As a reporter or media professional, it’s not uncommon for any given day — or even an afternoon — to include tracking down an obscure fact, hustling to find the right person to give you information, chasing across town in uncomfortable shoes to take a photo or shoot some video, and learning a new technology to get information to an audience. Oh, and it’s all done on deadline.
Call it “The Amazing Race” meets “Spotlight” crossed with “The Newsroom.”
The scavenger hunt has become a milestone marker in J202: Mass Communication Practices, the six-credit introductory class required of all 120 incoming J-School students every semester — whether they’re specializing in journalism or strategic communication. The students spend seven-and-a-half hours a week in class — there’s a 90-minute lecture on Monday morning, then students spend six hours a week in one of our 15-member labs taught by a TA. It is a monster of a class.
Aside from the daily assignments they do in lab throughout the semester, the students also spend the first 12 weeks working on what we call the IS project. At the end of the semester, they go all-in on full lab project where they conceive a website and app and develop it for a panel of mock angel investors.
Real Reporting Needed
When I taught J202 for the first time in the fall of 2013, one of the challenges I saw was that students spent their time in lab writing stories based on information and facts we’d given to them, but we were asking them to do their own independent reporting for their IS projects. Some students come into the course with experience writing for one of the campus papers or a media-related internship, but most have never approached a stranger, notepad or camera in hand, to ask for information and then use social media channels to share it.
So, I wanted to get them out of the lab and into the field, gathering information. Also, at 7.5 hours a week and six credits, the class is a bit of a grind, and I thought we needed to inject some fun a few weeks into the semester to get all of us re-energized. Finally, the end-of-semester project requires a fair bit of group camaraderie, and we needed a way to try to build some lab morale early on.
I had heard about reporting scavenger hunts through my colleague Su Robinson. I borrowed the idea — and some of her questions — in a small higher-level reporting class that was focused on beat reporting. That hunt took about 75-minutes and required students to find information we’d be using for reporting in the course.
And it was a big hit.
That was all the prompting we needed to go big and develop a three-hour version for the J202 labs. The course’s lead teaching assistant, Mallory Perryman, and I expanded that smaller list of questions to develop a 44-question scavenger hunt with the goal of getting students to learn to explore, gather information and verify it. We also wanted to make it competitive — not only would the top group earn bragging rights for winning, I offered to buy pizza for them to enjoy during their next lab.
Array of Questions
Some questions only need to be answered once — some are required. Some questions also offer such vital practice that everyone in the lab is required to complete them. For example, a question from spring 2015:
Find and interview two students to ask: What do you think about the proposed budget cuts to the university system? Tweet each answer and include the person’s full name and year in school. Include our hashtags plus any hashtag relevant to this issue.
“It introduces students to a variety of different styles of information gathering and communication — looking at public records, doing person-on-the-street interviews, tweeting stories, uploading video and photos, and getting nat sound,” Mike Wagner, another instructor in the course, said in an email. “It is a bit lower pressure than some other assignments because it is a group grade, so I think students are able to reduce bad stress and ride the wave of good stress as they work with their lab mates to complete the scavenger list.”
The questions can also be useful for prepping for things coming up later in the semester. For example, we require J202 students to do an audio story for their IS projects and upload it to SoundCloud. So, in the scavenger hunt, we have them create an audio file — here we ask them to write an ode to AP style — and then upload it to SoundCloud.
It’s also a great way for us to introduce new technology or platforms that we may not be ready to fully integrate into the course. This coming spring, I can see myself adding a Snapchat assignment or one requiring students to create a video package on Videolicious. Here’s an example from last spring:
Badgers are known for their school spirit. Create a Vine video of someone (not you or anyone in the journalism school) showing off their school spirit and tweet it to the #J202 hashtag with your lab number included. Be sure to get the person’s permission to tweet the video by including their email address, so we can check.
Over the years we have honed and improved it. We now encourage the students to copy and paste the questions into a new Google document and fill out the answers that way. But we don’t specifically tell them how to do it, and we let them work through the organization themselves. That’s part of building the team camaraderie.
We have some ground rules:
- Interview people you don’t know — and not all fellow students
- Be careful — be polite — be professional
- Get info any way you can unless you’re given specific directions
- Use any tools you can find — phone, Internet, libraries
- Coordinate — spend time organizing
- The lab’s TA can’t help beyond answering basic questions
We’ve been lucky with the weather — planning a three-hour semi-outdoor activity for Madison, Wisconsin, in the second week of February is always dicey, but the last time I taught the class, we lucked out and the temperature was about 30 degrees all three days we did it. (If you’ve never spent a winter in Wisconsin, just know that’s a win.)
Stacy Forster teaches journalism and strategic communication in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also serves as moderator for the #EdShift Twitter chats.