Building a stronger base for journalism education

Lori Shontz
Jan 12 · 3 min read

Yes, skills matter. But for our students to do strong work, we need to first immerse them in the “why of journalism,” focusing on its importance in a healthy democracy and its value for communities.

“Iceberg” by NOAA’s National Ocean Service is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

Some of my colleagues at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication joke that if I ever open a consulting firm, I need to name it Icebergs, Inc.

The iceberg is my favorite analogy to use in class. I deploy it when I want students to understand why a story is so powerful. Or why it’s a good idea to interview more people than you intend to quote. Or why it’s important to spend time listening to community members — especially those who have been traditionally marginalized.

I ask, “How does an iceberg work?”

Students immediately know the answer: As much as 90% of an iceberg’s mass is underwater, and that’s what gives it power. Much of the reporting that makes journalism powerful is invisible to readers, listeners and viewers, as well. But it’s there. And it matters.

In my 12 years as a journalism educator, I’ve come to believe that we need to think in a similar way about how we teach journalism. Too much of the “why” journalism matters is below the surface, and when undergraduate students can’t see that, they can have trouble building a strong foundation for their work. Before teaching the many skills that journalists need, how can we lay a robust foundation that equips students to produce stronger, more impactful work? How can we get them excited about not just getting excellent clips, but about doing work that supports democracy?

That’s why, with the support of the Agora Journalism Center, I am designing a class that introduces students to both the foundational principles of journalism and the newer ones that are driving some of the industry’s most impactful innovations. The class is going to have a heavy emphasis on journalism’s role in a healthy democracy. It is also going to be be explicit about how that means giving community members the information they need to actively participate in their civic duties.

I want to model in the design of the course the skills and values that I believe matter most in journalism. Listening, especially to people whose views have been traditionally underrepresented in news media. Engagement. Transparency.

My research assistant, Ella Hutcherson, and I are going to open up the class-design process in these ways:

1. Meeting with University of Oregon students in a series of conversations over the rest of the academic year. The groups will include journalism students, of course, but also students from other majors. We don’t produce journalism for other journalists, and we expect this outside perspective from college students to be instructive. (And maybe we can interest some of those students in a j-major, too!) We are also reaching out to student groups from underrepresented communities. This process respects students as stakeholders in the process, and it’ll help me to design a course that will meet their needs.

2. Surveying non-journalism faculty on my University of Oregon campus. I’m always in conversation with my j-school colleagues anyway, and I need to learn what I don’t know. I’m eager to learn from my colleagues across campus: How does their work intersect with journalism? What do they need from journalism? What are their information needs? What do they wish journalists knew about their fields?

3. Writing blog posts. This post and Ella’s introductory post, which will appear next week, are the first installments, and we’ll keep it up as we design the class this year and as I teach it for the first time next academic year.

Part of this blogging process is to broaden the conversation. We want your insights and expertise, too — that’s part of building our iceberg. As I’ve written before, as a journalism educator, I need to practice what I preach. I hope you’ll follow along.

Lori Shontz, professor of practice at the School of Journalism and Communication at University of Oregon, teaches reporting, writing and sports journalism, and she develops curriculum to help student journalists better engage with the communities they will cover. She is a board member of Journalism That Matters and an affiliated faculty member of the Agora Journalism Center.