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The Whats and Hows of Teaching Broadcast Journalism

-first posted at RTDNA.org on June 23, 2010

Broadcast journalism education has long been defined by two questions:

-What do we teach?

-How do we teach?

For many years, the easier question to answer was the first one.  Broadcast news—and I’ll focus my thoughts primarily on television here—was a closed system.  There were a finite number of skills to be learned that earned entry into the system.  To be a TV journalist, one had to learn the basic who, what, why, when, where, and how of journalism, learn the technology of film (and later, video), and learn the rhythm of the daily newscast cycle.  This skill set was a reasonably small target to find and hit.  And it had its roots in teaching history that went way back.  The 5 W’s of journalism can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who worked to classify the search for knowledge through inquiry.  Literally millennia of teachers and professors had perfected the approach to questioning before it entered the field of modern journalism.  And journalists and journalism professors alike made quick work of incorporating into the reporter’s craft.   Camera and editing technology, too, were borrowed from a related field—in this case the motion picture industry.  The film cameras and editing equipment first used for television news had been the tools of the newsreel cameraman for decades.  Again, it was easy for the industry and academia both to adopt the knowledge that already existed to teach this part of the discipline.

The structure of the newscast day was one part of the old school mix that didn’t come from another source.  Sure, newspapers had their daily deadlines.  But the TV news cycle was unique.  It focused not only on the publication time—newscast time—but also on all of the absolute deadlines leading up to that one.  News managers had to account for travel time to shoot stories, processing time for film, the time to write and rip scripts, and time for directors and other technical staff to get up to speed on the newscasts themselves.  It was a more complex deadline system than had come before, but was also fairly set in concrete for newsrooms to operate and professors to teach.

And teach they did.  That skill set answered the “what do we teach?” question completely, outlining a curriculum for nearly every broadcast journalism educator to follow.   The “how do we teach?” part of the equation was not so easy to fill.  The world’s first video news camera (remember when we called them “mini-cams?”) was the RCA TK-76.  The one I used in Florida in the early 80s cost $50,000 when it was new.  Colleges and universities could hardly afford to buy a dozen of those to put in the hands of students.  Beyond that, most could not simulate the daily news deadlines of the newsrooms for which they were preparing students.  The staff size and real-world pressures didn’t exist on most college campuses.  Without these tools at their disposal, most schools turned toward home video cameras and laboratory newscasts to train their students.  That left a gap between what students knew and were prepared to do and what their first employers expected of them.  That gap was often closed quickly through the necessity of swimming rather than sinking once thrown into the new job.  Those of you reading this article survived.  But some did not.  And they may have been worth saving.

Today, broadcast journalism education has flipped from what it was when many of us first learned this craft.  The democratization of broadcasting equipment has answered the “how do we teach?” question.  That same $50,000 used to buy my TK-76 back in Orlando could now literally buy 500 small, handheld HD cameras like the Kodak ZxD.  Multiple edit decks costing thousands themselves can now be replaced with a $1000 laptop and software.  Schools can equip their teaching newsrooms to the hilt—or even require students to buy their own camera and editing gear just as they would textbooks.

But the “what do we teach?” question, the one that was so easy to answer before, has become impossible to answer correctly.  Sure, the 5 W’s are still worth teaching.  But what about the value of social media posting, crowd sourcing, audience comments, and more?  The news cycle in the newsroom is no longer built for the evening newscast.  Morning casts mean just as much, if not more, than their evening counterparts.  And the web has made us all continuous publishers anyway.  Even the need to learn certain technical skills has been blurred by the need for everyone to be a reporter/photographer/editor/poster.  Journalists find it hard to specialize in what they love most and stick to it.

Journalism professional and journalism professors face a perilous time now where they may not be able to match the other’s needs enough to meet in the middle.  Newsroom managers need to figure out the new news cycle of their newsrooms and the roles each member will play in them.  I’m not saying it should be set in stone—I’m not sure anything in our industry will ever be permanent again.  I’m talking about a somewhat definable expectation of what role each journalist has in the newsroom.  I took a stab at that a few months ago by suggesting a series of tiers through which journalists could work in the newsroom (http://www.rtdna.org/pages/posts/chairmans-blog-tiers-for-fears890.php).  Under the system I laid out, schools could prepare students to enter that first tier and they’d be ready—for any market in the country to matter how large or small.  That’s not the only system that would work, but it does give schools a fighting change to prepare people for work.  The biggest question in that are remains whether to prepare people to be Jacks and Jills of all trades and do a little bit of everything in the newsroom, or whether newsrooms will keep specialists in certain areas and hire the best-trained college graduates for those specialties.  Until that question is resolved and as long as stations do it both ways, many good people leave college with too little—or too much—training to match with the jobs out there.  And that’s a waste.

For their part, academics need to be sure they’re connecting with the industry and teaching what the professionals say they need.  It’s very tempting these days to take your students and experiment with the latest in social media, alternative delivery, and more.  In fact, colleges should be experimenting and even inventing the future.  But that can’t take place in exchange for all connections to the real world.  Individual educators enamored of the bright lights and unlimited promise of the changing media world need to keep one hand firmly on the reality rail.  Academic experimentation can’t entirely replace practical journalism education.

The old ways were comfortable and, I would argue, actually hold the key to figure out where we are headed now.  Keep in mind that old focus on the rhythm and routine of the news day.  Things are not as static as they once were, but the old focus on regular and reliable delivery is still as sharp now as it was then.  Educators should build this sense of reliability into their students.  And professionals need to communicate with educators just what students will be doing so that they can push them in the right direction.

“What do we teach” and “How do we teach” should now be joined with a third question of “Why do we teach” to fill out the equation.  That missing element of why we train students to do what they do—for what purpose will they work—is key to schools remaining relevant and professionals finding who they need.  Those three questions will carry us through a lot of change ahead.

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