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Bells and Whistles

By Tetona Dunlap

Questions that seem simple to answer are often the most complex. And even if the questions you are asking seem thought-provoking, you need to work hard at encouraging discussion. To me, that’s one of the big lessons to be drawn from our interactive Web project, Rethink 08.

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign had inspired and energized the youth vote like no one before. One year later, it appeared that the youth movement had diminished. “What has happened to the youth vote?” seemed to be an important and valid question to ask.

As journalists, we wanted to answer it by stimulating conversation on campus and in the Missoula community. But throughout the project, I discovered that drawing the public’s interest is difficult. It frequently felt like we were the story. We had to advertise our class project in order to make our journalism work. At times, more than our question, we became the focus of conversation ourselves.

As a class, we struggled to come to a conclusion of the project. The problem was that our research depended on audience participation. And no matter how much we advertised our project, we still did not receive as much input as we had hoped to collect.

Writing this essay, in the winter of 2009, I checked the Rethink 08 Web site to see how many people had commented on our “interviews without words.” Those photographs were meant to get the conversation started. We received dozens of comments, but not as many as we’d hoped.

Tuning out information

On our Facebook page, we gathered more than a hundred fans, but few comments. Many of the people I invited to become a fan added us, but this is as far as their participation went. This is understandable: I, after all, always become a fan of groups on Facebook without ever actively involving myself in their cause. It was even more difficult to get people to send in old pictures from the campaign 2008. I sent messages to friends that I knew attended Obama’s inauguration, yet never received a response. I think social networking sites work when it comes to name recognition. But we are bombarded with so much information on the Internet that we have learned to tune it out.

The role of journalism is changing. As journalists, we almost have to sell our journalism to the public. We have to advertise it because information is everywhere. We are competing with many more news and information outlets than the journalists of the past. People are not reading newspapers as they once did. I used to read them every day, but even I find myself reading them less.  Now most of my information comes from television and the Internet.

To be a journalist today means you can’t simply just seek the truth and report on it. You must also seek out and engage your audience. You need bells and whistles to get their attention. And once you get it, you must keep them engaged. You can’t just practice good journalism; you have to stand out from the crowd.

Read Tetona Dunlap’s profile of Ashley Haley.

Discuss Tetona Dunlap’s op-ed piece on the “wilting millennials”.

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