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Make a difference by getting involved in classrooms

I touch the future – I teach.

That slogan has adorned many T-shirts around the country for years. Now, professional journalists have the opportunity to touch the future by signing up as a guest speaker under #Press4Education.

This year, SPJ President Rebecca Baker made getting professional journalists into K-12 classrooms a priority of her leadership. In 2014, the Journalism Education Committee’s survey of the country’s high school journalism teachers found 56 percent said they receive no assistance from professionals. In the same survey, 53 percent said they receive no assistance from college and university journalism programs.

The SPJ J-Ed Committee has wanted to change these numbers, and Baker gave us the green light.

“I’ve already spoken to more than 100 high school students across New York City,” Baker said. “These young people not only were eager to understand what journalists do, but also how and why they do it. Any journalist who participates in #Press4Education will help the next generation become better informed citizens.”

For the past four months, the committee has been developing the plan, creating PowerPoints and lessons, working with the Journalism Education Association and others to create a system to match teachers with professionals for conversations about news. As JEA President Sarah Nichols explained: Teachers want journalists in their classrooms. We in the J-Ed Committee wanted to make it easy for the journalists to help.

So, how can you help? It is easy.

Fill out the application form on the SPJ website and submit it. You will have several topics from which to choose: media literacy/identifying fake news; reporting basics; media law; media ethics; editing; online reporting; broadcast journalism; visual journalism; data journalism, and social media.

Members of the committee will pair you with a teacher either directly in their local classroom, or you may be asked to Skype or Zoom a meeting with a class. You will be given tools to help you with the presentation, usually a PowerPoint and notes, plus a sheet giving tips on how to prepare for a classroom visit.

Once you finish, please report the event on your social media. Please use the hashtag #Press4Education so we can keep track. Baker said she would like 100 classroom visits this year. Personally, I think we can do many more because I know the demand is there from the teachers.

“The Journalism Education Association is thrilled to be part of SPJ’s #Press4Education initiative and connect teachers and their students with professional journalists,” Nichols said. “Our students are among the best and brightest, and more than ever we need them to go out and pursue careers in journalism. What better way to nurture that interest and provide authentic connections than from industry professionals directly.”

As for the committee? Beyond all the work involved, each of us is hopeful this will lead to a renewed commitment for journalism education in this country as well as an improved understanding of our profession.

For more information about #Press4Education, please contact me. I’m more than happy to help you start making your own connections with the future.

Invite a Visiting Fulbright Scholar to Your Campus

The Fulbright Scholar Program has a great component called the Outreach Lecturing Fund. Universities that would like to host a visiting Fulbright Scholar (who is already studying in the U.S.) can identify a scholar, apply to the program, and invite him or her to campus.

The Fulbright coordinator at my university approached me a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in pursuing this kind of opportunity. I certainly was. I thought it would be a terrific opportunity for my journalism students, so we set out to identify a Fulbright scholar who is also a journalist.

We found Jin Nishikawa, a Fulbright Scholar from Japan. He is a journalist with The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo, he is an expert on nuclear energy issues, and he is currently serving his Fulbright year at Harvard. He accepted our invitation and arrived at West Texas A&M University a few weeks ago.

Nishikawa Poster

The Outreach Lecturing Fund requires universities to establish a schedule of activities, such as public lectures and classroom visits. And, your chances of approval are a bit better when you partner with another institution. Amarillo College hosted one of Mr. Nishikawa’s lectures, and WTAMU hosted the other one.

Nishikawa Presentation

The great advantage for my students was that they had a truly international journalism experience without leaving the Texas Panhandle.

Nishikawa Classroom

Local high school journalism programs benefited, too. We hosted a special luncheon for Mr. Nishikawa and invited journalism teachers and students from two area schools. They were thrilled.

Nishikawa Lunch

Fulbright’s Outreach Lecturing Fund provides an excellent opportunity to enhance your journalism program and give it an international flair. I highly recommend it.

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.

America’s Press Freedom Ranking is Declining

Reporters Without Borders has released its annual World Press Freedom Index for this year. The United States has slipped again, ranking #49 out of 180 countries.

That puts the U.S. in the lower end of the “Satisfactory Situation” category but perilously close to the “Noticeable Problems” category that begins with Haiti at #53.

Reporters Without Borders cited concerns about “judicial harassment” of a New York Times investigative reporter, the lack of a federal shield law to protect American journalists from naming their sources, and more than a dozen reporters who “were arbitrarily arrested during clashes between police and demonstrators” in Ferguson, Missouri.

The World Press Freedom Index is just one analysis of global media trends, but it is a respected one, and this year’s results confirm some of my concerns about the health of our nation’s news media system.

We’re going in the wrong direction.

I would like to initiate a conversation about the role media educators might play in reversing this slide. Please share some of your ideas and concerns, either through comments on this blog or through my Twitter account @ButlerCain.

I’ll follow up with another post about your thoughts and suggestions, and maybe through our collective wisdom we might start identifying ways to tackle this troubling trend.

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.

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.

