Project Citizen Challenges Student Journalists

FOCUS ON INTERDISCIPLINARITY | Journalism’s capacity to tell multifaceted stories on disparate topics trains its practitioners to be constant learners, resourceful, and conversant with the widest variety of people. Those characteristics put newspeople in a position to approach most any task with curiosity and energy.

Project Citizen presented journalism students from four distinct universities with a complex, multilayered project that brought out their curiosity and resourcefulness and the result was a resounding success: an intricate explanatory website called climate360 that took climate change and separated out news, community, economy, energy, policy, science and technology, and opinion to give a full analysis to a crucial topic.

Carol Costello 279x300 - Project Citizen Challenges Student Journalists
Carol Costello, journalism lecturer at Loyola Marymount University and an award-winning broadcast reporter and former CNN anchor

Project Citizen is the brainchild of Carol Costello, journalism lecturer at Loyola Marymount University, an award-winning broadcast reporter and former CNN anchor, and Amy Reynolds, dean of the College of Communication and Information at Kent State University in Ohio. Three years of progress and growth have brought benefits: Project Citizen has secured enough private funding to create a new endowment to expand its offerings and to educate more journalism students.

“Fundraising for this project has reinforced that we are on the right track,” Costello said. “Donors from both sides of the political spectrum have applauded the program and chosen to support our students who are leading the effort to bridge our political divide.”

Looking forward, a key component for Project Citizen will be interdisciplinary work. LMU student media Director Tom Nelson in Student Affairs, and communication studies Professor Chris Finlay of the LMU College of Communication and Fine Arts, joined Costello as strategic advisors in the multidisciplinary project during the summer and will partner in guiding the project. “Some of the big takeaways for a lot of the students included how to work collaboratively, how to communicate effectively within the team and how use their critical thinking skills to develop content for a college-age audience,” said Nelson.

Costello, who has been teaching and advising students in LMU’s journalism program for four years, began the innovative initiative with the underlying purpose of creating storytelling projects that invite students to get out of their university and geographic – if not geopolitical – bubbles. The first two years of Project Citizen were fully funded by private donations secured by Costello in partnership with LMU University Advancement; the third year added support from The Loyolan, which supplied student journalists and split their employment costs. The project started by bringing students from the heartland and the West Coast together on journalistic projects and personal conversations. Kent State University students worked well with LMU students by engaging in dialogues and creating projects.

“The right kind of storytelling can inform Americans of one another’s problems in an emotional, truthful, and respectful way,” said Costello. “That kind of storytelling maybe, just maybe, can lead to mutual understanding and, yes, collaboration.”

For Project Citizen’s third year, Costello recruited additional advisers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and Morgan State University journalism Professor E.R. Shipp; LSU student media Director Jeff Gauger; and KSU student media Director Kevin Dilley. The goal was to design a project that would challenge students to telling interesting, unbiased stories while opening their minds and finding solutions to our country’s divide. “The geographic diversity of the students involved really help us push the idea of ‘Thinking Big,’” said Nelson. “We spent a lot of time encouraging students to think beyond their campus and beyond the cities they live in. I think in the end, the project provided students a unique opportunity to see themselves as global citizens and, perhaps, helped create a pathway for them to live a life of purpose via this type of journalism.”

Project Citizen’s third cohort was challenged by the pandemic, with restricted travel and in-person gatherings, but thanks to technology, the project continued to thrive. The students were also challenged geographically and culturally – they were asked to work with students from a West Coast, private Catholic university, an HBCU, a historically Black college in the mid-Atlantic, a large public institution in the deep South and a second public university in the Midwest. The students were tasked to examine climate change, including creating a website with a mission statement, a logo, and a distinctive design. The students devised ways to edit copy responsibly, follow journalistic principles and, most important, to collaborate on stories told from perspectives they were not always familiar with. The result,, was produced in two months and showcases this remarkable journalistic endeavor.

“One of the things I liked most about this project,” said Nelson, “is that it gave students a chance to get more global with their content, especially as they pitched stories, conducted interviews, and created and edited pieces. Through the whole process, they found themselves thinking big picture the entire time.”

Costello also hosts a series of podcasts produced by students as part of Project Citizen, “I Hate Your Generation,” that features a series of cross-generation discussions between LMU students, their parents, and professors to uncover sources of discord and bases for harmony. She is working on another podcast project with Professor Amir Hussein that explores why our country is becoming increasingly secular. Costello also serves as a special advisor in MarComm External Relations, a collaborative role that leverages her experience and industry connections to advance the university’s academic, fundraising, visibility, and strategic priorities.