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The Seven Laws of Journalism – This Semester

August 3, 2009

As we enter the home stretch of summer my thoughts are turning to the fall semester and how I will teach 20 first-year college students how to write like journalists. Many of them will be in “communication” and won’t necessarily want to become journalists. This task of educating can be daunting but for reasons you might not have considered.

I get the impression that some in the academy as well as in the profession think that students don’t know what journalism is because young people can’t differentiate between newspapers and blogs, the Evening News and the Colbert Report, or and The O’Reilly Factor. That’s true to a degree. They do tend to lump all the genres together into “news media,” which they often deride as a personality-driven cesspool of bias (much like their parents, I presume). But, at the same time, they actually tend to define journalism too narrowly.

Most of us old-school folks have stopped thinking of news in silos — print, broadcast, online; cable, network, public, corporate — and have become comfortable seeing journalism as an entity that crosses platforms and business models. We see that it can occur in big city newsrooms, on neighborhood micro sites, or at the hands of a foreign dissident with an instantly transmitted cell phone video. We’ve grown with the new technology, so even if we were resistant at first, we can spot real news among the digital information din. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and obscenity, we know it when we see it.

Students, on the other hand and perhaps counter-intuitively, think of journalism in old-school ways. “News,” as they define it, is dry and objective — and generally to be avoided unless you’re a hard-core politics junkie. It belongs in the domain of newspapers, local television news, and hourly newscasts. No way do they believe that blogs or social networking sites like Facebook — or even features on Slate or in Vanity Fair — can be part of news. Oh yeah, and they don’t even use the newest darling of online media –Twitter — unless their journalism teachers have forced them to.

So, you can see that the job of a journalism teacher encompasses much more than showing a class a newspaper and saying “here’s what news is. Let’s learn to write like this.” News isn’t so neatly compartmentalized. Students have to be able to find it in the morass of what masquerades as news. But they also have to expand their idea of what constitutes this particular information product because access to news delivery is so much more porous, and gatekeeping so much less rigid.

What has tended to happen in journalism schools, from what I can gather, is that teachers teach students about what it was like in the past when newspapers defined news, instruct students on how to write like it was back then, and then try to bring students up to speed on the complexities of the current situation. There’s a lot of talk about objectivity, opinion vs. news, the principles of journalism, and the role of journalism as a major purveyor of democracy and justice for the little guy.

In my experience, this approach seems to create confusion, problems of credibility, and a bit of eye rolling. And, it’s getting harder to sustain this linear outlook as the old news world grows ever dimmer in memory. Eighteen-year-olds aren’t really interested in revisiting The Front Page or even All The President’s Men. They care about making a living wage and having a life — and they don’t necessarily see journalists as heroes.

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40 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2009 2:48 pm

    Speaking as a 30-year newspaperman (30 years of reporting, not 30 years old) this seems a very interesting approach. It sure beats the heck out of a month practicing pyramid-style ledes.

    The only addition I can think of is: Learn by doing – which is a heck of a lot easier now thanks to the technology that is destroying our business model. Find a topic (outside of the university, hopefully) and make it your beat for the academic year; create a blog about it at the very least, and cover it as if you were being paid to. If nothing else, you may find you actually don’t like to do journalism.

    (On a side note, it will be interesting to see how “Life is hard” and “Grow a pair” affect your notices on RateMyProfessors)

  2. August 4, 2009 3:12 pm


  3. lenol66 permalink
    August 4, 2009 3:46 pm

    Thank you for this commentary. After 20 years in the business, it’s time for a new perspective of 21st century journalism. A devout print journalist, I have moved more into blogging, which is so much fun! I am taking the principles of my Indiana University journalism training and sweat equity and transferring it to a new format with success. Law #6 is now being followed!

    Look forward to following you.


  4. Jon Greer permalink
    August 4, 2009 4:28 pm

    Awesome job. Thanks for putting it into words.

