Students Study ‘Critical’ Subjects

By: Anna Crane

The media world has changed dramatically in recent years, and so has journalism education ? but several new courses are being offered to respond to significant trends and needs-to-know in the industry. One at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism is teaching readers how to be critical news consumers, while Georgetown Law School is helping career journalists understand the complexity of the legal system.

In fall 2007, Georgetown will launch the inaugural class of its Master of Studies in Law. “Journalists are great at getting up to speed on the substance they’re covering, but sometimes it’s the more technical stuff ? procedures, standing, case disposals, all those technical things ? that are sometimes hard to pick up on as a journalist, and even harder to relay to an audience,” says Albert Lauber, director of the new program.

Designed to educate reporters who already have two or three years of career experience but no legal education, the program will take one year or two, depending on full- or part-time enrollment.

Reporters will take first-year classes with the rest of the law students, but will also complete a more specialized research course on a particular topic (which is the only newly created class for the program). During the latter course, says Lauber, students can focus on a beat they might cover in their job, such as environmental regulations or business law.

“The goal is not to have career changes,” Lauber explains. “We don’t want these students to switch into law, but the hope is to have them go back and offer more accurate and maybe more nuanced reporting on legal affairs.”

Stony Brook University’s new School of Journalism debuted this fall with courses that include its innovative News Literacy class. Unlike the Georgetown program, however, this class is not aimed at journalists (it’s meant for readers), but might help the profession in the long run.

Taught by the j-school’s dean, Howard Schneider, the class aims to teach students how to be informed and discerning news consumers. They analyze media outlets, stories, and sources. Along the way, they learn to identify “quality journalism.”

“There is great confusion in the public’s mind as to what is journalism and what is fake journalism ? what is entertainment and what is news,” notes Schneider. “The sheer quantity of information that is descending on us each day is blurring those lines, and that is dangerous to the news consumer.”

The class aims to create news readers who not only are critical of potentially non-credible sources, such as highly partisan blogs, wacky Web sites, and biased publications, but also to be critical of stories in the mainstream media.

“It’s important to teach people techniques to deal with information itself, rather than just the source information,” says Eric Newton, the director of journalism initiatives for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which gave the school a $1.7 million grant to fund the project.

“There are times when a blogger may have substantial information, and times when a mainstream journalist might have a stereotype, an assumption, or an opinion, and not a factual piece of information,” Newton adds. “We’d like to show students, but ultimately news consumers in general, how they can test and come to understand whether what they’re looking at is backed up by facts or not.”

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