First author: Jeanette Abrahamsen
Co-author: Janelle Applequist
Research assistant: Emmanuel Maduneme
Using social identity theory and constructivist learning theory, this case study explores interactive ways to enhance inclusive learning design by enabling students to tell stories about solutions to societal problems that were exacerbated by the pandemic. Educators have the ability to create curriculum that fosters deeper understanding about inequity in our communities. Students in Florida Focus, a TV news class, applied what they learned about social justice to newscasts that amplified diverse voices that are too often absent in mass media.
Forged In Fire: A Case Study of How the Class Of COVID-19 Empowered Unheard Communities in the Fight for Social Justice
Students in the Florida Focus TV news class at the University of South Florida create impactful solutions-based journalism stories that air Mondays through Fridays on Tampa’s PBS station in one of America’s largest media markets. During the spring 2021 semester, students were responsible for pitching news stories, writing scripts, interviewing people on camera, conducting research and editing the stories into videos. The daily newscasts were published on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and broadcast on local TV. The goal of the class is to air timely stories while providing the community with diverse perspectives that are often missing from mainstream media outlets. In addition to exposing social injustice, students were also tasked with shining a light on people who are working to fix these problems and empower viewers to become part of the solution. This course is designed to provide students with an environment that closely matches the expectations of a real-world TV newsroom. The instructor acts as the news director for the daily operations of the newscasts. The objective of the course is to prepare students for full-time employment in the TV news industry. After graduating, some students go on to become news producers, reporters, writers, anchors, videographers and editors.
While it is important that journalists identify what communities are going through, it is equally important that educators address challenges our students are facing. COVID-19 provided us with a unique opportunity to support our students because the pandemic exacerbated systemic inequalities that our students have experienced for a long time. We were forced to come face-to-face with the realities of inaccessibility to technology, healthcare, housing, and basic human rights. The diverse racial and gender makeup of the students in this class added a sense of urgency in tackling society’s problems. The pandemic made these problems even more personal, which made it the best time to empower students to do something about it.
In the first month of the semester, students went through a social justice boot camp. In response to the pandemic, the course that was once taught in a TV studio on the USF Tampa campus, was transformed into a synchronous online course with extensive digital modules using a learning management system following Richard Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning. The first module was titled “What you’re writing about and why.” It was broken up into pages that delved into how to report on different social issues like racism, sexism, wealth inequality, the prison industrial complex, mental health and bigotry against people in the LGBTQ+ community. Each module page contained a combination of infographics, statistics, podcasts, TV shows and documentaries to arm students with the knowledge many said they lacked coming into the class. Students learned about journalists’ responsibility to fairly and accurately represent their communities.
Following in-depth reflections and group discussions surrounding social justice issues, students then learned how to use multimedia and storytelling tools to share what they learned with the world. Students were taught that it is their responsibility to create content that engages audiences while educating the community about solutions to these problems.
Some of the students chose to cover stories about hate crimes against Asian Americans as a result of racist rhetoric around the coronavirus. One student featured a digital equity initiative that is helping underserved students get access to laptops and internet. One student celebrated a developmentally disabled baker who created her own company after losing her job because of the pandemic. One student interviewed a Black barber who gives free haircuts and books to children of color. In the wake of the Crown Act to ban hair discrimination, another student interviewed anchors and reporters about their fight to wear natural hair on TV. Two students traveled to the spot where Trayvon Martin was killed on the anniversary of the teen’s death to produce a video about how it helped give birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.
While it is crucial that all journalists are capable of accurately telling stories about people from different backgrounds, there is no denying that representation in newsrooms also matters. A Radio Television Digital News Association survey of local TV news diversity published in 2020 found that people of color make up just 26.6% of the American TV news workforce (RTDNA, 2020). This lack of representation inside newsrooms is considered one of the reasons that American TV news stories fail to represent their communities.
The aim of this study was to evaluate whether this social justice instruction and focus on intentionality resulted in students creating more equitable and inclusive media. The study sought to get feedback from students about their perception of comprehension and retention as it is related to diverse news content creation. The study also aimed to better understand how students felt about broadcasting social justice issues they were personally affected by. It also attempted to get a snapshot of whether students felt adequately informed on social justice issues prior to participating in the class and whether they felt changes need to be made to K-12 and university instruction surrounding these issues.