  5. August 4, 2009 4:36 pm

    You say money counts, and I couldn’t agree more. As a college graduate attempting to find an entry level job in publishing, I have been to informational meetings at major companies, exploited connections and connections of connections (good ones too), applied to countless jobs, done light freelancing, taken classes and even worked for free as an intern, but I have not found permanent employment.

    I am applying to a graduate school, looking for work and keeping my fingers crossed. Without work, there is no money.

    I have paid to learn. I have been paid to work in this field, albeit poorly. I enjoy talking to strangers and digging into their words. I write every day and have a “Practice” folder overflowing with files. I produce websites. I have used social media as grass roots publicity. I copy edit.

    I am still unemployed. What do you do when the laws aren’t enough?

  6. August 4, 2009 5:03 pm

    This is timely, to say the least. A long time radio journalist’s son is going to j-school this fall. Father says to son: “You’ll have to study hard.” Son: “Gulp.” It shows that the father comes from another era. At j-school, students have to work hard. But there is no “studying” as we once experienced it (yes, I am old school). But j-schools can teach people about good instincts, curiosity and as you say, growing a couple. Terrific post. Thanks.

  7. August 4, 2009 5:10 pm

    If we’d been teaching and coaching these seven points over the past 40 years, we might not be in today’s pickle. Well done.

  8. August 4, 2009 5:23 pm

    well said!

  9. Elaine Povich permalink
    August 4, 2009 5:27 pm

    Very nicely done, Danna! A lot of practicing journalists (not just students) could learn from it. Cheers, Elaine P

  10. August 4, 2009 5:31 pm

    If any journalism student of mine rolls her eyes when I talk about objectivity, she has to do twenty laps around the parade ground with full pack and rifle.

    Am I out of touch? Maybe.

    Is democracy obsolete? We’ll see.

  11. August 4, 2009 5:36 pm

    Very interesting!

  12. August 4, 2009 5:51 pm

    Your analysis is spot-on, and you’re delivery rocks.

    I try to do much the same in a less-organized fashion in my Freshman Experience and Mass Comm and Society class.
    Another addendum: It’s a business. Get used to it.
    The don’t know whether the MEDIA, that big, liberal lefty-social-agenda monster is a business, a public service, a branch of governement or a plot hatched by the Rosicrucians and the. U.N.
    Nobody teaches civics any more, so students come to us clueless about free speech and the role of the press.
    So give em civics in an engaging fashion, and let the whole journalism thing sorta creep up on them.
    Glad to see I am not alone out there.
    jack zibluk
    arkansas state

  13. Kat Snow permalink
    August 4, 2009 6:35 pm

    Great job Danna. On the objectivity front, I’ve been working this week on creating an assignment to get students to recognize how their experiences tilt their own thinking one way or another, so that they may not even think of a question that would be obvious to someone else.

    While I agree with Bill about the parade ground, I personally don’t use the word “objectivity,” because for years it has implied that we can “get rid of” subjectivity. I believe that what we have to do is counteract our own points of view with dedicated, conscious effort. It’s different than being curious — it means admitting in what way we are limited, so we can work to expand those limits. It’s not easy for us journalists, who tend to succeed partly because we have big egos, grandiose ideas of what we can do, and a boundless sense of possibility.

  14. August 4, 2009 6:58 pm

    Love the laws, especially #4 and #5.

    I’ll add one to the list we’re talking about in my classroom these days: Journalism is about knowing which stories call for objectivity–and which don’t–and always practicing transparency.

    Adding your blog to my RSS reader. All the best!

  15. Jan Shaw permalink
    August 4, 2009 8:21 pm

    Add in fact-based truth …


  16. Lauren Heist permalink
    August 4, 2009 8:37 pm

    I love this. Couldn’t be more accurate, and if I ever get hired to teach students (hope I will!) I will use this approach.

