A #UON innovation lab; a tale of child abduction and rape; journalism; and, creative industries

Trigger warning: linked material discusses and depicts text and images related to to violence, abduction, abuse and rape

Al Jazeera Screen shot Marc Ellison story Cash Cows

It’s Saturday morning and I’ve read the Al Jazeera website feature journalism story Tales of a child bride: ‘My father sold me for 12 cows’ written by Marc Ellison (@marceellison on Twitter ). Not particular cheery weekend reading, but excellent long form journalism that explicates the complexities involved in addressing and abolishing the practices of abduction, rape and forced marriage of girls in northern Tanzania.

In most cases, after some negotiation, daughters are left with their abductor by their families in exchange for cows. These are not tales that make ‘the news’. Long form journalism, such as feature writing, is one way of being able to tell such stories.

Feature writing is taught as part of the Bachelor of Communication degree at the University of Newcastle (UON). A Norwegian scholar, Steen Steensen, sums up feature writing well by telling us it’s different to news writing in that it is often narrative and is usually not so deadline sensitive:

Feature journalists are allowed to colour their text with subjective descriptions, reflections and assessments. Feature journalism often portrays people and milieus and is therefore usually personal and emotional. Feature journalism is usually visually attractive and presented in delicate layouts using multiple illustrations, mainly still photos. Not all these characteristics will be present in every feature story, but we can expect that one or more of them will dominate stories we perceive as feature journalism. (Steensen, 2009, p.4)

The feature story was written by the journalist, Marc Ellison and maybe subedited by an un-named Al Jazeera sub-editor. It was then uploaded onto a webpage by someone, possibly the journalist himself. What we see on our devices is a template made by designers and that ‘works’ because of the efforts of developers working for Al Jazeera (either in-house or contractors). So it goes on.

At UON, our current degrees cater for this model, indeed our students in Newcastle and Singapore produce this type of journalism and websites, and graduate into jobs related to these areas, every year. We are also educating our students to be able to work within models and systems that are just emerging, or have yet to be invented.

This time yesterday yesterday, I was being given a demonstration by the UON School of Design, Communication and IT’s technical officer, Daniel Conway, of the brand new Collaborative Learning Space in room ICT 3.29 – our own IT Innovation Lab which will be used this year for IT students and those students undertaking the new Master of Creative Industries program.


new Collaborative Learning Space - ICT Building UON

Dr Marc Adam (left) and Mr Daniel Conway (right) in new Collaborative Learning Space – ICT Building UON

Labs like this one are designed to get students engaged with learning, and collaborating with staff and each other. They provide ultra-flexible environments which support latest technologies. More and more classrooms across UON are being transformed to similar style formats and NeW Space in the CBD of Newcastle will be along similar lines.

Many of the creative industries work in spaces just like these. Some of these industries don’t even have names yet but if you click through and look at the Al Jazeera article above, you’ll see an interesting link to a graphic novel. The graphic novel, also written by the journalist, Marc Ellison, tells the same story as the feature article, but through a different medium that incorporates writing, illustrating, video, IT and more.

Some of our UON Visual Communication students and staff produce stunning graphic novels. What struck me about reading today’s Al Jazeera story was that this was the new reality staring me in the face.

My colleagues and I are now enabled more than ever before, with the UON’s focus on creative industries and our new classrooms and labs, to tell stories that need to be told in more creative and engaging ways. Today I learned a new word “kupura”, I read it firstly the feature story written by Marc Ellison. He wrote in his opening paragraph (links to full feature):

“So common are the practices of abduction, rape and forced marriage of girls in northern Tanzania that a single word is used to encapsulate them all: kupura. It is a word used by people from the Sukuma tribe to describe the snatching of girls in broad daylight as they walk to school; a three-syllabled euphemism that downplays their long-term physical and sexual abuse.”

Not everyone will read a feature story but those that do not, may engage with a graphic novel. This way they too may learn a new word and be moved to try and bring about change in the world that will bring an end to situations of gross abuse.

Page 2 of Graphic Novel: Cash Cow

Page 2 of Graphic Novel: Cash Cow

Today I can more easily visualise a project group being given a challenging story such as that covered by Marc Ellison.

Around a table there might be students studying creative writing, video production, web development, journalism, graphic design, visual art, UX (user experience), photography and public relations. They may not decide to develop a graphic novel, but they will develop something.

It will not be narrowly focused and it will not be an individual project. However, it will require an incredible amount of individual effort as part of creative team.

Marc Ellison worked with award winning illustrator Christian Mugarura and the young woman who was the subject of the story, Grace, to develop this multimedia graphic novel that is presented in both Swahili and English. Those who worked to present it on the actual Al Jazeera site are uncredited. It is evident such projects require enormous commitment and effort.

Graphic novel team credits

Graphic novel team credits

The most recent thinking in education says we should be focusing of designing learning that teaches students to critically analyse, creatively problem solve, collaborate and communicate – the 4 “C’s”.

Sometimes as an academic and educator I find this brief almost overwhelming. However, when I see work like that featured in Al Jazeera today and the commitments of people at University of Newcastle to develop great to new spaces for students and staff to make it happen, I feel buoyed. Bring it on.



Steensen, S. (2009). Online feature journalism: A clash of discourses. Journalism practice, 3(1), 13-29.




The material or views expressed on this Blog are those of the author and do not represent those of the University.  Please report any offensive or improper use of this Blog to RPS@newcastle.edu.au.
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