August 17, 2020

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Did you know that Alan Alda established a university center to help scientists explain their work to average people? It’s true — the “M*A*S*H” and “West Wing” star founded The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. The center “empowers scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways; leading to improved understanding by the public, media, patients, elected officials, and others outside of their own discipline.”

According to the center, Alda spent 11 years hosting PBS’ “Scientific American Frontiers,” where he began to see how personal interviews helped scientists break down language barriers and make their discoveries relevant and relatable. There’s even some improv workshopping involved in the center’s discipline. (You can take the actor out of L.A. … )

Alda once explained to The Atlantic, “Scientists need to be good communicators in order to talk effectively to journalists, grant directors or Congress.” Well, sure! Understanding science can critically impact peoples’ understanding of the world and impact the way they live, work, play — and vote.

Journalists would be smart to consider Alda’s message. As journalism educators head back into class this fall — whatever that looks like — we can embrace the opportunity to underline for students how important it is that citizens understand the journalistic process. From low-level interactions, like explaining what a reporter does and what consenting to an interview means, to boldly displaying your ethics code online and having contact information easily accessible, news media organizations should do their part to educate the public about our profession.

Consider class discussions around the obligations journalists have to inform the public not just about news, but their operations.

Here’s an example I got from a marketing email from the Hechinger Report’s editor-in-chief Liz Willen. In it, she outlines the organization’s values (edited for length):

“We seek to:

  • Report the facts.
  • Delve into the details.
  • Protect children.
  • Tell education stories from the classrooms and campuses where they’re unfolding.
  • Hold educational institutions and government agencies accountable.
  • Look for solutions to the lack of equitable educational opportunities for black, brown and poor children.”

The transparency and clarity around this message inspired me to push journalism educators and newsroom advisers to have conversations with students about their own policies and standards for public interactions and community understanding.

There are rules in our profession that we take for granted.

  • A journalist can publish your words or air that video of you talking once you agree to speak with us.
  • We have a right to film or photograph you if you’re in public.
  • We don’t take down stories once they are published.
  • I can use a picture of Alan Alda from the Associated Press to accompany this newsletter because I reference him and he’s a public figure — and I don’t have to ask his permission.

Those are hard-and-fast rules that were taught to us, that we continue to teach … but do we consider enough that someone who hasn’t had a journalism education would know them?

Ask your students for other journalism rights and practices that we know well, but that the public might not. How might your students go about educating the public, one source and story at a time? Ask them if they think that should be part of their obligation, and I suspect some delightful discussions might emerge.

(I am looking forward to hate mail telling me that journalists shouldn’t be responsible for explaining themselves, and that if people really can’t understand something as simple as press freedoms, then they aren’t worth our time or energy. Save yourself the keystrokes because I can just reply to that here: No. 1, please stop judging people so harshly for not understanding the civics concepts that we’ve relied upon our public education system to deliver, and No. 2, Yeah, clearly doing what we’ve been doing to explain ourselves is working great. Don’t change a thing.)

The Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research — outlined in 2018 just how out of step journalists are with the way the public perceives them. Americans generally do not understand the goal, ethics and practices that are second nature to us.

On a deeper level, making a list of values, agreeing upon them and publicizing them would be a great exercise for your classrooms and student media organizations. Some starter questions: Who do we serve? Who are our obligations to them? How do we tell our story, and how do people want to interact with us (not, what’s a convenient way for us to interact with them)?

This fall, consider lectures and activities that will encourage students to consider the valuable role they can play in expanding the public understanding of our noble profession.

Why semantics matter

The University of North Carolina Daily Tar Heel will no longer use the term “student athlete.” From a staff editorial: “The NCAA used the phrase ‘student athlete’ and the reasoning behind it to avoid paying athletes, to control their name, image and likeness rights and to deny them the ability to unionize.”

Read the editorial here, and plan a class discussion around the issue. Do you have any students on athletic scholarships in class who have an opinion on this issue? What about student reporters who cover school teams for class or student media — what would they call these students as an alternative?

Speaking of sports

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, emailed this week to share that his students have been working on something journalism educators and students might enjoy. “Why We Don’t Know” is an investigative podcast hosted by Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Ganim (for the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal), now a Hearst Journalism Fellow at the center. LoMonte wrote that the podcast looks at frustrating issues of government secrecy. “Season 1 is all about public education and especially higher education, and also no surprise, the first two episodes are all about secrecy in college sports. Episode 1 looks at higher ed’s systematic failure to track and count concussions in sports, and Episode 2 examines the pervasive — but illegal — practice of gagging athletes from speaking to the media.”

I told you it was a tough market

Next time one of your students is down about getting rejected for an internship, share this with them: Current, a publication for public media professionals, reported recently that “NPR received a whopping 20,520 applications for 27 internship positions this fall, compared to 2,597 applications for 55 slots last year.” Author Julie Drizin said in the article that an NPR spokesperson attributed the surge to the potential ease of remote work. Still, I’d file this under “Show Them How Competitive the Market Is.”

Check the numbers

This is interesting and tragic — there’s been a surge in homicides in big cities since the lockdown. From The New York Times’ article: “Across 20 major cities, the murder rate at the end of June was on average 37% higher than it was at the end of May … The increase over the same period a year ago was just 6%.” Students in college towns big and small should be checking to see with local officials if there’s a similar rise.

Help for student media

This week, Hadar Harris, executive director, Student Press Law Center, emailed Poynter and the College Media Association’s listserv about a new report designed to reflect on problems within student media business operations and offer solutions to those problems. “Nothing is going back to the way it was:” Creating Economic Sustainability for College News Organizations in 2020 and Beyond says it “distills expert advice from a variety of sources working in local media, college journalism, philanthropy and business, to provide clear ideas and guidance about how to make your news organization indispensable, pandemic-proof and recession-proof. Most importantly, it outlines a variety of strategies to keep your news outlet financially viable.”

The SPLC also launched the Student Media Budget Cut Tracker, which aims to keep track of the many ways in which student media funding is being constrained at high schools and colleges.

I’ll be eager to see the results of that tracking, as many of you have expressed grave concerns about the future of your college media business models, which were already struggling before the pandemic.

Action around diversity

The Glen M. Broom Center for Professional Development in Public Relations at San Diego State University has a couple of valuable resources for adding diversity to your mass communications classrooms. First, there’s a database of Black mass comm scholars: “We’re calling on professors to scrub their syllabus and swap out old readings to replace them with work by Black mass comm scholars.”

The page also offers a speakers bureau in cooperation with Temple University. It says, “Research suggests that one of the first steps in creating a diverse workforce is having communities of color represented. If students can’t see something that looks like them, then they might think there is not a place for them in the mass communication industry. We want our students from communities of color to not only know that there is a place for them, but that we need them. Break that cycle White only representation by bringing in diverse guest speakers.”

Barbara Allen is the director of college programming. She can be reached at or on Twitter, @barbara_allen_

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of She spent two decades in…
Barbara Allen

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