Students were taught to intentionally conduct interviews with diverse people whose stories are too often unheard. Historically, newsrooms predominantly hired white men, which transferred to news coverage that focused largely on people who looked and sounded like those journalists. The goal of this class was to end this cycle and instead aim to more accurately represent the communities we serve. Social identity theory (how individuals use their concepts of the self to identify with other groups and make sense of the world) posits that how we view ourselves is “largely relational and comparative,” (Tajfel & Turner, 1985, p. 16). Social groups play an important role in the development of social identity, pride and self-esteem. Social identity theory focuses on belonging. Thus, for students to see themselves as members and leaders of their communities, it was important to have culturally diverse media coverage whereby students could see themselves represented in the shows they created. According to social identity theory, if our student journalists are more diverse, then their stories should be too. Publishing inclusive TV news shows should help our students and viewers create a more open-minded, empathetic and compassionate society.
The course was also designed with constructivist learning theory that is tied to the social aspect of cognitive development. Constructivism focuses on the learner’s need to connect their own experiences to new knowledge. It recognizes the learner’s place in the world and how students affect one another’s understanding. For this reason, the course was designed with a considerable number of group discussion and collaborative projects about social justice issues (Coupal, 2004).
This mixed-methods case study analyzed the content students created over the course of the 16-week semester. First, each student story was coded and timed. Stories were coded for their social justice themes with nominal level variables. Social justice stories were defined as being about “fair treatment of all people in a society, including respect for the rights of minorities and equitable distribution of resources among members of a community.” Each story was also coded with a short description to find common qualitative themes. Stories that were coded as being about social justice included words like equality, inequality, justice, injustice, gender, racism, sexism, discrimination, Black, African American, Asian, white, Hispanic, low income, native, and poverty.
Because of a longstanding lack of diverse and female voices on American TV news, the analysis also looked at the racial and gender demographics of the interviewees featured in the newscasts. Interview subjects were coded as person of color or white, male, female or non-binary.
Student racial and gender demographics were also noted as part of the study.
Upon obtaining IRB approval, students who had been enrolled in the course were asked to complete an optional survey about their experience and offer recommendations that educators could implement to improve social justice instruction in schools. The survey included a mixture of quantitative and qualitative questions such as how informed students felt concerning social justice before and after the semester and open-ended questions asking students to elaborate on how their work impacted their understanding of social justice issues (see Appendix A).
In the spring 2021 semester, students in the Florida Focus class published three hours and 35 minutes of video news stories, with approximately 33% (one third) of this total sample being devoted to stories centered on social justice and equity.
Common topics included racism in healthcare, policing and employment. Wealth inequality was a major focus, as was the digital divide that disproportionately hurts low-income and rural communities, especially when the pandemic forced people to work and learn remotely. Several students told stories that explored wealth inequality as it relates to gender.
A Nielsen analysis of diverse representation on TV published at the end of 2020 found that women make up 52% of the American population but only have 38% of screen time (Nielsen, 2020a). In the Florida Focus class, 52% percent of interviews were with women.
Thirty-six percent of interviews students conducted were with people of color. While Nielsen has reported that about 40% of the U.S. population is racially and ethnically diverse, they have also reported that people of color have less than 27% “share of screen” time on TV (Nielsen, 2020b).
Twenty-seven students created content for the Florida Focus show in spring 2021. Approximately 55.6% of students in the class were female, 40.7% were male, and 3.7% identified as non-binary. Roughly 55.6% of students were white and approximately 44.4% identified as people of color.
The demographic makeup of the students in the class was diverse. Thus, this case study provides an innovative opportunity for research to investigate the ways in which social identity theory can be used to encourage underrepresented student populations to create and disseminate content that is more balanced, representative, and culturally diverse (Hogg, 2018; Tajfel & Turner, 1986).
Ten students completed the anonymous survey. Students rated their understanding of social justice issues as an average of 6.5/10 before they started the class and 9.1/10 at the end of the class.
