Rob Ford visit to National Post helps my students learn about journalism

Click Here to see the entire Live Tweet of Rob Ford’s visit to the National Post

The visit of mayoralty candidate Rob Ford to the editorial board of the National Post today provided me with a real time demonstration for my journalism students. I was set to do a unit on quotes and attribution, and had prepared a power point and a bunch of handouts on the different kinds of quotes, and when you should use them.

Direct. Indirect. Partial.

But when I learned from my Twitter account last night that the Post would be live tweeting Ford’s chat with the editorial board, I decided to risk an experiment with the class.

We would all follow the session as it happened, on our classroom Macs, and see how the journalist who was doing the Tweeting, would handle quotes. Everyone logged on at 1:45 and we waited and read the updates as Ford’s session was supposed to start at 2. pm.

As a teacher, this was a risky exercise, and I admitted to the class up front that we would try it, and see how it went, but if it didn’t work the way I’d hoped, then it was just an experiment, since I’d never tried this before. I don’t think Twitter played such a vital role in the previous municipal election in Toronto in 2006, and so this opportunity to teach live as the Tweets happened, was a first for me as a teacher.
As it turned out, the students really liked it.
We started getting the tweets coming fast and furious, and because you only have 140 characters, we were getting short, juicy quotes from Ford.

Direct quotes like this one:

These nice short succinct quotes add flavour to the story, and keep the reader’s interest to read the next part of the story. (Like skipping to the sex parts in a romance novel, after skimming over all the boring description and landscape views!) And if they are outrageous, or controversial, like Kanye West’s outburst last year at the music awards “Immo let you finish, but first…” then you hang the quote on the person who said it and let them deal with the consequences.

But what do you do if the quote is convoluted or badly phrased or using bad grammar?

We discussed the different rules for this: ethically you can clean up a quote if it makes the speaker look better. But politicians – especially former US president George W Bush, had so many gaffes, that reporters didn’t clean his mistakes up. Public figures are usually coached and have speech training and so the rules for making them look better, are different, then for ordinary interviewees. Here’s what the Tweet said that Ford said.

Some students suggested that perhaps the Tweeter herself had made a mistake, just because of speed. We agreed that unless you were there, in person, and heard the way Ford said it out loud with your own ears, it wasn’t fair to assume he had misspoken. Also, anyone who tries to transcribe an oral interview knows that people ramble orally they way they never would if it was a written email interview.

At some points, we got the reporter Mary Vallis deciding to paraphrase some of Ford’s campaign messsage, rather then put in his speechifying. I suggested to the students that having to Tweet forces the journalist to focus, to only use the best and most important details and quotes, and is a very good exercise in using judgment and whittling out the unnecessary stuff from an hour long interview.

We got partial quotes with only a word or two in quotation marks:

This opened a discussion on whether putting a partial quote in, meant your tape recorder was broken, and you couldn’t remember the whole quote, which sometimes happens. And also that sometimes, putting one word in quotes means the reporter insinuates they are skeptical of the source’s claims. Sort of like “air quotes”.

And finally, we discussed the Tweet about BlackBerrys. It is good colour and observation and shows a reporter’s keen eye for detail, which all reporters should be on the lookout for. It adds colour and imagery to the eventual story and is a good habit to have.

Did the exercise work? After 40 minutes, I gave the class a break, but said they could stay and keep watching the Live Tweeting session if they wanted to. Except for a handful (including some who played HangMan or went to the washroom) most stayed at their computers to watch the Tweet session.

And some said it was really interesting, and fun.

Thank you Rob Ford, and The National Post, for coming into my classroom and spicing up my lesson on quotes! You made the class interactive and engaging! I even Tweeted to the National Post that we were following this session right in class. Kudos to Mary Vallis!

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