To Save Journalism, Listen to the Students

A_journalist_works_in_San_Francisco's_Marina_District_after_the_October_1989_Loma_Prieta_Earthquake

By Nancy Wong [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Because of the nature of New York City College of Technology, the City University of New York campus where I teach, my Introduction to Journalism class is a little different from one at a school with a Journalism major or even an English major. I am less concerned with the mechanics of Journalism than with an understanding of the field.  The students do write news stories, and edit and fact-check, but a large percentage of their time is spent on the history of Journalism and on the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding current practice.

City Tech students differ from most contemporary college students, and not simply because of the focus on technology at the center of their college. A large percentage of my Journalism students this semester speak a language other than English at home, many of them were born outside of the United States, and they represent an array of all the major religions of the globe. They attend City Tech because it is convenient and cheap, and because it offers majors in things like human services, hospitality management, computers, nursing, radiology and entertainment technology, majors that appeal to their career-oriented visions of education. For most of them, Introduction to Journalism truly is an introduction, and most of them take it simply to fulfill a general-education requirement.

The final exam, which the students wrote two days ago, asked them to use a Frank Bruni opinion essay from The New York Times called “The News Isn’t Fake. But It’s Flawed” that had appeared five days earlier. I gave copies of the essay out two days before the final, telling students they would be using it and the textbook as they wrote in class. The prompt I handed out on Thursday, along with blue books, asked the students how they would approach their work were they journalists today and to write their conclusions in light of Bruni’s comments, their textbook, and keeping in mind what they had learned over the course of the semester.

One of the people whose work on Journalism I had introduced my students to is Jay Rosen of New York University. There’s a chapter on his explorations of alternatives to standard journalism in the 1990s in the textbook we use (my own history of American journalism, The Rise of the Blogosphere), but it is his more current thought, according to what I glean from their final exam essays, that impressed the students the most. The students also listened to weekly podcasts of National Public Radio’s On the Media and gleaned information from other sources, including the movies Shattered Glass and All the President’s Men. The influence of all of these and more could be found in their final essays.

Going over the exams, I divided what students said journalists should and should not do today. the ‘should not’ column could have come straight from Rosen. Journalists, they wrote (though I paraphrase),  should not:

  • Cover Trump;
  • Give in to the desire to amass readership;
  • Follow the daily trending stories; or
  • Chase fame.

Their combined list of things journalists should do is much longer, and comes from a much broader array of sources (which itself says something about the dearth of self-examination and self-criticism found in journalism today). Journalists, they argued (again, I paraphrase), should:

  • Spread awareness (of Gaza, Yemen, etc.);
  • Gain trust, for what they write might hurt;
  • Look to the bigger picture;
  • Point out lies;
  • Be transparent and attempt to be truthful;
  • Be disciplined;
  • Rely on fact-checking;
  • Educate readers on the meaning of the research behind the article;
  • Use vocabulary carefully (i.e., don’t call, or not call, someone a “terrorist” without care);
  • Report the story without worry over possible reaction;
  • Approach each story with an eye to constructive self-criticism;
  • Report with authenticity always in mind;
  • Be blunt as well as truthful;
  • Make sure every fact presented is credible;
  • Admit mistakes;
  • Approach stories with deliberation, not speed;
  • Leave room for reader opinion when giving one’s own;
  • Report from the scene;
  • Work as part of a team;
  • Know the audience;
  • Use multiple perspectives but admit one’s own;
  • Bring forth discussion;
  • Emulate I. F. Stone, that is, research carefully and stay true to oneself; and
  • Work to engage the audience.

That’s not in any sort of order but it does reflect comments within the essays of all the students. Not one did not discuss at least two or three of these points.  And remember, they were each writing an essay in 75 minutes, so they didn’t have time for much reflection on the particulars of the question they were given.

I’m particularly proud of this group of students, though their advice to the field is not new or unusual. The solutions to journalism’s problems are not that difficult, but it is going to take the entire profession learning what my students know if things are going to change.

Too many journalists,unfortunately, are satisfied with doing exactly what my students say journalists should not do. Their power drowns out the rest.

I’m glad that this small group of City Tech students, at least, understands that.

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