  17. paperhearts03 permalink
    August 5, 2009 5:52 am

    That was a pretty interesting post. But, as a 17 year old high school journalist, I can’t agree with what you said about young people not seeing the possibilities for journalism that sites like Twitter or Facebook or WordPress entail. Almost every person I know, budding writer or not, has a profile on one of these social networking type sites, and plenty of them are part of Amnesty International groups or follow the CNN blog. People my age, at least, are very in tune with technology and the role it plays in modern journalism.
    Also, I don’t think that this broadening of what we call “news” allows us to be lax about things like objectivity and journalism ethics. Isn’t that what defines “news” from just social commentary?

  18. August 5, 2009 1:59 pm

    I wish the “grow a pair” method was introduced in our intro class! I find the seven laws extremely intriguing. I was hit hard with reality as an intern at ABC as well as BBC news with every “get out of the business while you still can,” but, still a realist, I held my head high and knew this was business for me. I find it necessary to almost include your take on the future of the business in terms of the blogosphere. Yes, it’s easy to say that we can never live without information but as I learned from your previous class we can not avoid the inevitable which is change. I am a firm believer in embracing the past but also being able to integrate and, like any good journalist, predict my next move for the future. I will take note of these laws for this semester being that I am taking your writing course (should be interesting now!) as a second year broadcast journalism major head high with pair fully grown!

  19. Steve Cooper permalink
    August 5, 2009 2:13 pm

    You write: “actually witness stuff and write about it. In today’s world, this in itself is unique and will set you apart.” Preach it, sister! I know I’m terribly old-fashioned (emphasis on “old”) but before there can be opinion, there have to be some facts.
    Some smart young people will realize that there’s ALWAYS value in actually understanding what is happening before responding to it. Cart before horse, and all that.
    Back in the paleolithic era (the early 1970s), my editor/mentor told me to always get the facts straight and save my opinions for bar-talk after work. What an old fuddy, he was. But a wise old fuddy. He would have added this law to your list:
    “The story is not about you.”

  20. August 5, 2009 2:47 pm

    Great blog! It’s so important people realise news/journalism isn’t _dying_, it’s just undergoing a seismic change – and we all gotta hold on while it gets rough.

    Entrepreneurial skills are needed now more than ever; the only things I would add, is that although technology is a means to an end, this autumn’s new crop of j-students would do well to embrace it. Learn to shoot and cut video even if they’re print; learn how to do audio slideshows and podcasts.

    The journalist of the future won’t make a living being dependent on one medium.

  21. Deborah Woodell permalink
    August 5, 2009 3:28 pm

    Well-said. I teach copy editing and what you wrote applies to editing, as well as writing. Though I know most of my students won’t become copy editors, if they bring this kind of attitude to their work, they will become their copy editors’ best friends.
    Deborah Woodell
    Senior adjunct professor, journalism
    Rowan University
    Glassboro, NJ

  22. August 5, 2009 6:13 pm

    Thank you, Danna! As a (still!) practicing journalist who also teaches at Johns Hopkins, I’m struggling with how to teach journalism in a way that’s relevant to the jobs our students will seek, without discarding 50 years of journalism history. Your list is a provocative starting point. Yes, life is hard, and it won’t be getting any easier in the next 5-10 years for people who choose journalism. But it is all about story, and the joy and satisfaction of a great story well told can make up for a lot of sleepless nights and cruddy paychecks.

  23. Steve Diogo permalink
    August 7, 2009 4:33 pm

    “Money counts” is key. As more and more journalists are tossed from the corporate dole, the ones who stop whining and find success will be those who know how media business works: Branding, audience development, product development, delivering useful information how people want it. The walls separating journalists, marketing, executive and even sales are coming down. This is a good thing. “Grow a pair” applies to grappling with change and uncertainty as much as running toward a burning building.

  24. Nan Connolly permalink
    September 3, 2009 2:17 am

    interesting ideas.
    less interested in references to balls. just…tired of that.
    so “Chris Mathews.” meh.


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