Remote learning stories: Multimedia journalism faculty members pivot students to story of a lifetime

An image from a story on
An image from a story on
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

One of the truths about journalism is that no matter what you're working on, sometimes a story so big beckons that you must drop everything to pursue it.

When that story also happens to be one for the ages, the result for Grand Valley multimedia journalism students was an experience documenting one of the most important stories they will ever see.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein and James Ford, both assistant multimedia journalism professors, guided their students' shift to covering the pandemic. The experience was valuable, they said, and the students also found profound stories to tell.

Kelly Lowenstein gave the students in his class on investigative techniques the option to continue with the big projects they were pursuing or switch to pandemic stories.

Kelly Lowenstein provided an opportunity for a deep dive for the students who switched to covering the pandemic by tapping his global journalism contacts to launch a collaborative COVID-19 project.

About two dozen colleagues responded and several threads were developed, Kelly Lowenstein said.

"We're going through all of this together and this is something we wanted to do with out students," Kelly Lowenstein said.

A bonus is that some of the collaboration has involved meetings with a Pulitzer Prize winner and other professional investigative journalists, giving the students valuable insight.

The project includes a spreadsheet of data collected about the pandemic-related responses for about 35 higher education institutions, Kelly Lowenstein said. Grand Valley students have done fact checking on the data, further honing their investigation skills on an acutely relevant topic.

Grand Valley students also contributed to the project by conducting surveys on pandemic-related issues, including one on mental health services answered by university students worldwide. Other students also surveyed nearly 200 Grand Valley students about their financial and job picture, which produced compelling content, Kelly Lowenstein said.

Meanwhile, the students who create content and produce the award-winning weekly news magazine "West Side Stories," which airs on WGVU Life, found their work quickly halted by restrictions brought on by COVID-19, said Ford, who oversees the program.

"They’re all in the middle of their assignments and we don’t have access to cameras and the high-quality editing computers necessary to edit, as well as no audio facilities to develop voice tracks for a professional program," Ford said.

Once public health guidelines prevented students from using WGVU equipment as they normally do, Ford helped them regroup.

"I said, 'Let’s focus on something that is the main story of the day. Let’s try and find stories that are personal, feature length stories, not breaking news,'" Ford said. 

The result was, a special website of student-created multimedia stories that tells stories of health care workers, food service workers, those finding ways to worship remotely and more.

Besides the insight gained by finding and telling these stories, the experience also taught the students how to overcome obstacles, from permission to use images falling through to technology challenges. For instance, one student shot and edited a story entirely on an iPhone, Ford said.

"The motto from the beginning was, 'Find a way.' Sometimes you have to be flexible and nimble and look for alternate ways to tell your story than what you have relied on time and time again," Ford said. "They have my admiration and respect."