Notes from the VisCom Classroom: The Knight Case Studies Initiative

Case studies have long been used to teach business, law, and medicine, but do they have a place in the journalism classroom?

Kirsten Lundberg, director of the Knight Case Studies Initiative at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is betting they do.

The Case Method

I had the good fortune to attend a presentation Lundberg gave on Jan. 13 to faculty members at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. In her presentation, Lundberg championed the use of case studies in the journalism classroom as a way to foster critical judgment, not just critical thinking (a current educational buzzword).

Case studies provide a vehicle for classroom discussion, she said, in which the faculty member becomes a facilitator rather than a disseminator of answers. Journalism students using case studies face management and leadership challenges drawn from the real worlds of print, broadcast, and digital media.

Journalism educators spend a lot of time teaching students the craft of journalism — how to gather information, shape it for a mass-media audience, and then present it in a useful form. The Knight Case Studies Initiative, which is funded by the Knight Foundation, hopes to teach students what to do when faced with the difficult ethical, moral, and practical challenges they will surely encounter as they pursue their craft.

The term “case” in case study refers to a narrative of actual events — for journalism case studies, these events are drawn from the world of journalism. There is no analysis, no hindsight — it is as if the events described in the narrative are unfolding in real time. The narrative stops at a decision point — a fork in the road where several reasonable alternatives present themselves.

Having read the case and a preliminary question, the students must now begin debating the merits of each alternative. This requires them to analyze the situation, diagnose the problem, predict the consequences of each alternative, prescribe a solution, and defend their position.

The Kidnapping of Jill Carroll

For example, one of the case studies available for free on the Knight Case Studies Initiative Web page concerns the 2006 kidnapping in Baghdad of Jill Carroll, a young stringer for the Christian Science Monitor.

Once it learned of the kidnapping, the newspaper had to put together a crisis-management team to work with the various stakeholders in the case, including Carroll’s family, the kidnappers (who were demanding freedom for all female Iraqi prisoners), the CIA, the FBI, and the U.S. military. The newspaper also had to work with other members of the mass media, who were anxious to report the story.

Clearly, the newspaper’s goal was to preserve Carroll’s life, but how best to do this in the face of conflicting advice from the various stakeholders? This is the point at which classroom discussion begins.

Theoretically, only the faculty member knows the actual outcome of any case, which is provided in an “eyes-only” epilogue. Lundberg said students demanded this added feature, but she advises faculty members not to reveal the outcome for at least one week after the classroom discussion, so the students will continue mulling over the case outside of class.

Cases Studies in Visual Communications

After hearing Lundberg’s presentation, I was immediately struck by how useful the case method would be to teach ethical issues in visual communications. I put Lundberg in touch with Ken Kobré, professor of photojournalism at San Francisco State and author of Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach, which is the leading textbook for college photojournalism courses.

Kobré’s book, published by Focal Press and now in its sixth edition, has an extensive chapter on ethics, covering everything from whether even to press the shutter button to whether it’s OK to digitally manipulate images.

The ethics chapter opens with a horrifying full-page photograph by Richard Drew of the Associated Press, showing a man falling to his death from one of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. The caption says “Many publications declined to run this picture. Were they right?”

A case study based around this photograph would put the students in the picture-editor’s chair, having to make a decision on deadline whether or not to run Drew’s photograph and others like it.

Turn the page and you see another troubling image, this one by John Harte from Bakersfield, California. A young boy, having just drowned, lies on the ground in a partially unzipped body bag, his face and upper torso visible, as grieving family members circle round.

Is this photograph an intolerable invasion of privacy or a graphic reminder of the dangers of drowning — a reminder that might ultimately prevent tens or hundreds of similar tragedies?

Students might be asked the following: Would you have shot this picture or turned away and left the family alone? As picture editor, would you run the drowning photograph or any photograph that shows a dead body? As photographer or editor, should you first ask permission of the family to shoot the picture and run it? Would you crop or digitally alter the image to make it less troubling?

Telling a Story — or Creating One?

In addition to having to decide whether to run certain photographs or broadcast certain video clips, image-makers and editors also have to decide what constitutes objective reporting and what constitutes undo interference by the journalist in the event they are covering.

Kobré’s book mentions several photographers who either resigned or were forced to quit when their newspapers discovered they had set up photographs or had given direction to subjects that overstepped the bounds of responsible journalism. These incidents would make great case studies.

Is it OK to suggest to a firefighter, as Mike Meadows of the Los Angeles Times apparently did, that a fire-scene photograph would be improved if the firefighter would splash some water on his head from a swimming pool in front of a burning house?

Is it unethical to show a young boy how to point a toy gun and where to look, as Edward Keating, a Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer for the New York Times, apparently did when covering a story about an FBI raid on a suspected domestic Al Qaeda cell?

As an editor, would you have recommended firing Norm Zeisloff, a 61-year-old staff photographer for the St. Petersburg Times — who had been shooting for the paper for more than 17 years — for suggesting to some barefoot baseball fans attending a college game that it would be “cute” if they wrote a cheer for their favorite player on the soles of their feet?

Finally, is it ever the right choice for a photojournalist to not make a picture, or for an editor to suppress a newsworthy image? Does the public always have the right to know and to see?

There are many more examples of such dilemmas in Kobré’s book, and I hope some of them find their way into the Knight Case Studies Initiative. I believe the case method is a valuable teaching tool, and I look forward to applying it in upcoming courses. As always, if you’ve had experience using the case method, or if you have ideas about incidents from the world of visual communications that would make great cases, I’d love to hear from you!

One Response to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: The Knight Case Studies Initiative”

  1. An article that uses case studies. This is what you were thinking about for the legal issues class.

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