Are journalism students going soft or getting sloppy under the onslaught of 24/7 news and the social media echo chamber?
Journalism professor Mark Feldstein wondered about this when he led a heated debate in his University of Maryland classroom about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, when many high-profile media outlets grappled with showing the publication’s controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Many of Feldstein’s students argued, “‘If you’re going to upset people, why do it?'” he recalled. “Most of them are conditioned by society to be deferential or polite. One of the things I teach them is not to be deferential and not to be polite.”
As the media industry shifts to a 24/7 social and digital media echo chamber, novices learning the craft in college classrooms have many more factors to consider beyond just getting the facts right.
Students, who live and breathe on social media, see the thin line it creates on a day-to-day basis, where journalists and public figures either get praise heaped their way or are swallowed alive for comments that offend the masses.
And many aspiring journalists find themselves torn in one of two directions — either too tentative in reporting on controversial topics for fear of backlash or too hasty to publish in the belief that the Internet allows them to revise or correct stories quickly when they go too far.
For Feldstein, who has been an investigative journalist for decades, student journalists too often tend to hold back for fear of giving offense.
But that’s not the only problem. Budding journalists can often be appalled at what’s instinctive in a newsroom: prioritizing the facts over reader emotion, said Feldstein. Too often, Feldstein said, student journalists mistake aggressiveness for callousness.
Columbia Journalism Professor John Dinges experienced this firsthand. He recounted a recent classroom debate in which journalism students opposed using a video in which a mother referred to her own mentally challenged child as “retarded.”
One masters student was insistent in his argument that a journalist should never use the word in any script or show video of the mother using the word since other parents might be offended.
“Is that a general rule, are we as journalists restricted to only using terms that are preferred by those that are stakeholders in the use of that term?” Dinges recalled asking his students. “Isn’t our obligation to the reader or listener more than to the sources that we’re quoting?”
Dinges concluded that the problem isn’t just students being too gun-shy — there’s also a political correctness that’s permeated a lot of journalism, spreading to the classroom.
“Someone was suggesting we post a sign at the gate of Columbia University and say, ‘Warning: If you enter here you might be exposed to ideas that may trigger any number of emotional reactions,'” he said. “That’s what education is all about.”
Robert Hernandez, who teaches digital journalism at the University of Southern California, said that students are misled by online outlets that he believes fail to qualify under professional journalism standards.
“One colleague said, ‘I don’t need an editor, the Internet is my editor,'” he recounted. “That’s just asking for trouble.” Or, as he teaches his students, “It’s your ass on the line.”
The danger of envelope-pushing digital sites has been demonstrated most recently by Gawker, which is in the midst of a lawsuit for posting a private sex tape featuring wrestler Hulk Hogan and a scandal over a controversial post about a Conde Nast executive’s intended romp with a gay porn star.
Hernandez said he’s seen a split between students influenced by the Gawker-ization of media and those who are too hesitant to rush into the online fray.
“We do train people to take a moment and think before they hit publish,” he said, adding that others are more gun-shy because they don’t know what to say yet: “They’re trying to figure out what their voices are.”
And with media companies like Gawker, Vice and BuzzFeed built on the backs of twenytsomethings not too far removed from college — and whose audience consists of many college-age readers — many students have a much friendlier view of these maverick digital outlets than old-school journalists might.
“Vice News is not a renegade to them, BuzzFeed isn’t a renegade, it’s just a different kind of news organization,” he said. “They see them as the broad landscape of journalism and storytelling in media.”
Controversy doesn’t need to be an end in itself, but it can serve as an opportunity for dialogue. That’s one thing that James Dillon, a fifth-year graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, discovered last year when he led a counter-petition drive to support Bill Maher‘s invitation at last December’s winter commencement.
Some students had led an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to disinvite the comic over controversial comments he made connecting Muslims to terrorism.
Dillon and other supporters of Maher’s speech think that activist insurgence against polarizing figures who might offend presents a troubling trend for universities that should strive for the opposite: open debate over controversial topics.
“It’s unfortunate that the first instant some groups of students find something uncomfortable or threatening in some way they disinvite or try to silence the speaker,” he said.
But Frank Sesno, who teaches journalism at Georgetown University and occasionally fills in as anchor of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” has dealt with a more aggressive student body. Debates in his classroom have run the gamut on everything from whether to report a bomb scare to whether to show ghastly images of beheadings.
His students’ have a “many more things go” philosophy, he said. They view the responsibility on what to look at or not as “up to the recipient, not the sender.”
But he cautions students to be careful in their reporting and social media use, stressing that if in the old days the adage was “Your microphone is always hot,” it’s now “Everything you tweet is public and permanent.”
The challenge, Sesno says, is that students are involuntarily held to a higher standard — one they might not be ready for.
“You as a citizen basically have the responsibility of a managing editor or an executive producer, and how do you decide?”
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