‘Their Story Matters’: How Illinois Broadcast Journalism Students Report COVID-19 | Illinois Public Media News
One of Kenya Williams’ favorite courses is the audiovisual journalism course she takes at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That’s why she was devastated when she realized that all of her college courses would be moved online in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Like many institutions across the country, the University of Illinois suspended face-to-face teaching last month. However, switching from face-to-face classes to digital learning is easier for some classes than for others.
Ken Erdey is Williams’ teacher. He teaches broadcast journalism at the university and supervises a team of students who work on a weekly live morning show called “Good Morning Illini”, similar to a student version of NBC’s “The Today Show”.
Under normal circumstances, students meet as a group on Monday to prepare for their Friday live broadcast. Throughout the week, the student producers write transitions for the show and keep tabs on the latest news on campus. All pre-recorded segments must be filmed before the end of the day on Thursday, and students rehearse and shoot the half-hour live show on Friday morning. They also take turns to host the show. The finished product, which is filmed in a studio on campus, is shown on a local Comcast channel.
Erdey says he also posts the show on the class’s YouTube channel and on Facebook. This semester, he launched a new companion show called “Illini Sports Night” with interviews from a selection of the college’s Big Ten athletes.
But all that work was cut short when COVID-19 began to spread across the United States
The students recorded a final studio episode of “Good Morning Illini” before spring break. It included a final segment that featured videos recorded by older people explaining how much work on the show meant to them. The students gathered in front of the camera for the last shot, and some wiped the tears from their eyes.
Williams, a junior, was among the students in the last group photo. She says she loved being in front of the camera and dreamed of working on the show.
âI was like, wow, I’m finally a part of GMI like, for real and now I got ripped off because of this virus,â Williams said.
Erdey says that initially he had no idea how he would take a course based on hands-on learning and field reporting in a digital environment with students scattered across the state.
âIf you stop and think about what a studio production class is, you’re in the studio with live things going on. So we have guests. We have cameramen. We have our anchors doing their thing, âsays Erdey. âI couldn’t see how to teach a live studio broadcast course, in an online format. “
Other journalism programs across the country have faced the same problem. Mark Lodato, associate dean at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says his students typically produce a newscast of around half an hour for Arizona’s PBS station every night.
âSo there is a news juggernaut, so to speak, that has been disrupted,â says Lodato. “What it does is it forces faculty members and students to be very creative and innovative and frankly that’s good.”
Lodato says that students at Cronkite School are now creating video content using their cell phones while they take shelter in place at home.
âIncredibly, we have students who come up with creative ways to produce their visual pieces, and do a lot of Zoom interviews, do stand-ups at their homes, do weather reports in front of their TV screens and find out how to download the appropriate graphics and everything in between. So we’ve seen a real increase in creativity in storytelling and presentation, âhe says.
Erdey, a professor at the University of Illinois, says he also had to get creative to make sure his class could survive the shift to digital learning. He spent his spring break building a website using YouTube tutorials and a template he bought online. Erdey previously worked as a photographer and editor for TV news channels across Illinois, but web design is entirely new to him.
âFor the most part, I just don’t understand this area of ââtechnology and how to make it work,â he says. âI spent 12 hours a day sitting at my computer trying to figure out how to build this website, how to make it look professional? “
At the end of spring break, Erdey had a website, but he didn’t know what to assign his students for it. He found inspiration online.
âThis video appeared on my feed at one pointâ¦ it was from the Italians when they were 10 days old in their 40s. And it’s just people telling their stories 10 days later, and I was like, you know, maybe I can do something with that, âhe says.
Erdey asked his students to create vlogs – video logs – wherever they are and then post them on the website. He says the goal was for the students to report on how the pandemic had affected their lives.
He says Williams, in particular, had an important story to tell. While coming from Chicago, Williams currently lives and works in Champaign. For her first vlog, she chose to list things that had taken an unexpected turn in her life because of the virus.
âAt first, I didn’t have a computer … I admit that I went to the library (on campus) to use our resources, to use the computer. So when they said we were going to go online, I was like, well, I don’t have a computer. So what am I going to do? So I had to use my old phone and use Zoom through my phone and things like that. It was therefore an unexpected turning point.
Williams says she has since borrowed a friend’s spare computer. But when she recorded this initial vlog on her cell phone, she was unable to edit it and post it online. She sent her raw material to Connor Ciecko, another junior at U of I, and producer for the Good Morning Illini show. Like Williams, Ciecko enjoys working on Good Morning Illini, and despite the disruption, he says he’s remained optimistic that they will continue to produce content in every form possible.
âWe are in an incredibly unique situation. If you look at other courses, they can teach online so easily, âsays Ciecko. “Good Morning Illini is so ingrained in being in the field covering campus and just being in this studio to do a report that we had to completely rework that.”
Ciecko sees a lot of advantages in the current situation. He says this has required him to be versatile and develop skills that he believes will be valuable to a future employer. Ciecko shoots his own vlogs from his parents’ house in Western Springs, a suburb of Chicago.
âI pull on my phone. The audio isn’t great, the video isn’t great, the lighting isn’t great. So I learn to work with these, work around them and maintain the production value, and increase the production value of the things I produce, âCiecko explains. He also hopes the work he and his peers create serves as an important trace of what this pandemic looked like for Illinois students.
Erdey, the U of I professor, says he made his students realize how important it is for them to tell their own stories during this time.
âThis is a course on life in a historic moment. And living in an era or telling a story is the most important thing we can do. And their story matters. And they didn’t do anything other than go to that and present content that does everything I asked them to do and more. And it’s pretty amazing.
Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines