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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, December 26, 2011

Lessons Learned from Teaching Freshmen Journalism

It's the end of term and I've finished teaching two courses for first year students in journalism at the University of Toronto.

This has been a new experience for all of us. The students are just out of high school and eager to get into the journalistic culture. I've never taught freshmen (always referred to as "First Year" in Canada) before. Prior to this, my teaching has been at the graduate level or senior year. I'll admit to a few surprises from these students.

I expected that they would be voracious consumers of news. They aren't.

I assumed they would be cyber-literate. They aren't. They consume only some aspects of new media, but not a lot of it. Astonishingly, they don't read email. Or if they do, they check it infrequently. They do text. A lot. They send SMS, and are addicted to tweets and facebook friends.

I hoped they would show some flair for writing. Here, I was not disappointed. Some of these students are going to be literary stars.

But they remain disconnected from the daily news. I could not figure out why.

On campus, the Toronto Star is distributed daily. Yet, the piles of newspapers outside the food courts remain virtually untouched on a day-to-day basis. When I would urge my students to pick up a copy and look through the paper, they would not.

Nor do they listen or watch mainstream radio and television either on line or over the air.

Even so, they remain convinced that a journalistic life is what they want.

After a number of weeks of trying to figure them out, it hit me: I was perusing the Star, just before going into class. I suddenly saw the newspaper with the eyes of my students: while the Toronto Star is a great, content rich newspaper for people like me, for an 18-year old student, it's chaotic, gray, ugly. In short, it's a mess. Worse, it makes no sense to them.

In class, I asked the students if they knew how to read a newspaper. They were somewhat miffed by this, so I rephrased it: " Do you know HOW to read a newspaper?" They admitted that they did not.

They confessed they had no idea why something was on the front page, why a reporter could be writing an op-ed one day, then back to reporting on another. They did not know why the paper wrote an editorial, or what the differences are between something above the fold and below the fold. One young woman admitted that when she tries to go online to read it, she gets distracted.

"By what?" I asked.

"By Youtube."

I brought a friend to class the following week: Peter McNelly is a long-time journalist (print and broadcast) and a great teacher. I asked him to show the class how a newspaper comes together and why. In two hours, he did it and I saw the light come into my students' eyes.

Thanks Peter.

The following week, we listened and watched how different broadcasters handled the same story out of Cairo. We listened to CBC Radio's World Report of November 16, NPR's Morning Edition for November 16, the CTV National News (from the night before) and CBC TV's "The National," also from November 15th.

The students were very perceptive: they found CBC Radio to be dull and not very informative (I had to agree. It sounded like reporters and host were just mailing it in that morning...). They picked up on NPR's heightened anxiety level around whether the Islamists would take over and what this would mean for Israel. They liked Lisa Laflamme's hosting on CTV. But they really liked CBC TV's "The National." They found it very nuanced and smart. I had to agree. The National that night, was excellent with two solid reports on Egypt.

What this taught me was that journalism instructors need to understand their students better. These students are coming from a different place than I imagined. Probably a lot different from where I and my journalistic cohort came from.

It is pointless to lament the lack of connective tissue between first year students and the media, as I have heard many teachers do. Once these students make it to grad school, it will be different when students and profs are more closely aligned intellectually and share a common journalistic language.

But right now and back at the beginning, we need to help these smart and motivated students find their way. It's awfully easy to crush their hopes and dreams. The assumptions harbored by the professoriat (and by me) about patterns of media consumption need to be re-thought, especially for students just out of high school.


  1. Well said and extremely important lesson for all of us who teach first year j-school students and why they don't "get" us and why we don't always "get" them.

  2. Patience IS a virtue....

  3. A prof who learns from his students. Bravo!

  4. Here's the problem: Too many kids that age know too little about the world. Using a market-based measure of the products that would tell them about the world, we conclude that they are "right" because they have decided not to consume the information. Because they reject the products presented by the marketplace containing the information they need to form a coherent impression of the world, they are "right," and something's "wrong" with the products.'s their lack of curiosity, intellectual laziness, and other shortcomings. All this leads, eventually, to a classroom full of young people who find nothing paradoxical about sitting in a journalism classroom, with no interest in the news. Somehow this is OK, while enrolling in an instrumental music class and refusing to play or practice would get you ejected, or an F.

  5. Thanks for this illuminating and inspiring report. Your students are very lucky to have found themselves in your tenacious hands. Anyone exposed to their future journalistic efforts will owe a lot to you, too. Happy New Year!

  6. Some excellent observations, Mr. Dvorkin. People of all ages consume news differently, not only your students. I have spent some years running media relations and media rooms for public inquiries. While a decade ago, reporters would bring in the physical papers every morning to see how their stories played, more recently they just look on the web, usually on their PDA. I have also taught graduate journalism students and even they, for the most part, ignored the papers that were delivered every day. Curiously, the demand for j-courses persists even though "All the President's Men" isn't seen much these days. A lot of food for thought. thought. -- Peter Rehak

  7. I suppose it shouldn't apply to journalism students, but my memory of university was that it was a place to experience new found freedom and not a place to read about how others were living. My personal fumbling toward adulthood was, in a way which is today embarrassing to admit, the only news I was truly interested in. Ergo, tweets and texts your students are sending constitute what might be called The Digital Newspaper of Me and My Awkward Attempts At Growing Up. Syria and the Euro and Rob Ford's spats with his wife don't fit in that paper because it appears a 19-old's-life is forever hyperlocal and hyper-self-involved.

  8. My credo as a university teacher: never overestimate the students' knowledge. Never underestimate their intelligence.

  9. I think Anonymous on December 26 completely missed the point of this post. The point is, that there's nothing productive about a professor making some sort of moral (or even intellectual) judgement (i.e. "right" and "wrong") about where the students are when they start out in the class, and then throwing your hands up in the air. If you really try to find out their starting point when it comes to consuming and understanding the news, then you CAN actually educate them about what you think they need to know, and do the job you're being paid to do, which is enrich their knowledge. I admit it is surprising that they want to be journalists and yet aren't active news consumers...but one would hope by the end of the course they will become active news consumers!