Archive for November, 2014


Encourage Students to Tackle Difficult Issues

Sexual assaults on campus. Racial inequality. Reproductive health. Economic privilege.

These can be sensitive subjects. They might embarrass you. They might enrage you. They might make you defensive. They might make you disgusted.

They definitely should be inside the pages of America’s collegiate newspapers.

These issues (and a host of other ones not included here) are relevant right now on college campuses across this nation. They deserve journalistic examination, and student journalists are certainly up to the task.

Campus media advisers have a special place in the world of journalism. We have the privilege of mentoring young adults in the formative moments of their careers. What we do – the examples we provide for them, the expectations we place upon them – will reverberate throughout their professional lives.

We must encourage (i.e., advise) these young journalists to tackle difficult topics and do so responsibly. My philosophy is fairly simple.

For starters, don’t worry about getting into trouble because you’re recommending that your college students cover a sensitive, yet legitimate, subject. If that’s a primary concern, journalism education may not be the right field for you. Students can learn timidity just as easily as they can learn aggressiveness. The world needs confident journalists.

Provide some solid suggestions, but let your students zero in on a topic that resonates with them. Talk about how national or local news organizations are addressing that issue. How could your students cover the story differently? How could they cover the story better? Challenge them to defend their topic and how they would approach it.

Coach them throughout the entire process. Ask for regular updates. Praise as often as possible and push when appropriate. Be familiar with your students’ work so that you can promote it, or defend it, when publication day arrives. Your students’ final drafts won’t be perfect, but journalism never is anyway.

Be proud of their efforts, and let them know it. It’s tough for even hard-nosed professionals to wade waist-deep into these waters. Remind your students of that, and it’s likely they’ll want to do it again.

Submit their work to as many contests as you can afford. I often say that responsible journalism is a public service, so don’t focus on trying to win awards. But it’s also true that responsible journalism wins awards, and when that happens, it’s important validation of your students’ efforts.

Of course, different philosophies and techniques abound among college media advisers. Colleagues, please consider sharing some of your strategies for helping students skillfully cover sensitive issues.

All of us could use some new ideas – and a heaping helping of encouragement.

Butler Cain is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. He is chair of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.

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Some Advice to Ignore

In a recent Huffington Post blog titled “Communication Studies Rise to Relevance,” a representative of the National Communication Association took a dim view of journalism education in America. Part of his quotation is excerpted below:

“It used to be that if you wanted to be a journalist you would go and take a journalism class and get an MA in Journalism. I think there is a stronger sense that students with Journalism degrees might be more poorly trained in the end than a Communication Degree or a Communication Degree with a Minor in Economics which prepares you to nicely operate as a journalist.”

That’s the kind of language that might raise the hackles of some journalism educators. Don’t study journalism; study something else, like economics or philosophy. Some of us tend to get angry, too, when we hear veteran journalists advise youngsters to avoid journalism programs altogether because they’re a waste of time. You can learn journalism on the job, they say.

It’s easy for journalism educators to immediately dismiss these as common – and stubborn – misperceptions. These persistent points of view just don’t make any sense to me. But journalism educators are doing ourselves a disservice if we let these ideas go unchallenged. We live in an era when journalism education is fighting for respect at the high school and collegiate levels, and even journalism itself is considered to be a dying industry.

It’s nonsense. Journalism is necessary to maintain a responsibly-informed citizenry, and it needs practitioners who are just as comfortable meeting story deadlines as they are debating theoretical interpretations of the First Amendment’s free press clause.

So, here are my arguments against the two pieces of dubious advice mentioned above.

Students can learn to do journalism on the job

This is true. It’s also true of practically every other type of job that exists, but somehow it gets used as a reason to discourage students from pursuing a journalism degree. It’s a very narrow and shallow argument.

Though they still teach students the mechanics of the job, the better journalism programs go far beyond that. These programs help students learn about journalism’s civic role in the U.S.; how journalists should responsibly hold powerful forces accountable for their actions; the necessity of providing vetted, reliable information to the public; how to navigate the ethical challenges that come with the job; and how to provide content on multiple digital platforms.

What news organization wouldn’t want its newly-hired reporter to have those skills and that knowledge on Day One of her professional career? It’s disingenuous, with today’s competitive job market, to think that employers are willing to hire someone who needs a lot of basic training.

Students should study something other than journalism

This is a big time bad idea, but it is a persistent one, even among some of journalism’s celebrity elites. I admit that I fail to understand the logic. I don’t hear many people advising future medical workers to skip majoring in nursing or biology in favor of economics or philosophy. This shouldn’t happen with journalism, either.

We do journalism – and our students – a disservice when we advise them against learning as much as possible about it.

The quotation I referenced above refers to taking “a journalism class,” like, one. No. The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications requires accredited journalism programs to provide between 42 and 48 credit hours (that’s 14 to 16 courses). Journalism majors also have ample opportunities to work for campus news organizations and intern for professional ones during their undergraduate (and even graduate) studies. This gives students the room to make their mistakes early – and learn from them – so that they’re less likely to make those same errors once they start their professional careers.

These academic programs are built to help students exercise their critical thinking skills, gain practical experience, and learn how to manage professional expectations before they take their first full-time job. In fact, the Journalism Education Association credits journalism courses for providing students with four essential skills: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. Employers across numerous professions seek employees who have these skills, making journalism graduates highly desirable no matter which career path they choose.

Improving our programs

Still, there’s a hard truth that must be acknowledged. Not all collegiate journalism programs are of equal caliber. Some are producing experienced, insightful young journalists while others aren’t delivering the skills and opportunities they promised their students.

It’s unfair to cite programs in the latter category as the general example of journalism education. But it’s easy to see how folks might determine that a journalism degree is a waste of time if they hire interns or new graduates who clearly can’t do the job well. The Society of Professional Journalists has a special responsibility to help journalism teachers and students achieve their best results, whatever their program’s circumstances.

In January, the SPJ Journalism Education Committee will release a study concerning the current state of high school journalism. We want it to provide a starting point for discussions about how America’s high school journalism programs can be strengthened. These conversations will be relevant to collegiate programs, as well.

With that goal, I’d like to hear from you. Perhaps you are a high school journalism teacher who has little to no training in journalism and have questions about everything. You might be a university professor who’s willing to share some of your innovative teaching techniques. Maybe you’re a college undergraduate who simply wants some solid guidance about starting a career in journalism. SPJ has a vast amount of knowledge and experience among its membership, and the Journalism Education Committee wants to make some of that available to you. So, keep watching this blog.

In the meantime, I encourage you to ignore those who tell you that journalism is dead or that studying journalism is a one way ticket to perpetual disappointment. They’re wrong. Academic journalism programs are delivering the graduates that news organizations want and that society needs.

There’s never been a better time to study journalism.

Butler Cain is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. He is chair of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.

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