How do you teach student journalists to be tough?

Some years ago, a city employee threatened one of our reporters when he was asking questions. I don’t know how serious the intention of making good on the threat was, but the reporter took it seriously. I set up a meeting with the city manager said this behavior by a public employee was unacceptable. The city manager agreed.

Then came President Trump, who calls journalists “the enemy of the people.” Naturally, the Trump cult has taken this to heart and scream at journalists doing their jobs. And now Sen. McSally and Secretary Pompeo — again people who are paid by the American taxpayer — have joined in the boorish behavior.

OK, I get it. They don’t like questions that question their dubious, conflicting narrative of events. They play to that base of Republicans who think reporters are biased. They forget the lessons of their mamas and the Bible and lash out. And then they double-down on it.

It takes guts for journalists to stand up to power and do their jobs, particularly when people are screaming at them and calling them names. (To say nothing of the President of the United States praising the guy who berated the reporter and then lied about it. Good for NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly for not backing down.)

Now, imagine being a 21-year-old journalism student getting ready to venture into this world. Many of them don’t quite grasp that they are adults and they belong in the same conversation with a city manager or a U.S. senator or, for that matter, the president. They’ve been taught their entire lives to respect authority figures — teachers and bosses — and now they’re expected to push back, to ask the harder question, to stand while they’re being browbeaten?

Yes.

“There is a power dynamic that exists in any interview, and you have to figure out who holds the power,” Jacqui Banaszynski told Butch Ward of Poynter, “and with official interviews, I think it’s absolutely important not to cede the power and the purpose and the importance of the journalism, so you stand up as an equal.” (Bold is mine.)

I used Jacqui’s quote in a class yesterday, but honestly, I haven’t figured out how to prepare students to face the browbeaters, intimidators and liars they will face in their future jobs. Encouraging them to stand strong — that bullies must be challenged — is easy to talk about in a classroom, harder to do in practice. Telling them to remember that they represent the public and that their job is to ferret the truth beyond the pat answers and bullshit only gets me so far.

Learning toughness will come with experience, but it can start in the classroom. I’m still searching for a good way to teach it.

One thought on “How do you teach student journalists to be tough?

  1. Hi John:

    In response to teaching toughness, you might consider inviting Nick Ochsner from WBTV to visit with your students. He brings the cache of a Gold Star Child and son of a Special Forces soldier to the mix.

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