Every line of work has its contradictions. Mine is no different. I’ll illustrate the problems that come with my own profession, journalism education, by putting you in my shoes for a second and having you reconcile these two competing principles that make up the bulwark of my journalistic beliefs.

  1. Journalists tell the truth, always. Journalists verify, always. Journalists listen to feedback and criticism and correct the record when wrong. This is the lifeblood of everything we do. Our integrity and credibility rests on these principles.
  2. Education is about learning, failing, making mistakes. You have to encourage students to try things knowing they’ll fail. Failure is where the learning happens, and it’s how they learn over time to succeed.

If you didn’t get the tension, let me make it plain. In journalism education, your students will mess up, sometimes royally. The younger ones first starting out tend to make more mistakes than the more experienced ones, but the mistakes happen at all levels. You learn journalism by doing. How does an educator encourage the journalist through mistakes while still holding them to standards?

Journalism is a process. We tell stories as best as we understand them today, knowing there will be more to add later as the story develops. Ideally we get it all right, current, and accurate on day one so that the next story is just an update in detail, but it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes journalists don’t know what they don’t know, and in reflection after a story they hear feedback or think on it more and realize there’s more to tell.

I don’t think the public understands this very well. Phrases like “complete coverage” don’t help matters. It’s a marketing slogan, not a true descriptor of what the organic news production process looks like. Journalistic production is naturally messy. Things sometimes don’t come out right and sometimes need correction.

What I’ve always used as a good guide is intent. I make a huge distinction between intentionally getting it wrong (by overt laziness or some desire to skew the news) and getting it wrong because the writer doesn’t know what they don’t know. Both kinds of mistakes are bad, but I have a much more charitable view toward the second. These are students, and they’re learning.

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot of late. The events of last semester with FBR’s emergence led to a conflict between the group and our student newspaper, the Brown & White. As an professor I have a unique view behind the scenes of what goes on in our students’ minds as they work out the process of producing the news, and it’s messy. They’re learning on the job, and they make mistakes. As a professor, I’m helpless to watch sometimes; I give advice when asked, but it’s just advice that they can take or leave. Everything about the news production process from story inception to publication is a decision our students make.

As it relates to the recent incidents on campus, how I balance criticism and praise has been a point of contention for some. The day of the first FBR protests, I was pointed in my praise of our student paper for continuing to pursue the story despite barriers to getting information. I was also pretty open about the fact that I think it’s in the best interests of the student protestors to engage student media as another channel for dialogue with the student body (here with followup tweet here). I believe in journalism because I think good journalism benefits everyone, and everyone – journalist, source, reader – has a role to play in helping to make it better. More on that in a second.

I’m teaching via social media all the time, calling attention to errors or mistakes. A day before the first protests when the offensive flyers were posted on campus, I was pointed in my criticism of the B&W for having a lead that was incomplete at best, and didn’t allow for the fact that this was a protest and not an attempt to merely offend people (here and here).

As a professor, I try to be direct in my critique without browbeating. Nobody likes to be called out publicly when learning on the job. Journalism is one of those professions where all your mistakes are public, and I’m understanding of that. At the same time, I know that our students usually hear more about what they’re doing wrong than what they’ve done right. I’m effusive in praise because nobody is praising them, and as a professor I want them to be motivated to keep learning and not give up. Because these are students in the process of learning, my process of critique is far different as an educator than the one I used as an editor in a professional newsroom.

The tension is there. Praise so they keep going, critique in some manner so they fix their mistakes and keep improving. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Where am I going with this?

Sometimes criticisms our B&W students face are quite fair, but sometimes they are unfair and unrealistic. People certainly have a right to their opinion of what the journalist should do, but that often doesn’t square with journalistic values or production processes. Some in the Lehigh community, for example, wanted some alleged but unconfirmed details of the off-campus fight reported in the paper, but that would’ve crossed legal lines into libel territory. Asking the paper to be a direct advocate for causes is another because it asks the journalist to abdicate its role of being an advocate for the entire student body in favor of one group’s interests.

My usual response to people here on campus that criticize the paper is to remind them that these are student reporters learning on the job, and that the paper is a learning lab. I usually follow that up in a couple ways. First, has the complainer actually complained to the B&W about what specifically was messed up? You’d be surprised how often that answer is “no,” how often people avoid direct conflict but still hold it against the paper for not magically knowing it possibly messed up. People expect these students to learn by osmosis or divine revelation, it seems. The truth is they have to be told about mistakes so they can thoughtfully go about filling in the blind spots and fixing any issues that need fixing. Second, I sometimes pass on criticism but not always. I’m not affiliated with the paper so I don’t want to be seen as a go-between. Those with issues with the paper should talk to the students themselves. That’s the purpose of dialogue.

So my public message in general is to cut them some slack when possible because they are learning, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about mistakes. Perfection is the goal, accuracy is what we strive for as journalists, but what profession doesn’t value those things? It baffles me when other student majors on campus are encouraged to try things and fail but student journalists are shunned for not living up to an impossible standard. This is a university – we’re in the business of education.

I don’t think that’s a lowering of standards by any stretch. Just ask my students if I’m willing to wave away their mistakes as if they don’t matter. In the context of the classroom, I am hard on them. What I’m trying to say is I have a realistic view of journalism education. It involves four principles:

  1. Journalists should hold themselves to the highest standards of truth and accuracy in all that they produce, big and small.
  2. Student journalists should strive for the first principle, but they are going to make mistakes. Because they are students.
  3. As citizens of the university – faculty, staff, and student alike – if we have a complaint about something produced we have a responsibility to dialogue about it. That is, we have a responsibility to communicate with our student journalists in order to correct errors and help them learn to do better next time.
  4. Journalism students should learn to be good sifters, able to pick through the complexities of complaints and figure out what needs fixing vs. what is an unfair complaint, But fair or unfair, all complaints should be addressed.

I don’t think those are light standards, but it is dismissive of one group – people who want to complain and do nothing to help solve the problem.

The third principle is the one that matters most as it pertains to student newspapers in an educational setting, because it requires mutual respect. We’ve been talking a lot about dialogue at Lehigh the past few months. To some it seems dialogue is about shutting up and listening. I don’t see dialogue that way at all. Dialogue is a chance for exchange, for people from all different perspectives to share what they’ve done and what they know. But that means an actual exchange, where all parties that speak are heard and respected.

I’ve watched our editors get belittled, sneered at, and seen some declare their lack of respect for the paper. It comes with the job. But the attitudes directed toward our student journalists represents an unrealistic view of the realities of their job – our students care a great deal about getting it right, but the truth is they’re bound to get it wrong. How do we respond as educators? As a community? Are we nurturing and encouraging of the educational process, or do we fall back into accusation mode?

Aren’t the accusations and recriminations essentially repurposing the same issues we already are having with inclusion, recombining it into a different form of destructive judgment?

Criticism without dialogue indicates an unrealistic understanding of what the student journalist is trying to do, and it certainly isn’t conducive to real dialogue. Real dialogue starts with respect for others. My goal as an educator, and really my only real contribution to the dialogue, is helping educate others about what journalism is (and isn’t!) and how it’s done. We have a lot to learn from one another.

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Feel the tension: a philosophy of journalism education
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