Shoptalk: What to Teach Journalism Students When Their Field is Under Attack?

Early August is when I usually begin planning for the basic news reporting course I’ve taught for more than 20 years to University of Minnesota journalism students.

What was different this summer was the backdrop: harsh, attacking noise from our U.S. president’s resurgent campaign branding journalists the “enemy of the people.” The vitriol has gotten particularly sharp recently, with angry crowds at Trump rallies shouting obscenities at reporters for merely showing up to do their jobs.

The spectacle bothers one former student, who recently posted a photo of a CNN reporter’s ambushed stand-up at a rally showing a man wearing a “F*** the Media” T-shirt, his face twisted in hate. My student posted: “What if your profession were being targeted in this way by scary/angry/violent people?”

As I prepared for the fall semester, I wondered about my incoming students. How would this bedlam shape their views when they showed up for my “boot-camp” news writing course, which gives them their first real experience with the hard work of journalism? Would it frighten them? Embolden them? Confuse them?

For me, it raised the question of what I should be teaching them. Covering a speech is difficult enough, requiring students to not just listen to the speaker but also to understand the context of the event, figure out what’s important, seek balanced views, verify assertions, accurately report quotes.

Did I need to add “steel yourself to nasty crowd insults” to the list of skills? Maybe.

The truth was that none of the summer’s unpleasant sideshow is changing the fundamentals of my syllabus. I still put these newbies through the paces of what they need to know to be reporters: how to write ledes (journalism lingo for the beginning of an article), how to attribute, how to get to the point in a story, how to interview, how to write news clearly on deadline.

I still demand they get stuff right, that they care about every inaccuracy and that they understand the critical importance of verifying when a claim is a fact—or not.

We still talk about the core values of the profession: to seek truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently and to be accountable and transparent. We still talk about the importance of the First Amendment.

Most of them will no doubt have the usual anxieties about newsroom jobs, which have declined 23 percent in this country within the past decade. I will assure them, as I have for years, that the critical thinking, writing, data analysis and communication skills they gain in the major will apply across a range of careers. Besides, if they love journalism, they’ll find a way to work in it.

But I admit, these new aggressions against journalists don’t lend themselves to glib or rosy lesson plans. These are troubling times for U.S. journalists. To not respond is not an option. It’s my responsibility to help students see what’s happening today and to prepare them. So this semester, I will advise students to cultivate resilience and courage beyond their expectation. Reporters have always needed thick skin to endure criticisms from people who fear scrutiny or who claim they’ve been treated unfairly. Abuse now extends to trolling, from which they can find no refuge. Their digital management skills of that must be savvy, and their skin simply needs to be thicker.

I will prepare them for risk, too. Danger has always come with reporting. Students shouldn’t think they’re immune. Within the past decade, 621 journalists have been killed around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, including the four shot at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., this June. While that gunman’s attack appeared to come from a personal grudge, and while American reporters have not typically faced the life-threatening conditions of reporting in other countries, the propensity for violence is elevated by the fact that our commander-in-chief openly denigrates the press with vile name-calling that could easily tip an imbalanced mind.

Finally, I will tell them that waffling about their purpose won’t serve them. They’ll have to believe wholeheartedly in the tenets of journalism—that facts don’t have alternative facts, that truth is verifiable, that the powerful must be held accountable and that journalists, if they are doing their job, are champions of the people.

These students have a lot to learn. Some come into class not knowing a lede from a logo. But my hope is that they will quickly understand that the louder the abusive clamor against their journalism, the more important their journalism will become for our democracy.

Gayle Golden is a Morse-Alumni Distinguished University Teacher and a senior lecturer at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.

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3 thoughts on “Shoptalk: What to Teach Journalism Students When Their Field is Under Attack?

  • October 12, 2018 at 7:19 am

    easy: journalism is under attack by its own practitioners who have succumbed to political correctness and the notion that their job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable … as soon as today’s practitioners realize that their job is to inform and leave their biases at the door, they’ll see how difficult it is to do it right, and they will see how bad a job of it they’ve been doing in the last few decades …
    starting with washpost’s infamous watergate coverage that, mostly depended on uncorroborated testimony of an unnamed source who, it would be revealed decades later, was a high-ranking fbi guy with an axe to grind … this similarity s not accidental …
    look at yourselves in the mirror: that’s where you will have to start … and, btw, the trust from the general public that you have lost will be very difficult to regain …
    good luck …

    • October 12, 2018 at 3:20 pm

      Yes. To the comment, not the article. I graduated with a degree in Journalism many years ago. The dictum was to be truthful. We couldn’t write a misleading headline or add any thoughts or opinionated words to the article. If we wrote an opinion or had a response to a news article or feature, our rebuttal or opinion would go on the Editorial page only. The media began this “fight” by promoting Hillary Clinton and working with other governmental agencies and the Democrats to make sure Trump didn’t get elected. That’s a fact. The media might not be “the people’s enemy” – strong words, but not exactly in error – but it is not a fair entity that reports fairly or honestly, and media watchers have statistics that relay this to be the truth. Of course, this article – rather, “opinion” is written by a liberal/left-leaning journalist in a left-leaning state. What else would we expect?

  • October 15, 2018 at 8:52 am

    This essay about teaching and inspiring journalism students in an era of hate-speech against journalists is much needed encouragement. Teaching is hard when you care (so much easier when you don’t). The generation sitting before us as educators will have to figure out the way forward. We did. Our parents’ generation did too. And as long as we have a First Amendment to a constitution that supports free inquiry and checks and balances in government, we’ll need journalists who speak truth, shine light, and persevere through all the racket and smoke.


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