“Playing Journalist”

“Hi, I’m a reporter for the Daily News! Could my bug and I ask you some questions about the firing of Paul Chryst?”

Late last night, I got this email from a student:

I hate to be emailing you almost last minute. However, I got asked to go to Madison tomorrow morning for my internship, and I present my blog pitch in class tomorrow. Is it possible at all for me to do it first thing Thursday morning instead? Again, I hate asking last minute, but I literally just got the email 15 minutes ago.

The internship she got was with the ABC affiliate in the largest market in our state, where she works with the sports department on everything from high school football promos to social media. She has been putting herself through school by working for the team shop at the Milwaukee Brewers stadium and punching a clock at an area grocery store. This year is her senior year and she’s driving between Oshkosh and Milwaukee multiple times a week to finish her classes and maintain her pro gig at the station.

Some professors might argue with me on this one, but for me, the answer was easy: Go. We’ll figure out the class thing later.

Numerous academic folk have called me out or poked at me about what they consider my lax attendance policy for things like this or my disregard for the value of classroom education. I’d argue I’m putting more emphasis on education by giving the kids the chance to really learn something important through some field work.

For me, it goes back to a situation at Ball State, involving a student reporter and a grumpy broadcast professor. A major breaking news story hit right at the time they were supposed to have class and so the kid asked the professor if she could skip class and chase the story.

“Well, maybe when you’re done playing journalist, you’ll get back to class and actually learn something,” he told her.

When I heard about it, I asked him about the situation and he defended his position. My argument was that of all the people who should see the value of field work, a fellow media professional should understand what this kid was doing. He disagreed and basically said that in the game of rock, paper, scissors, he was Spock. I made a few pointed remarks and left it at that, but the phrase “playing journalist” stuck with me long after that.

The students we teach are learning a craft, just as they would in any discipline worthy of apprenticeship: They get the theory and the explanations in the classroom, but they learn the rules of the road in the field. That happens at student media outlets, internships, part-time gigs and other opportunities where they ply the trade we teach them. If the goal is to help them find work and be successful after college, we should be encouraging these efforts, not belittling them.

These folks are not “playing journalist.” They ARE journalists.

A kid in class can blow off a C grade they earned for failing to fact-check a story or for misspelling a source’s name. However, if they make those mistakes at a student media outlet or an internship, they’ve got to deal with some serious ramifications. When students go out to cover significant news events like the folks at the Cav Daily did during the “Unite the Right” protest, they are putting themselves in harm’s way to tell important stories. I didn’t recall seeing white supremacists saying, “Oh, don’t punch those people. They’re just playing journalists…” I’m quite certain the teargas was real for everyone there, as well, not just the “official” journalists.

The media outlets that provide students with hands-on experience have a ton of value for both the kids and the outlets. The same day I got the email request, I was helping a colleague with a research project she was doing about student journalists during the pandemic. One of the key findings was that the kids found a ton more value in what they were doing in student media than in the classroom. Any journalism person worth their salt, and any j-prof who is honest with themselves, could see that truism a mile away.

I know I did.

When I had a choice between breaking news and attending a journalism history lecture about the professor’s revelations on Ronald Reagan (a topic he just so happened to have published a book on that was mandatory reading for the class), I went with the news and figured I’d catch up on the Gipper later. When the student newspaper closed down amid a sea of six-figure debt, I skipped six weeks of class my junior year to bill past advertisers, negotiate debts and fend off impending doom. I have no idea what my grades were in those classes to this day, nor has anyone cared enough to ask me in the intervening 27 years. However, I do know what I learned from the newspaper as a reporter, editor and business manager, and I still use that stuff to this day.

I want to make it clear that I’m not actively encouraging truancy or special treatment for kids in the college media ranks. I once had the argument about poor grades with a student who had two internships, the EIC position at the paper and a part time job. He told me, “You know that I’m better than a C student!” I told him, “Yes, but you’re turning in C work, so that’s where we are.” The peace-with-honor solution we agreed upon was that I wouldn’t bug him about his need to do better in my class because I knew WHY he wasn’t making me a priority. In turn, he’d not complain about his grades because he knew WHY they sucked.

My point is, if we professors are honest with ourselves, we know that we are likely to play second fiddle to something students are doing at some point in their college careers. Yes, it is annoying to lecture to a half-empty room or get the “Did I miss anything important?” emails after the fact. However, of all the reasons the students could be skipping class, we should at least actively encourage the really good reasons like this.

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