When asked to reflect on the stories they chose to tell, several students wrote about systemic injustice. They acknowledged that the media industry is part of the problem but can be a powerful tool to help fight the systems that continue to profit off repressing marginalized communities. Several students mentioned that while systemic injustice hurts them and their families, they were shocked to uncover how big the need is for systemic reform.
One student wrote that reporting on stories during the pandemic gave them perspective and helped them better understand the country in which they live. “When I’d interview Black people who said they were just as afraid of cops as they were COVID-19, it just gave everything a new meaning and myself a new outlook. Everyone had a lot to worry about, but certain groups more than others.”
This came in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately killed people of color because of unequal access to healthcare (Garcia et al., 2020). It also came on the heels of a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement. Students were actively involved in community storytelling surrounded by public outrage over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Students expressed that they were deeply moved by the interactions they had with one another and members of their communities. “I learned how minority groups are given the short end of the stick when it comes to mental health help and resources. I also talked to people who were personally affected by racism in the United States and how it affected their mental health in the pandemic.”
Students expressed feeling a stronger personal connection to the stories than they would have if they only read about social justice in a textbook, referred to as participatory or active learning (Domínguez, 2012). Such participation incorporates a level of interactivity that allows for mutual learning, where all parties involved see growth and benefit (Domínguez, 2012). Students reflected on the act of interviewing people and working with one another to develop these projects. “I interviewed over 10 people of different backgrounds relating to Black equality, opinion on social justice matters, police brutality, protesting, and representation. I’ve also conducted interviews with Native American activists regarding the same. It made everything much more personal. To see interviewees become emotional talking about their issues they’ve faced, it’s very hard but helps you form much more empathy and understanding for them.”
A common takeaway was a better understanding of the need for representation as a solution to issues that plagued generations of Americans. Students appeared to connect the dots between America’s history of slavery, the 13th Amendment and our current prison industrial complex that is particularly extreme in the state of Florida where these students live. “I interviewed several people about their interactions and history with the criminal justice system, and how it marked them for life, and how they were set up for failure. The experience made me more determined to tell stories of the disenfranchised and really LISTEN to members of our community about their struggles.”
The overwhelming sentiment in the survey revealed that interviewing people in their community led students to develop a stronger sense of moral responsibility to contribute to society. “Before taking this class I wasn’t sure what my responsibility as a journalist or a young adult was when it came to issues that didn’t directly affect me. I have realized how wrong I was and that it takes many voices to move mountains.”
One of those realizations came from a student who used the survey to reflect on their time covering the school to prison pipeline. The student interviewed young women of color who were disproportionately punished because of the intersectionality of their race and gender. The student highlighted an organization that helps these young women get through school and stay out of the criminal justice system. In the survey, the student expressed outrage that they had not learned about this systemic inequality prior to taking this course. The student expressed that they were deeply affected by what they learned creating this project. This student, along with many others echoed the position of one student who wrote, “it made me feel a sense of duty to help and advocate for people from different backgrounds.”
Another student wrote, “everything became much more personalized and humanized. When you gain empathy for a group of people, you want to help them and fight for them.”
A common theme in student reflection about COVID-19 was that covering stories about social justice gave students perspective and a sense of purpose that helped them process their emotions and thoughts at a time when they too were struggling. Many wrote that it made them feel less alone. “It was helpful because I realized everyone’s going through their own personal struggles due to the pandemic.”
Another student wrote, “it made me realize that although this pandemic is affecting everyone, minority groups are getting hit the hardest and no one was talking about it very much. Florida Focus taught me that, even if the mainstream media isn’t discussing these things, we have to.”
Many students noted that they became more aware of misrepresentation in media and now feel a duty to use their platform to help underserved communities share their stories.
When asked whether they felt that they were taught an adequate amount about social justice and equity before taking the class, most students said no. Many students wrote that their knowledge about these issues came mostly from social media, not school. One notable response to the survey highlights an approach educators can take to improve this, “I feel as though before I was learning my responsibilities through social media and other people my age. The content in academia was very much … ‘here’s a story, do it this exact way,’ all just to check boxes for a passing grade. With this class I feel like stories came first, grades came last. The freedom we had to choose stories and characters was unlike any other class I had taken before, that’s why I found it so valuable.”
