How journalism students are helping Guardian Australia tell the stories of our time

According to Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism Associate Professor Andrew Dodd, journalism – quality journalism – has never been more important.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc to most industries this year, and the disruption to the journalism industry is no exception.

“Journalism is going through its own sets of crises,” Dodd says. “It’s been digitally disrupted as much as, if not more than, most industries. But perhaps it’s now needed more than ever, as news dissemination becomes so fractured. There are now so many sources of information available, but so few of them have the underpinnings that good journalism has.”

Thanks to a partnership between the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism and Guardian Australia, enabled by the Guardian Civic Journalism Trust, Master of Journalism students are working on establishing these ‘underpinnings’ not just in the classroom, but with one of Australia’s most respected independent news media outlets.

Through internships and joint projects with Guardian Australia, they put into practice what they’ve learned about collating information, conducting fact-finding and research, and writing – with the stakes that come with producing journalism for a platform with a readership of over 11 million.

How journalism students are helping Guardian Australia tell the stories of our time

The COVID-19 project

In January, while bushfires were raging over the country, 12 Master of Journalism students were poised to start work on a reporting project for Guardian Australia, going into devastated communities in the aftermath to tell their stories as they began the slow path to recovery.

And then coronavirus hit, and the project had to change.

“The impact of COVID-19 continues to be felt across all levels of Australian society,” says student Liam Petterson, “but the pandemic presents unique challenges for young people. Research has consistently shown that young people are hit the hardest from recessions and can bear the consequences for the rest of their working lives. They are the most precariously employed, often in low-paid casual jobs, and a recession means many people lose that crucial foot in the door – that all-important next step.”

So they decided to focus on telling the stories of young people from different walks of life, about how their lives have been changed by the pandemic: an international student, a hospitality employee, an Indigenous health worker, a teacher, an artist.

Mentored by three-time Walkley award-winning Guardian Australia editor Gay Alcorn – also the author of the Guardian’s Postcards from the Pandemic series – each student produced a piece of profile journalism based on their interviews.

“[Gay] edited each of our drafts and encouraged us to explore novel, interesting angles we otherwise would've glossed over,” says Petterson.

“Working with Gay Alcorn was an incredible privilege. I feel like it’s been very challenging to get one-on-one mentorship in the journalism world – everyone’s way too busy! So to have her insight and encouragement was really valuable.”

For Petterson, this kind of training is imperative.

“The best way to learn how to be a journalist is to do journalism. No PowerPoint slide or media theory lecture could give me the tools or experience to be a working reporter. These are no doubt important in providing balance and groundwork for understanding the role of a reporter, but the daily task of actually being a reporter I think comes from practice. It’s an ongoing process – and it can’t be done from the lecture theatre.”

Else Kennedy was working as a camera operator and video editor for several organisations in Alice Springs, including SBS, when she decided to move to Melbourne to study journalism at the start of 2019. Inspired by the Four Corners report revealing the abuse of children in detention at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, she saw the potential that journalism has to effect real change.

“I was doing some work with young people, and I knew a lot of people who were coming in and out of the juvenile justice system. When that report came out, it was really influential – and in a pretty short amount of time, a lot of change happened,” she explained.

“I wanted a greater understanding of how journalism works, so that I could be more involved in guiding the stories and making decisions.”

Now living in Melbourne, the COVID-19 project has taken her back – virtually – to regional Australia. For the past few months, she has been getting to know Joella Ashwin, a young Martu woman and trainee nurse working at the Ngangganawili Aboriginal Health Service in the central West Australian town of Wiluna.

“Her job changed quite a lot [as a result of the pandemic],” Kennedy explains. “I got in touch with her on Facebook, and luckily she’s a lovely person who was really open and happy to have a chat.”

Over four conversations, Kennedy has been weaving together the story of how the pandemic has affected Ashwin’s work – and life.

“It’s also partly a personal story, because when the news first arrived about coronavirus, a lot of her family packed up and left to her homeland. She stayed because she works at the health service, but also because she’s caring for a close relative.”

The final piece, alongside others in the youth-focused series, will be published on Guardian Australia from July.

The future of journalism

The impact of COVID-19, perhaps surprisingly, has opened up new opportunities for student journalists to augment their learning; but it’s also allowed them to contribute value to a global audience which now, more than ever, is in need of reliable, rigorous journalism.

“Journalism is fundamental now,” says Dodd. “It’s crucial to democracy. And that’s why I think this relationship with the Guardian and this connection we have to both philanthropic sources of funding and real media outlets is so important.”

Petterson says simply: “In a global pandemic, we need clean information as much as we need clean water.”

If you would like to contribute to training the next generation of journalists and promoting public discourse on important issues such as the environment, Indigenous affairs and human rights, please consider supporting the Guardian Civic Journalism Trust.