CAMP 2015: Reinventing the journalism curriculum

By Bethany Barnes, 2015 JAWS Fellow

College journalism programs are under pressure to deliver the digital journalists of the future, but effective curriculum isn’t only about teaching particular tools or platforms, according to professors discussing “Reinventing the Journalism Curriculum” at the 2015 Journalism and Women Symposium.

A computer can spew out facts — but it still can’t compete with the adept journalist when it comes to context, curiosity and critical thinking. Those fundamentals are needed no matter how the journalism is relayed to the audience, the panelists agreed.

Rachele Kanigel, Jackie Spinner, Melita Garza and Cindy Skrzycki talked about how they tackle what they think is a false conflict: The struggle between what’s been the bedrock of reporting — writing, ethics — and new technologies.

All four panelists have had careers in journalism, which they said helps their academic work. Kanigel worked in daily papers for 15 years and contributes to MediaShift. Spinner spent 14 years at The Washington Post, where she covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Garza has more than 20 years’ experience working in both national and international media. Skrzycki is a former business columnist for Bloomberg News and The Washington Post.

Kanigel, who moderated the panel and teaches at San Francisco State University, said it is common for journalism programs to focus on offering more multimedia courses because of the pressure to keep up with the new ways people consume information. Teaching technology means students aren’t taking as many writing classes, so other subjects like law, ethics and history end up being crammed together.

Developing journalists must be flexible and motivated, panelists said.

“What I see in the really good students is they may not know what they’re doing but they are curious and willing to try,” said Garza, who teaches at Texas Christian University.  “To think that journalism is something that you do is a big mistake. It’s more than any technology.”

Skrzycki, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, concurred. Skepticism isn’t something students necessarily have when they walk into the classroom, she said.

“It’s really important for them to get critical thinking skills, to question things,” Skrzycki said. Students need “a real drive to want to find things.”

Creating curriculums that cultivate curiosity requires getting students motivated to read, too.

Skrzycki said she often asks students at the beginning of the semester what they read — if they do. Many students say they only read whatever comes to them on their phone. Others say they don’t like to read at all.

Panelists said they use new platforms, such as Tumblr, in class to help students understand journalism’s value and legacy. It’s important to understand what social media students use, and incorporate it into the class, Spinner said. “I go where my students are, Spinner said. “I can teach them journalism history through social media. I have them live tweet historic events.”

To get students reading a variety of news sources, Kanigel said she updates her classes on what catches her interest. Spinner said she gives news quizzes and tells students her Twitter feed will contain the stories that will be on the quiz.

Students respond to a high bar, the instructors said.

“Sometimes you just have to challenge them and say ‘I think you are smart enough to deal with this material’ and then they rise to the occasion,” Garza said.