Be a Mentor to Journalism Students and Teachers

SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee is launching an initiative to strengthen America’s scholastic journalism programs, and we’re asking SPJ members to get involved by becoming mentors. Student journalists — and their teachers — need your expertise! Here’s the call:

The J-Education Committee Needs Your Help

The Journalism Education Committee is creating a database of experts among SPJ’s membership, and we need your participation.

According to research in the committee’s new publication, Still Captive? History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism, many high school journalism programs report they receive very little help, if any, from local professionals or area universities.

SPJ has the ability to correct this. Share your professional expertise with a new generation of student journalists by hosting web-based video conferences, offering phone conversations with local school teachers and volunteering to be a classroom guest.

The Journalism Education Database will provide an opportunity for all SPJ members to volunteer their expertise to help strengthen America’s elementary, middle and high school journalism programs.

Interested in participating? Send your contact information and a bulleted list of your expertise to Journalism Education Committee chair Butler Cain at Once this project is launched, the database will be publicly available on SPJ’s website.

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.

Adding Study Abroad to a Journalism Curriculum

I am a huge, huge fan of Study Abroad programs. Last week, the topic enjoyed some relatively rare national attention during the White House’s Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. (Full disclosure: Alex Montoya, one of our students at West Texas A&M University, was invited to attend.)

We journalism educators should climb aboard the Study Abroad bandwagon if we’re not already securely buckled in. It’s a challenge. It’s exhilarating. It changes lives (that’s not a cliché; just ask someone who has participated in one).

Some of you may be part of academic programs that have long histories with Study Abroad and enjoy strong support from your department chairs and deans. Others may be blazing the Study Abroad trail. I’ve been able to approach it from two different perspectives: as a faculty member who co-created a Study Abroad program from scratch, and as a member of my university’s Study Abroad Committee.

If you’re thinking about challenging your students to study internationally, here are a few things to consider.

Look for Established Programs
If you don’t want to build your own Study Abroad experience, you can encourage your students to explore individual programs that require one or two semesters of study in another country. Your university’s Study Abroad office will help vet program providers and host institutions.

For students who would prefer a short term faculty-led program, chances are pretty good that there are already successful Study Abroad initiatives in other departments. If your students meet the course requirements, they could consider taking the class as an elective.

Create Your Own Program
This is the route my colleague and I took when we built a Study Abroad course that focuses on Travel Writing in Asia. It took about two years from the time we submitted our original proposal to actually taking 10 students on the trip. (I’ll spare you all of the details, but if this is something you would like to consider, I’ll be happy to share how we did it.)

It was worth all of the time and effort because we were able to create a program specifically designed for journalism and mass communication majors. Based on the things we learned the first time around, we’ve tweaked our model and will be using it for another Travel Writing excursion next summer.

Make It Academically Rigorous
Study Abroad is not intended to be a school-sponsored vacation. These courses should be built with the same academic rigor as are other upper level courses. If you’re creating a program, there are a few questions to ask: does the course have a strong curriculum? How does the course relate to the country we’re planning to visit? What will my students learn on this experience that cannot be learned in a normal classroom setting? How will I evaluate students’ progress once we return home?

Talk About It
You can start laying the foundation for a future program simply by becoming more visible. Get to know your Study Abroad director. Find colleagues who have conducted successful programs. Mention it at faculty meetings. Chat up your department chair about upcoming possibilities (and then chat up your dean). Ask students if they are interested.

It’s Getting Attention
According to the recent Open Doors Report from the Institute of International Education, only 10 percent of U.S. students study abroad. Because “employers are increasingly looking for workers who have international skills and experience,” IIE has launched Generation Study Abroad, an effort to double that number by the end of this decade.

Journalism educators can help lead the charge. Our students are particularly suited for the benefits of Study Abroad. International travel gives them certain perspectives and insights that cannot be acquired any other way. It forces them to step outside of their comfort zone. It invites them to reexamine their culture from a different point of view. It encourages them to ask questions.

And equally as important – Study Abroad is just plain fun.

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.

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.

China’s News Broadcaster and a Thesis

Before I arrived at West Texas A&M as a faculty member in the Department of Communication, I was teaching in Seoul, South Korea. I had really great cable television service, so I kept up with the day’s events through several English-language news networks and programs: the BBC, CNN International, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Arirang TV (based in Korea) and China Central Television (CCTV).

As someone who spent my entire career as a journalist before moving into teaching full time, it was a great opportunity for me to compare CCTV’s coverage to that of other networks, especially when the topic was related to China.

One particular episode stands out. The summer of 2009 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Chinese government’s violent response to protesters in Tiananmen Square. To remember the event – and to further protest the government’s response – thousands of marchers filled the streets of Hong Kong as the anniversary neared. It was a major event and nearly all of the news networks covered it throughout the day.

China’s CCTV, however, did not. Its evening newscast not only ignored the events in Hong Kong, but also made no mention of the Tiananmen Square anniversary.

I wasn’t surprised.

