First Person

What I’ll tell my journalism students after Charlottesville

September 4, 2017
Image via Pexels

It’s the time of year when university campuses around the country start to shake off the summer slow-mo. As the first day of classes approaches, I’ve been thinking about what I plan on saying to my journalism students about this extraordinary period in our country’s life, and how that impacts their future as journalists.  

Until I started teaching a few years ago, I was a broadcast journalist, producer, and executive in cable, local, and public broadcasting. I’ve lived through Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Clinton scandals, and the Gulf wars. I want to put into perspective what they are facing as they go out to report stories, and why this is such a critical time for budding journalists to think deeply and carefully about what they do and how they do it.

But I will start by telling them what they won’t learn in my class.

If they watched the events of Charlottesville and didn’t fully understand why people reacted as they did to Nazi slogans that demonized blacks and Jews, then it’s their responsibility to understand the Hitler era. I’ll happily suggest resources.  Similarly, if they are not fully steeped in our country’s history with civil rights, from slavery to the Civil War to Reconstruction, from Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, then they need to do their homework. Again, I will give them a reading list.

There’s no substitute or shortcut for knowledge and, most importantly, a thirst for knowledge. I will reinforce that they will not do well in my class if they show up without knowing the big stories. It’s called journalism, but I will tell them that it’s really history—with a “today” top.

I’ll help them, to be sure. I’ll give them a list of great apps (like the Associated Press’s) that give them news 24 hours a day in their back pockets. I’ll urge them to check out The New York Times and The Washington Post and listen to news radio every now and then. I’ll show them that wonderful documentary that Vice News produced in the midst of Charlottesville.

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ICYMI: The outrageous editorial by a Charlottesville daily that preceded violence

I won’t—and can’t—teach them curiosity, though I will try to stoke theirs. I will tell them they have to pursue curiosity on their own in two different but connected realms: First, in the digital world, where they can access newspapers from a hundred years ago, read personal diaries, tap into databases, and watch news from all over the world. Second, but as important, in the real world. They need to get out of their comfort zones when pursuing stories. They need to meet people and visit unfamiliar neighborhoods.  

I plan on telling them there are more opportunities than ever to tell stories or more platforms for good journalism to thrive. But there have also never been so many challenges to honest journalism, both around the world and here at home.

I’ll give them a quick primer on the relationship between the press and the presidency. It’s always been contentious, and presidents have always had a complicated relationship with our profession. But this is the first time we’ve come under such a prolonged and destructive campaign to demean and delegitimize what we do. (A sidebar: As a college student, I was once dressed down at a televised news conference by Vice President Spiro Agnew.) I plan on giving them a face-saving way out: I will tell them that I understand if some of them decide it’s not worth the anxiety to be out there on the streets of our country at a time when our commander in chief calls them “the enemy.” There’s no shame in admitting that being a journalist isn’t for everyone.

ICYMI: “If you’re telling me his secrets, you’re probably telling him mine. Now I know never to trust you.”

For those who decide to stick around, I’ll reinforce that this job takes guts. Also, maturity. As we’ve seen with healthcare, issues are complex, have many facets, and they change over time. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that there is such a thing as achievable “objectivity.” We are not a tabula rasa—we are the sum total of our backgrounds and beliefs. As journalists, we have to check our prejudices and predispositions at the door—not deny that we have them. Our job is to use the tools of our trade to tell the stories we discover.

I will tell them they can’t be cowed by false equivalency—between Nazis and racial purists on one hand, and those who oppose them on the other. I plan on telling them about my grandfather, Harry Effron. He escaped from anti-Semitism in Russia for these shores and then enlisted as a doughboy in World War I. And my father, Irving Effron, who gave up a deferment to fight as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II to defend American values against imperialism and autocracy. If this is like every other class I’ve taught, I’m sure some of my students are first-generation Americans, and that their parents and grandparents also sacrificed life and limb to come here to live freely and have a better life. I will ask my students to honor their forebearers.

I’ll tell them: I am on your side. I want to do everything I can to make you into the best journalist you can be. This is the place to make your mistakes, to try things, to learn. Because, given the precarious state of the world and the forces arrayed against you, you want to go out in that world armed with the best professional skills that will serve you in any set of circumstances.

Finally, I’ll thank them for taking a stand by taking this class. I’ll remind them that by practicing journalism, they’re saying they are committed to seeking out the truth without fear or favor. They’re saying they will not be afraid to stand up to authority; that they will work hard not just on writing and reporting, but on understanding history.

RELATED: A copyeditor was looking at early Charlottesville images. While doing so, he made a big realization.

Mark Effron , a veteran broadcast journalist and executive, teaches journalism at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, and is coordinator of the School’s new News Lab.