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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