By Nomi Morris
The visual journalism program at Brooks Institute in southern California teamed up with the Ventura County Star and PBS NewsHour for a November 2012 Election Day event that got students out of the classroom and out of their comfort zone.
“It felt like we were on a real assignment, that we were working for a real publication or photo agency,” said Kayle Neis, a first semester student from Saskatoon, Canada, whose photograph of victorious Democratic congressional candidate Julia Brownley was one of five Brooks student photographs posted the next day on NewsHour’s Web site.
The students had no guarantee that their work would appear in the main election coverage of either the Star or PBS. But the chance to upload their work for professional editors to look at, spurred them to participate in their college’s deadline-driven Election Shoot-Off event.
“I was motivated weeks before,” Neis said. “And when I heard PBS was looking for certain candidates in our area, I took off in that direction.”
Another 35 photographs - along with one article and one multimedia story - were posted on a Web page which the Ventura County Star set up specially for the student coverage.
The visual journalism students, who have an active NPPA Student Chapter on campus, also uploaded their work to the Brooks NPPA Facebook page.
Faculty members began to promote the election event a couple of weeks prior to election day. Some structured assignments around it and some offered bonus points.
“Our instructor Greg Cooper said to us, ‘Either go big, or go home’,” said Ashleigh Mower, 19, a student from Indiana. Mower was one of a group of students who spent a long day following Democratic Santa Barbara Congresswoman Lois Capps, who won re-election.
“It was an amazing experience. She was very welcoming to us,” Mower said of the Congresswoman’s reaction to the students. “We knew what to do under pressure, and dealt with anything that was thrown our way.”
Faculty member Cooper, who secured the commitment from the Ventura newspaper and selected photographs for publication as they came in, confessed he had trouble sleeping the night before, wondering if students working on tight deadline would be able to fill a whole Web page with high quality work.
“But when the first group came back from the Lois Capps campaign, I knew we had a hit,” he said. “I felt like I was in the newsroom again. The students really responded.”
It wasn’t until the day before the election that former National Geographic Magazine and Los Angeles Times photography editor Gail Fisher, who heads the School of Film and Communication at Brooks, got word from her contact at PBS NewsHour that the public broadcaster would also partner with Brooks.
In all, about 60 students participated in the election event, more than half the student body. At 6 p.m., several filtered back to campus to work in the digital labs and by 10 p.m., when the pizza arrived, dozens of students were gathered to watch returns on a big screen. All faculty were on hand, some staying as late as midnight.
From pre-assignment research, to approaching voters at polling stations, to editing on deadline, to negotiating future image rights with political campaign managers, the Shoot-Off exposed students to many professional experiences.
Brooks’ Visual Journalism faculty hope to build on this educational model for future events. The college stresses forging student ties to the industry while the students are in still school.
Nomi Morris, a former Berlin correspondent for Time Magazine and a former Middle East correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers (now McClatchy), chairs the Visual Journalism program at Brooks Institute.