“Rules are made to be broken, but first you have to know the rules.”
By now you have probably read that J-schools were called on to change the way they teach by the Knight Foundation. In its “Open Letter to American University Presidents” the group calls for a “teaching hospital” style curriculum. (Basically you work alongside professionals to really learn the craft.) When I asked journalists about this, and what they would like to see change, I got a lot of kudos for universities that had producing classes and ran “newsrooms” where students put on the news. Glad to hear you are happy with your educations overall. But, I think this call to action goes beyond that.
So, I threw together some ideas on what journalists really need to know from the get go. Now I’m asking you to add to it. After all, we live it. We know what’s there and what’s missing.
Understanding subjects to handle a beat.
Think back to your first job. Did you know military lingo? Did you understand cop speak so you could decode it for viewers to understand? Could you clearly explain how the election process really works (Heck that’s a valid question on 4th job.)? Let’s be honest, phrases like “firefighters responded to a three alarm fire” happen a lot in news copy because many journalists don’t truly know what it means. So instead of potentially screwing it up, journalists just repeat the information the information they are given by the officials. Reporting classes should decipher systems and lingo so you have a clue what’s going on from the moment you get in the TV news job force. I mean they need to teach the things we tend to cover most: fires, murders, crashes, elections, school millage rates, the GNP (do you at least know what that acronym means?) and unemployment stats. Is your head spinning yet? Then focus on how to break those types of story elements down in layman’s terms. That way viewers know what the heck your point is. It goes back to the simple idea that rules are made to be broken, but first you have to know the rules. Now think about your first economics story (or even your last one because that subject is a real bugger) and the first time you had to take a campaign ad and break down the true and false elements on various issues. It’s hard if you don’t understand the basic principles. It can take several attempts to get it right. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, I took an economics class.” or “I’m a poly sci minor.” Sometimes even that isn’t enough to break it down for TV viewers. A lot of those classes are theory. This is real world application stuff. You need the systems explained clearly, not a discussion on theories. If you understand those systems and the lingo, you can write about it clearly in news stories and school essays. Know the rules, then you can move past them.
This, to me, is one of the biggest problems in newsrooms today. So few people truly “get” how to source build. There are a lot of techniques involved, ethical issues, people and networking skills. We’ve dedicated articles under the cloud tag “source”. But they just scratch the surface. If you really sit and think about it, in the majority of TV newsrooms there are 1 or 2 reporters (besides the investigative team) and an assignment editor that have incredible sources. The rest, well, not so much. Source building does not come as naturally as it may seem, even in the age of social media. That’s why it needs to be taught in college journalism programs.
Social media interaction
When I asked what J-Schools should improve on, a few journalists mentioned social media. What writing style do you use on the social web, “newspaper” or “broadcast”? What is proper etiquette? What potential legal pitfalls could you run into? Heck, many of us “veteran journalists” would go back to school to take these sorts of classes, if we could. Again, we need to know the basic rules, before we can break them and begin to evolve.
The most common suggestion I heard from journalists? Cross training. That even came from some newsies who went to the universities that taught reporting, producing and photojournalism classes. I am going to confess to one of the largest reasons I launched survivetvnewsjobs.com: Too often, journalists are disconnected in newsrooms. The reporter does not get what the producer needs. The producer doesn’t get what the anchor needs. No one seems to understand what the assignment editor needs. And reporters and photojournalists sit in the same news vehicle all day, and often are not recognizing the challenges the other faces. Simply put, few know the rules their teammates live under. There are two whole categories on the website relating to these issues: “Getting along with Peers” and “Smart Alliances.” “Getting along with Peers” is one of the most searched for and read sections. The reason: journalists want to understand why other key players in the newsroom act like they do. That’s crucial because we journalists waste time trying to explain things that we should not have to explain. It can hamper the product each day. It prohibits open discussions in news editorial meetings. Then people get “human” and start demanding “just trust me.” This is not a trust issue. This is a productivity issue. This is the cog in the wheel that prevents us from breaking the rules and evolving. Turning a few newscasts as a producer; turning a few packages one semester as a reporter and shooting a few pieces as a photojournalist does not make you an expert. It simply is not enough to allow you to really understand the daily pressures of these jobs. But it might be enough if you combine doing these things, in a newsroom setting, with talking about real world scenarios with veteran journalists. Let longtime producers explain why they start snapping at reporters three hours before the show. Let them explain why not turning in the tease video earlier than the pkg creates a multilevel nightmare. They can also hash out why missing slot is really bad for the entire newscast. Let veteran reporters explain why holding off on script approval can really screw over a field crew. How about hearing from a well-seasoned pro why sending an anchor to the set 10 minutes before air, with no a-block scripts (because they aren’t written yet!) will potentially wreak havoc for the next two blocks of news, if not the entire newscast. Then let’s discuss the reporter driving the live truck while the photojournalist sits in the back slam editing the pkg desperately trying to make slot, because of equipment failure or bad weather. Real life scenarios do not always play out in these university “newsrooms.” Discussion groups involving veteran journalists, in every newsroom role, can help fill in the gaps.
There are many more issues we could bring up. Please, FB with more of your ideas. If we get enough, we’ll send them and this article to the Knight Foundation. After all, it’s our vocation. We deserve to lay out the rules, so we can help break them and evolve our profession.