For Australian student journalists, the story of a lifetime

Most student news websites are filled with the typical campus stories about musical performances, student government elections and the latest sports results. Occasionally a big news story will dominate coverage for a few days.

For the student reporters at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia, the past month has been spent covering the story of a lifetime: the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. After the aircraft had been missing for more than two weeks, news broke that the search had narrowed to an area in the Indian Ocean west of Australia. The ECU Daily team leapt into action.

Though the staff tends to work with local stories, or topics of national interest, the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, MH370, has international resonance. Adviser Ruth Callaghan said their SNO website and social media Twitter and Storify have been key to covering this international story.

“It has meant writing and structuring our stories not just for the local audience in Western Australia but for a world stage,” Callaghan wrote in an email response.

She noted that some Chinese families who lost someone on the flight are now based in Perth while the search continues. “This means we are having to be aware not only of the considerable Chinese interest in the story,” she wrote, “but also of the sensitivities that come with a number of grieving families in our local area.”

Through the power of social media, the ECU Daily website has had a global audience. Callaghan said the staff’s first Storify, posted March 20 announcing the search area, received more than 10,000 views within hours. The Twitter feed has been viewed more than 100,000 times in a week.

“It has kept us busy,” Callaghan wrote, “but also lets student journalists know that good, quick reporting can reach a broad audience.”

To help the reader find the detailed online coverage, the staff created a “Flight MH370” category on the home page navigation bar, applied consistent tags for each story and highlighted the latest story in the showcase carousel.

The students’ coverage is both limited and nimble. With hundreds of international journalists in Perth to cover this event, accessing new sources isn’t really viable, Callaghan said. The staff has been reporting a daily summary of changes in the story, but the students aren’t tied to an hourly update to a TV or radio station.

As important news breaks, the team immediately posts to Twitter and curates posts via Storify, selecting news from all other agencies within seconds of it being posted.

“If an Indian journalist reports something on Twitter to his home audience, for example, we can include it in our coverage in a way that a local newspaper or TV station might not,” Callaghan wrote. “We have no ‘brand loyalty’ to contend with; we just want to get accurate news disseminated as widely as possible and we do that by cross checking reports, following specific reporters from around the world and giving all the news when it happens.”

The student news website has an advantage, and students are gaining important skills.

“By not being beholden to production deadlines in this way, we can get the story out very quickly,” Callaghan wrote. “It is another skill that journalists need to learn — being able to Tweet quotes at speed — but it will be a way that news is reported in the future.”

She said the pressure of short deadlines has provided students with an understanding of a newsroom environment where every second — and every word — counts.

The students have put their new skills to use on other stories, too.

“It has certainly opened their eyes to the power of a laptop, an active mind, a set of quick fingers and a good Internet connection in modern journalism,” Callaghan wrote, explaining that students now use Storify for other stories which might have received a traditional approach before.

Callaghan said the ECU Daily team members learned several lessons as a result of this intense period of reporting. Most importantly, accuracy builds credibility.

“There are a lot of crazy things you read on social media, so learn to question before you repeat,” she wrote. “Speed is good, but being trusted lasts longer.”

Callaghan also said to balance the need to report information with a sensitivity to the situation and people, including watching for inapproriate hashtags and speculation. She encouraged reporters to think about how they add value to a story everyone else wants to report.

“Can you provide more detail about where?” Callaghan wrote. “Can you expand the background and context? Can you add a fact box or questions and answers? If readers are hungry for knowledge, give them something they can chew over.”