are very stressed given the uncertainty. What compounds our worries is the inefficiency of our government in handling the crisis.”

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte … his recipe for lockdown-violators, “Shoot them dead”. Image: PMC

He criticised the government of the President.

“While New Zealand is lucky to have a Jacinda Ardern, we are practically cursed for having Rodrigo Duterte,” says Arao, who was a keynote speaker at the recent Safeguarding Press Freedom conference in Manila.

“Filipino humour is at its best right now as we try to cope with the stress. But the widespread militancy is evident as hashtags like #OustDuterte and #ICantStandthePresident becoming trending topics, not just here but also worldwide.

“Every now and then, we call out not just Duterte but some government officials and Duterte supporters for their sense of privilege or outright incompetence, or both.”

Back at AUT and Canterbury, journalism schools have been gearing up for online teaching when the second semester resumes.

‘Similar work’
“Once we’re up and running, the journalism students will be doing similar work to what they would have but in different contexts,” says AUT’s head of department – journalism Dr Greg Treadwell. The department publishes Te Waha Nui.

Te Waha Nui … student journalism from AUT. Image: Screenshot/PMC

“They’ll be busy in news reporting papers, writing stories generated by at-distance interviewing techniques.],” says Dr Treadwell, who is also president of the Journalism Education Association of New Zealand (JEANZ).

“We’re all having to learn new ways of doing journalism. But we’ll have all the usual courses in law and ethics, public-affairs reporting, visual journalism, investigative journalism and so on.

“Even the photojournalism class will be active, documenting their bubbles and the ways its members are coping with the Covid-19 crisis. We’ll still be able to teach the techniques of newsgathering and news production, but perhaps we’ll need to help students develop those storytelling techniques in original and different ways.

“For example, our Newsday, in which students would normally work in our AUT newsroom, will now take place in cyberspace, as so many newsrooms around the world are having to do. So, in fact it’s still helping students grasp the issues they will face in the industry.

“We’ll definitely be looking for stories on Covid-19 that sit within the kaupapa.”
And Dr Tara Ross, senior lecturer in journalism at Canterbury University, confirms they also be going to online courses.

Cyclone Harold hammering
The last word falls to Ben Bohane, a celebrated Australian photojournalist, author and TV producer who has covered Asia and the Pacific islands and done short course training in the region for the past 30 years.

Ben Bohane
Vanuatu-based photojournalist Ben Bohane … “Students need theory but also practice. Given the situation with Covid-19 and isolation, you may need a mix of online mentoring, assignments.” Image: QUT

At the time of contacting him, the inaugural $10,000 Sean Dorney Grant winner for Pacific Journalism in 2019 was hunkered down in Vanuatu as Cyclone Harold was hammering the Islands.

“One thing I have long admired about David’s [Robie] approach has been to marry both theory and practice, by having students run Wansolwara newspaper and Pacific Media Watch and other initiatives.

“Students need theory but also practice (practical/technical skills). Given the situation with Covid-19 and isolation, you may need a mix of online mentoring, assignments – such as make a diary at home, make a little film or podcast – and think about how they can contribute to information flow from their own home communities,” he says.

“I always press upon the idea of reading and self-educating to students. Just getting them inspired with the lives and work of the great correspondents is one way to get them motivated and thinking about stories they can do.

“They could also be researching stories about historical pandemics that have affected the Pacific such as [measles] in Samoa and many other places.”

A myriad of ways for journalism schools to be inspired and to keep future journalists interested and motivated in the time of Covid-19.

Sri Krishnamurthi, the contributing editor of the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch postgraduate student project, is self-isolating in Auckland under New Zealand’s Covid-19 lockdown.