Teaching journalism after election a tricky endeavor

Photo: AP

Amanda Bright looked around her classroom of journalism students at Eastern Illinois University the morning after the presidential election. The 15 men and women had been up much of the night and were exhausted, unusually quiet. Like journalism students across the country who had been closely following the race, students in Bright’s newswriting class were not only stunned by Donald Trump’s election, but also that their chosen profession had so badly missed the story.

“A lot of them needed personally to move through things,” says Bright, a journalism lecturer and board member of the Illinois Journalism Education Association.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Bright had given the students a choice of whether to cover an issue related to the presidential race or something else on campus. “They didn’t want to touch the election,” Bright says. “They had a lot of election fatigue.”

But since the reality of Trump’s win has begun to sink in and cabinet appointments have given shape to his nascent administration, the students can’t stop talking about what will happen next—to the country, to journalism, and to their future in both. “They bring it up in almost every conversation we have,” Bright says.

 

Since the reality of Trump’s win has begun to sink in and cabinet appointments have given shape to his nascent administration, the students can’t stop talking about what will happen next—to the country, to journalism, and to their future in both.

 

As a journalism professor myself, I know that every election produces teachable moments. Each week brings a new set of headlines, new stories to scrutinize, examples of the best and the worst of what we do. This fall was extraordinary for journalism educators and students, and not just because the presidential race was historic or because fact-checking became its own beat or because social media never, ever goes off air. This fall was extraordinary because it felt like journalism itself was up for a vote. 

In the weeks since the election, I’ve thrown out the syllabi in both of the classes I teach at Columbia College Chicago. I’ve spent every class period for the past three weeks talking to the 99 freshmen in my introductory course on social media storytelling about the echo chambers we create on social media, partisan websites, and how to verify news. This week I showed them where Taiwan was on a map, and we talked about the implications of Trump’s tweet to China after his call with the president of Taiwan. That wasn’t a lecture I had planned to deliver when we started in September. 

We moved on to #pizzagate and the real dangers of fake news after a North Carolina man brought an assault rifle to a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, and tried to uncover a totally unproven conspiracy theory about a supposed child trafficking ring there. My students groaned as I explained how people were looking through hacked emails for code words like “hot dog” and “walnut” to expose the alleged sex ring. It felt so ridiculous and unbelievable that we were actually talking about it, but we had to talk about it because I wanted my students to understand the consequences of sharing stories that are not true. In my basic reporting course, we’ve discussed (again) why it’s so important to interview people who don’t look or think the way we do to understand how the media missed the depth of Trump voters’ grievances.

 

It felt so ridiculous and unbelievable that we were actually talking about it, but we had to talk about it because I wanted my students to understand the consequences of sharing stories that are not true.

 

For many journalism students in America, the election was a sobering moment that followed months of watching the president-elect and his supporters attack the media. Candidate Trump went after some of the most respected journalists in the business, calling them names, making fun of them, and trying to bully them for doing their jobs. The president-elect encouraged supporters at his rallies to turn on local broadcasters, freelance photographers, and reporters barely making their mortgages. It was a new dose of upheaval and unpredictability in a profession already beset by plenty of both.

“It’s difficult to be both honest and inspiring in this moment,” says Mei-Ling Hopgood, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “There’s a lot of bummer things happening and things we don’t understand. There’s a lot of hate and all kinds of bad emotions as well. While we figure out what happened and how to do things better, it can be challenging to stay positive.” 

Journalism students—especially today’s crop—are taught about the importance of objectivity and not taking sides. They are grilled on the basic notions of fairness and accuracy. Most journalism programs have a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism and for inventing facts.

But this election delivered a tricky lesson. “We learned that a certain chunk of facts don’t matter,” says Kelley Benham French, a professor of practice at Indiana University’s Media School.

Two days after the election, French devoted her entire narrative journalism class to talking about the election. Her students were “really upset,” she says. “A huge piece of it is that they are in legitimate fear for their personal safety. This makes them feel less safe, and the wrong things are being rewarded. On top of that, most of their parents don’t want them to become journalists. They are dealing with that at home. Their Trump-supporter uncles are telling them that journalists are corrupt. It’s internship application season, and they’re feeling tremendous pressure, and now they’re questioning everything.”

 

Most of their parents don’t want them to become journalists. They are dealing with that at home. Their Trump-supporter uncles are telling them that journalists are corrupt. It’s internship application season, and they’re feeling tremendous pressure, and now they’re questioning everything.”

 

Luma Khabbaz, whose parents are from Syria, is in French’s narrative journalism course this semester. She remembers sitting in the first class after the election, waiting for her professor. French’s husband, Tom French, also a professor of practice at the Media School, walked in. Someone asked how he was doing, and he ended up delivering what Khabbaz describes as a sermon on journalism, “about how this was a time for journalists, that this is what we’re here to do. It was emotional.”

It was emotional because the profession has been so maligned in recent months, and even though we know why and are trying to self-correct as a profession, fake news is still winning. Clicks and likes are still winning. It’s depressing, and yet, this also feels like a unique moment, when journalism schools should be making their case about why they’re needed now more than ever. These days, all of us are delivering a sermon for journalism in our own ways. 

“That thing you feel, that physical ache or joy…is passion,” Hopgood says she told her students. “Something you hold very dearly is being threatened or being celebrated, so take care of yourself and reflect and do all of these things, but then you go and defend those things that you care about. Turn it around.” 

Rachel Hinton, a journalism major at DePaul University in Chicago, was in an advanced reporting class with veteran journalist Carol Marin the day after the election. “We were shell-shocked,” she says. “We trusted the data. We trusted the pundits.”

Hinton, who is from suburban Plainfield, south of Chicago, knows that places like her hometown put Trump in office. “It made me want to talk to more people downstate,” she says. “I totally agree with the fact that liberals or people in the mainstream media stay in their bubbles. We need to continue to look for varying opinions and perspectives.”

Hinton says she was nervous for a few days after the election, wondering what Trump’s presidency would mean for her as a black woman in America. But she’s since had a chance to reflect and refocus on her own professional aspirations. “It emboldens me,” she says. “My longterm goal is to be an investigative reporter. I want to know what you don’t want me to know.” She figures there might be no better place to practice her skills than under a Trump administration.

N’Jema McIntyre, a senior at Northern Illinois University and president of her student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, says she also feels empowered by the election results. An aspiring radio journalist and mother of two young men of color, McIntyre says it’s important for her “to get the word out, to get my face out.”

“It’s a ripe time for journalists,” she says.

It’s a ripe time, and also a complicated one. Many of today’s journalism students, cynical already, aren’t sure what to do.

“They see the problems,” says Sara Netzley, a journalism professor at Bradley University in Peoria in central Illinois. “But they aren’t so sure they can fix it. At least they can see the problems. I give them that.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.