Despite it all, people will still want to be journalists

Lately, when I begin the first class of a new semester, I ask my students a question no one felt compelled to ask me when I studied journalism in the 2000s: Has anyone discouraged you from pursuing a career in journalism?

The answers, unsurprisingly, are consistently “yes.” Students describe parents and friends asking why they’d choose to work in a profession where pay is low, public distrust is high, and stability is elusive. Strangers have asked them why they want to be part of “fake news” or have encouraged them to be “one of the good ones.” And, in general, as soon as they tell someone they’re pursuing a career in journalism, they get a list of grievances about the news in response. (I’ve found this to be true for journalism scholars as well.)

But despite the perpetual discouragement and all the serious issues motivating it, universities across the country are seeing consistent — or even increasing — enrollment in their journalism curricula. The University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media has seen enrollment increase about 70% over the past decade, according to the school’s senior associate dean for undergraduate studies. Journalism programs at Emerson College, Syracuse University, Arizona State University, and the University of Maryland have also seen enrollment increases in recent years. In my department at the University of Utah, our journalism sequence has experienced year-over-year growth since 2016.

So, my prediction: People will continue to pursue careers in journalism despite (or maybe even because of) its ongoing challenges. Many will begin those pursuits in university classrooms.

My hope is that journalism educators meet this demand by doing what we wish more journalists did within their newsrooms: Reflecting honestly and openly about how we’ve been doing our jobs and making meaningful changes to better serve the public.

As Rafael Lorente, the associate dean for academic affairs at University of Maryland’s journalism school, wrote recently: “We have an obligation to build a journalism education model that keeps us grounded in core values while looking to a future we cannot predict.”

To start, we need to reevaluate how we teach the building blocks of news writing and reporting, especially when it comes to representation and inclusivity. Thanks to a growing chorus of journalism scholars and practitioners, the news industry is finally acknowledging the negative impact of the pursuit of “objectivity” on women journalists and journalists of color, who are more often accused of being “biased” or “compromised” than their white, male counterparts. Some are already working to bring this discussion into the classroom so that students can learn both how objectivity has traditionally been pursued as well as emerging alternatives to it as journalism’s overarching value. For example, Anita Varma, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has embraced a persuasive alternative to objectivity and has published resources to help other journalism educators present this alternative to students.

Journalism educators also need to prepare students for the lack of diversity and representation they will find when they start working in newsrooms, as well as the resistance they will encounter within those newsrooms when it comes to changing those circumstances (or even acknowledging them). To do this, journalism programs need to do more to center discussions surrounding representation throughout their curricula. This year, the University of Utah, the University of Colorado, and the University of Wisconsin are all hiring scholars for positions focused on the intersection of journalism and race. This list is by no means comprehensive — there are others thoughtfully pursuing better ways of teaching the basics of journalism. Hopefully, more will follow.

Journalism schools also need to begin teaching students to think more deliberately about the relationship they hope to have with their audiences — specifically, who those audiences include, who they leave out, and how much agency those audiences should have when it comes to how their stories are told. Last year, Northwestern University professor Stephanie Edgerly and I examined course syllabi from leading journalism schools throughout the United States and found that few of them included much, if any, focus on news audiences. Considering the industry’s increasing embrace of audience-supported revenue models and expansion of audience-focused jobs, journalism schools should devote more resources to ensuring that aspiring journalists are thinking about the people they hope to reach from the very start.

Some programs are already doing this: The University of Oregon’s journalism school has been teaching engaged and solutions journalism courses for years and even has a center dedicated to fostering “more community-engaged and community-driven journalism.” At Temple University, professors have involved students in the creation of hyperlocal, community-centered journalism projects, where students learn solutions journalism and engaged journalism practices by collaborating with community members on solutions-oriented reporting and outreach. CUNY’s journalism school offers a master’s degree in engagement journalism that aspires to teach students “how to build less transactional and more trusting relationships with the people we serve and producing tangible impact in communities.” Arizona State’s journalism school recently launched a “Community Engagement Reporting” course, where students are taught to hold “listening sessions” in hopes that they will learn how to “build better relationships with community groups and their members.” And University of Wisconsin professor Sue Robinson has been working with seven universities to create guidelines and modules intended to help university journalism professors teach students how to host community conversations.

Finally, journalism schools need to do more to offer students not only the skills required to produce the news, but also the knowledge they will need to navigate this profession during such an uncertain period. That means teaching students about labor unions, so they can make informed decisions when it comes time to consider joining one. It means teaching students about the risks and challenges of social media so they understand the perpetually looming threat of online abuse and are also best prepared to consider how what they put online will be evaluated by potential employers. And it means teaching students how best to protect themselves from burnout and other mental health issues that seem endemic to professions where idealism is so easily exploited.

The news industry is a tough place to work right now. We’re lucky that so many people still want to. And if we can meet the challenge of preparing them for what they will find when they begin their careers, we’ll all be better off.

Jacob L. Nelson is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Utah.

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