DUBAI: Earlier this month, CNN added a simulation to its academy training program for the first time.
Held over five days, the simulation saw 88 students from the network’s various academy programs participate to refine and use their skills at the twofour54 Yas Creative Hub in Abu Dhabi.
Arab News spoke to CNN Academy director Alireza Hajihosseini to learn more about the initiative and how this and other CNN Academy programs are designed to prepare students for journalism in an increasingly tech-driven environment.
“At CNN Academy, we’re always thinking of new ways to enable our students to apply the journalism skills we empower them within a real-life setting,” Hajihosseini said.
In the past, the academy has sent out students with CNN photojournalists to shoot and edit a story or allowed a select few to shadow CNN teams as they put a news broadcast together.
“This year, we wanted to take that experience one step further and tapped into CNN’s legacy of innovation to create an industry-first opportunity that allows every single one of our program participants to refine and test their skills as journalists and storytellers,” he said.
During the five days, participants worked in teams to explore a fictional scenario that allowed them to act as reporters, news writers and content producers.
They were required to verify sources, attend mock press conferences, conduct mock interviews, respond to email updates, and decipher documents.
There were multiple factors to be considered when designing the fictional simulation to ensure that the scenario “was rich enough and complex enough to provide participants with multiple alternative angles they could pursue,” Hajihosseini said.
It was also critical that the mock press conferences, interviews, etc were inter-connected to fill out the story as it developed.
“Above all, we had to recreate the pressures of a real-life breaking news environment while building in ethical and storytelling challenges with the narrative to achieve our pedagogical objectives,” he said.
To ensure this, CNN journalists partnered with Prof. Rex Brynen, from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and Jim Wallman, director of game design company Stone Paper Scissors.
Both are “thought leaders in their field and have worked with global organizations and governments across the world to design and deliver simulations that help players map out strategies and get a real-life sense of the impact of their decision-making,” Hajihosseini said.
But for him, there was also a personal reason, having studied at McGill University where he took some of Brynen’s courses. He remembers one in particular, peacebuilding simulation, which was one of the “most memorable and intense learning experiences” of his academic career.
“So, when we started thinking about designing an industry-first journalism simulation I knew I had to reach out to Rex and see if we could collaborate together, as I wanted to recreate that experience for CNN Academy participants,” he said.
The program is aimed at helping students walk away with journalism as well as life experiences, but also developing soft skills that only come with experience. The best-performing teams, said Hajihosseini, weren’t necessarily the ones with the sharpest journalistic members, but they “knew how to read an interviewee and the way in which they should conduct themselves in the field or in a press conference to unlock more information.”
“Those are skills that you can only pick up when you do something and cannot be developed by simply sitting in a workshop or in a lecture theater,” he said.
Participants also had to navigate a custom-made social media platform, which was updated throughout and included evidence, bots, decoys and news.
Hajihosseini explained: “When news breaks today, it often breaks on social media and platforms like Twitter. So, we wanted to recreate a platform that emulates that, and which combines text and multimedia content.”
Prior to the simulation, CNN had created fictional characters on its social media platform, with backstories and a pre-set series of posts. Some of these were helpful to the overall scenario and some were just noise.
The platform also featured accounts for the role players the participants met in real-life as well as troll accounts that were designed to flood the space with noise in a breaking news setting.
“Throughout the five days, the social media (platform) was updated with pre-written posts as well as posts that we wrote and content we produced to feed the scenario as it developed,” he said.
The inclusion of the custom social media platform is critical at a time when social media is the primary news source for many people.
“The past 15 years have seen a profound change in the way newsrooms operate, and social media has played a central role in that,” Hajihosseini said.
Much has changed in that period, from the rise of citizen journalism to the establishment of social discovery teams, to forensic open-source analysis that plays a key role in many investigations now, he said.
What has not changed is the need for accuracy, especially when social media is pervaded by false news and misinformation.
False or misleading stories have become “an enormously problematic aspect of not only the media but also society in general,” which is worsened by the social media platforms encouraging the spread of such stories and creating echo chambers, Hajihosseini said.
“The difficulty in this area for journalists and news organizations is not only to push back on these false narratives, but also to break through to people who receive their news from unreliable or deliberately misleading sources,” he said.
“Fake news,” on the other hand, is used by certain people or organizations, particularly governments and politicians, to try and discredit reporting that is true but which they don’t like, Hajihosseini said.
“This is particularly dangerous and challenging; it undermines the vitally important role of journalism in holding the powerful to account and can even present safety issues for journalists who are going about important work legitimately,” he said.
His vision for CNN Academy is to help “seed professional skills and ethics in more new journalists, all of whom we hope will ultimately help to address this issue in the real world.”