Discussing Violence with our Journalism Students

The murders of 12 people at the offices of satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7 is yet another frustrating example of recent violence against journalists and media workers. The Committee to Protect Journalists has been keeping track of such incidents since 1992.

It’s important that journalism educators have a continuing conversation with our students about the dangers that come with choosing journalism as a career.

Deadly violence against journalists in the United States is rare, but that’s not an excuse to ignore the issue. American journalism students should have a keen understanding of the existing threats against journalists elsewhere. Someday, one of our students may be reporting from “elsewhere” in Damascus, or in Mogadishu, or in Paris.

Journalism educators cannot presume that our students are aware of the scope of this violence, either. High-profile incidents involving Charlie Hebdo, James Foley, and Marie Colvin made international news. But most of the journalists who are killed in other countries are local residents working local stories.

Last summer, I taught a global journalism course and assigned students to examine CPJ’s list of murdered journalists. Here are some of their responses:

“I never thought about this topic until this class.”

“This information is shocking to me.”

“After looking at a few of the different countries, I just can’t wrap my head around how many journalist[s] are sought out and murdered.”

We have a special responsibility to educate our students about violence against journalists. It’s certainly not an easy topic to discuss. It involves several factors, such as journalistic practices, law enforcement, cultural norms, and politics.

We also must give our students the opportunity to work through difficult questions: What does free expression mean to me? Am I willing to fight for it? What would I do if someone threatened me because of my work? Is journalism the right career for me?

Spring classes have already begun or will begin very soon. Even if it’s not on our syllabi, let’s set aside some class time to talk about the darker consequences of practicing journalism.

Our students deserve the conversation.

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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