CCTV is the Chinese government’s broadcaster, so you can be sure that it will not air a news report on any topic contrary to the government’s point of view. The Chinese Communist Party uses CCTV’s English language channel for public relations purposes (or for propaganda, depending on your point of view).

So how does this story relate to a thesis?

During a previous semester at West Texas A&M, I served on a thesis committee in which the graduate student (who was from China) was examining how Chinese audiences respond to a particular television program. Part of his thesis included a history of CCTV. However, it lacked consideration of CCTV’s problems with censorship.

This raised some questions for me that I have yet to answer. On one hand, a solid academic thesis would require some analysis of CCTV’s problems with forthright journalism. On the other hand, I presume anyone in China can read his thesis. Could that analysis cause problems for a Chinese citizen who was returning to China to begin his new career? Another of my Chinese students, when asked for her thoughts on this question, answered “yes.”

How does a faculty member – or a thesis committee – balance the desire for a thorough thesis against the desire to protect a student from potential political and personal retribution, particularly when that student plans to settle down back home?

I kept my recommendations intact, but this issue still nags me. Perhaps I’ve exaggerated any possible repercussions such research might cause for him because I’m still not familiar with how closely China might be paying attention to its thousands of citizens who get an education in America. However, I’m keenly interested in any points of view readers are willing to share.

Butler Cain is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at West Texas A&M University. He is a member of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.

Journalism Education Committee Minutes of 8/16/11

SPJ Journalism Education Committee Meeting Minutes
Aug. 16, 2011
Conference call at noon Eastern/9 am Pacific time

Members attending: David Burns, George Daniels. Kym Fox, Mac McKerral, June Nicholson, Renee Patrina, Jeff South, Nerissa Young, Eileen Solomon, Amber Rossner, Bill Oats, Neil Ralston, Becky Tallent.

The meeting began at 12:05 pm (Eastern) with a discussion on the status of gathering syllabi and best practices materials for new journalism professors/instructors.

Jeff recommended we make sure we are not fragmenting our efforts with other groups and suggested we make sure to link with other groups – such as NewsU and IRE – who also offer syllabi to new faculty. The committee essentially agreed there cannot be too many resources and that it is good to get a conversation going in a constructive way. Jeff volunteered to build the syllabus link information and Amber suggested we put a call out to all our colleagues for their best syllabi and practices of which they are proud and will want to share. We agreed it should be a broad sweep of all journalism classes, not just be limited to writing and editing.

Kym said the state of Texas has passed a law requiring all syllabi to be online and that each syllabus must be within three clicks of the home page. Kym said she will send a copy of the law to the committee.

Last year, the committee agreed to offer mentors to new SPJ faculty advisors to help develop student chapters. George said he had several people at the AEJMC conference last week express an interest in either being a mentor or being mentored. From the committee, Mac, Jeff, Neil, Kym, Nerissa and Becky volunteered to act as mentors. George recommended and the committee agreed this year be used as a pilot project, starting with five mentors/mentees in New Orleans. George said the pairs could exchange emails and have phone conversations twice a semester, and then the committee could build a promotional strategy for the project.

The third item, articles and Toolbox columns for Quill, Jeff said Dorothy Bland had expressed an interest in doing a Quill Toolbox on two items: one was why teaching journalism is still so important due to the critical thinking required and how that is important in today’s world. Another column she suggested is one on diversity and the importance of bringing students of color into journalism/helping them stay in the profession despite cutbacks. Everyone agreed the second column is a better fit with the Diversity Committee.

Mac and George discussed the rule that writers for the Journalism Education Committee need to be a member of the committee, although the Diversity Committee has no such rule. It was recommended the education topic Dorothy wants to write might be a better fit for a full Quill article.

In discussions about future Toolbox columns, Mac is working on the next column; Eileen volunteered to write a column on schools changing curriculum; Amber volunteered to write a column on how to use Intercollegiate and Interscholastic online news networks as a resource; and David said he would like to write a column on schools donating equipment to other universities (such as his school’s recent donation to Baghdad University). Mac’s column is due August 18; Eileen’s column is due October 20, and other deadlines are yet to come from Scott Leadingham.

In discussing the committee’s blog, we agreed to post the minutes of the committee meeting and to post stories of SPJ education committee-related events. In addition, we agreed to post information from other groups with links. All committee members will receive username and password information so they can post on the blog.

In new business, George said last year’s resolution (which was rejected by the resolutions committee) has been revived and the resolutions committee has asked for a resubmission. George will send a copy of the resolution to the education committee members for review before sending to the resolutions committee.

Acting in his role as resolutions chair, Mac said for people attending conference, we should know there is a resolution calling for a change in the way committee chairs and members are appointed. Two other resolutions on the horizon are calling for a reinstatement of the Helen Thomas Award.

The meeting adjourned at 12:50 pm Eastern/9:50 am Pacific Time.

Help for New SPJ Advisors

Are you a new SPJ advisor to a student chapter? Do you need help?
The Journalism Education Committee is now providing advising mentors to new advisors – faculty with multiple years of advising chapters who can provide encouragement and a good ear for listening to problems. To get started, contact me here or at


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