More Than Just Words

Aspiring journalists give glimpses into how words reflect this moment in time
Sue Ellen Christian speaks to students in her journalism class.

It was a unique and creative assignment. Last January, at the start of the semester, Western Michigan University Professor Sue Ellen Christian gave students in her Specialized Reporting course a list of words and one phrase; they were to choose one of these and find an interesting local angle about it for a news enterprise story.

The options — “ally,” “borders,” “civility,” “digital native,” “equity,” “immigrant” and “influencer” — each opened the door to interesting reporting opportunities. But finding a local tie to a word or phrase was the easy part; in March, COVID-19 shut down WMU’s campus mid-semester, and students returned to their hometowns, leaving Christian’s students to conduct their reporting online.

“An aspect of reporting that we work on a lot at this level is observational reporting: What do you notice about a reporting scene or source and why did you notice that? What is relevant to the story at hand and why?” says Christian. “The virus shutdown curtailed that learning curve, forcing students into a different learning curve of developing reportorial resourcefulness: How do you find sources when you can't knock on doors or attend public meetings and chat with potential sources after it? Where do you find people when everyone is shut inside their homes?“

For one student, Qunicy Cox, whose reporting on the word ‘”ally” in relation to LGBTQ people appears in this issue, the disruption also brought growth.

“The world being on hold gave me the time I needed to delve into the project in a new way,” Cox says. “Editing at home became reflective for me, and I realized the importance of words like ‘ally,’ ‘advocate’ and ‘accomplice’ in my own life. I put my all into this story, and I hope readers will reflect on the words defining their lives.”

Christian says she was intrigued by how the students each approached the assignment. “Of course, they had to do evidence-based reporting and fact-based research to report their stories, but I think their reporting angles were initially informed by their individual backgrounds, age, academic and personal interests — so we ended up with a rich package of stories no single reporter could have produced,” she says.

Student Raine Kuch, whose reporting on the word “border” takes a look at how zoning creates borders on a local level, says that “to be given a word and told to find the story around it challenged my creativity and my understanding of this community.”

“This project challenged my idea of what is newsworthy,” she adds. “It doesn't have to be a breaking news event. It can be a topic or issue that affects the community, and be beneficial to draw attention to.”

Encore is proud to publish in this issue a number of the stories that resulted from the Reporting a Word Project. Readers will find stories on the words “ally,” “borders,” “civility” and “immigrant.” In addition, September’s issue of Encore will feature two additional stories from the project.

“Regrettably, there were more excellent stories produced in this project than we could accommodate in a single issue,” says Encore Editor Marie Lee. “We are thrilled, however, to bring the community the stories that we can and that Professor Christian and the students were willing to share their work. Readers will find that these stories provide new, fresh perspectives on many aspects of our community.”

In this issue:

Ally: ‘All About Love in the End’

Borders: Lines of Separation: How Zoning is Shaping Kalamazoo

Civility: Incivility a big issue in online news environment

Immigrant: Different backgrounds, different reasons: Immigrants share their stories