This was the journalistic diversity that brought me to academia. I wanted to be part of making journalism more accommodating and accessible for those who think they don’t belong in The Media. These online courses, though far from perfect, have the potential to help democratize newsrooms and news content.
While a lot of attention rightly has been paid to diversifying newsrooms along race, ethnic, and gender lines, there is less discussion of class hierarchies. Scholars have been writing for more than 25 years about the professionalization of journalism and the problems that creates for inclusive coverage of working-class communities. At first, the Internet was seen as the solution for getting non-elite voices into media. But legacy media websites still dominate online news content, and without a reliable way to monetize online news, it’s not yet conceivable that someone like Stephanie could start her own site and earn a living that way.
According to a study by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, women made up nearly 62 percent of journalism students in 2011. But research by David Weaver and his colleagues at Indiana University, who have studied journalists for more than three decades, finds that women’s newsroom careers tend to be shorter than their male counterparts because of the strain a journalism job puts on family life. This is especially true for journalists whose working-class families have fewer resources for childcare and eldercare.
Online journalism education is one way to bring working-class experiences and perspectives into elite media.
Still, I missed sharing in my students’ adventures. One of the steep downsides of online education is that it can rob an instructor—and the student—of the most fun and rewarding aspects of teaching: the energy of the performance in the classroom, the impromptu conversations between classes, and the moments of spontaneity that enrich the educational experience and create memories every semester. In fact, faculty backlash against online education appears to be building, as instructors cite the long hours and constant challenge to interact with online students that are inherent in the format.
Online instructors must be open to answering questions day and night. Feedback on assignments that would take 10 seconds to speak takes 10 minutes to write. The flexibility that is so appealing to workers, parents, and all the others drawn to distance education is the teacher’s burden. There are no limits to the instructional day.
The rigidity and necessary standardization of online courses means that I rarely get to take advantage of breaking news and of-the-moment topics that energize a classroom experience. During the Boston Marathon bombing coverage in April, I brought up on the classroom screen NBC News’s live online feed for my on-campus reporting students, and we discussed the tactics and themes in the coverage. I haven’t found a way to do something similar in an online context, in which assignments, quizzes, and discussions are often prepared and static from the first day of the course.
And yet I know that online journalism courses have brought students into the field who would have had a very difficult time in a traditional classroom. In the couple of years I taught distance journalism courses, my students included a paralyzed man for whom online journalism classes—and an online writing career—were his only practical ways to have a career in journalism.
Another student was an Iraq War veteran whose post-traumatic stress disorder made online courses his best option. His stories dealt with veterans’ struggles to get health services through the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as with homelessness and suicide—issues that, unfortunately, are part of the reality for many veterans. After a number of setbacks and a great deal of help from his family, the former soldier earned his bachelor’s degree and now covers sports and community events for a weekly newspaper in the Northwest. He is working on a book about his military service.
Making journalism courses more available to more kinds of people seems an important way to produce critical thinkers and leaders at all levels of society. Online education’s ability to reach nontraditional students in both rural and urban areas has been part of the utopian promise of the medium from its beginning.