Students also noted that arming them with statistics about social justice issues before they started their projects helped them approach their assignments with more confidence. Many students noted that previous educators did not present social injustice using statistics and one student wrote because of that, they were “blind to the fact that there is still so much injustice in our society today.”
When asked to explain the changes they feel should be made to the way schools teach social justice and equity, students agreed that it is important for teachers to facilitate an environment where students are not afraid to talk about social injustice. Students noted that they would like to see much more social justice education in K-12 and university curriculum. One student wrote, “social justice and equity should be built into any courses where they have relevance, because there is so much importance and nuance to these issues that it should be touched on as much as possible, with as much detail as possible.”
They also recommended that educators incorporate more assignments where students meet with members of their communities. One student who created a video about an African American historic district wrote, “I learned so much about their influence on the culture of St. Pete, and I would’ve never known if I hadn’t gone there… These communities seemed as though they were left in the dust to fend for themselves, without any municipal help or awareness. Florida Focus brought me out of my comfort zone and into communities that needed a voice.”
The survey concluded by asking students to share any final thoughts they have about this issue. One student wrote, “representation is so important and I think there needs to be more of it. To gain empathy there first needs to be understanding. The ignorance and lack of cultural understanding needs to be fixed so communities can be bridged.”
This iterative and collective process of instruction allowed for the students to reflect on their shared processes of identity formation and deconstruction throughout the semester while giving voice to issues of social justice. Results of this case study suggest that the use of social identity theory as a pedagogical tool in demographically diverse student populations shows great promise in helping students to feel as though they are being represented in the media. In addition, it makes them feel empowered to positively impact the world by altering the media landscape by providing more diverse sources and raising awareness of important social issues through the act of participatory journalism.
Constructivist theory helped us foster a digital community during a time when emergency remote learning made so many students feel isolated. It empowered students and gave them the autonomy they felt they lacked in other areas of their lives. This theory acknowledges that every student comes to a class with their own life experiences which include discrimination and implicit bias. Since new student learning is built on an existing foundation, it is crucial that educators acknowledge how that foundation was built and how we can work together to accomplish mutually beneficial goals that foster equity and inclusion in our communities.
If there ever was a time when social justice education was most dire, it is this seemingly never-ending pandemic year that exposed America’s darkest truths to students who felt ill-equipped to process the pain around them. The coronavirus pandemic destroyed millions of lives and reversed social and financial progress for those who needed it the most. But it also positioned educators to illuminate the path forward and seize this moment of anguish to inspire students to become part of the solution our country so badly needs. The pandemic undeniably exacerbated inequality. The poor became poorer. The wealthy grew richer. The disparities between men and women flourished as mothers were forced to sacrifice financial freedom for their families. Students watched as their family’s businesses shuttered. They watched as protesters took to the streets. They watched communities of color vanish as the death toll climbed to heights that desensitized the nation. This is the perfect time to teach students that these inequalities did not happen by accident. These inequalities are a symptom of strategic design. And because of this, students have the power and responsibility to do something about it.
- Are you of Hispanic, Latino, or of Spanish origin?
- How would you describe yourself?
- American Indian or Alaska Native
- Black or African American
- Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
- What gender do you identify with?
- What is your age?
- Before enrolling in the Florida Focus class at USF, how informed do you think you were on issues concerning social justice, equity and community? On scale from 1 to 10, 1 being not informed at all, 10 being extremely informed.
- After taking the Florida Focus class, how informed do you now feel on issues concerning social justice, equity and community? On scale from 1 to 10, 1 being not informed at all, 10 being extremely informed.
- Please describe the stories and or visuals you worked on in this class and how they related to social justice, equity and community.
- Did you conduct at least one interview for this class that related to social justice, equity and/or community? If yes, please explain what the interview/s were about and how they affected your experience in the course.
- How did your work on these stories impact your understanding of social justice, equity and/or community?
- How did telling stories about social justice affect your ability to process your thoughts and emotions about the pandemic?
- Please reflect on and share how your view of social justice issues changed because of this class and why.
- Please explain if you feel that you were taught an adequate amount about social justice, equity and community before taking this class.
- Please explain the changes, if any, you feel should be made to the way schools teach social justice, equity and communities.
- Please feel free to share any other thoughts you have about social justice, equity and community as it relates to education.
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