How to build a better J-school

In DEI Resources On
- Updated

By Barbara Allen
Poynter Journalism Institute

What would you do if you were in charge of a new journalism school?

Emphasize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging

Letrell Crittenden, director of inclusion and audience growth, American Press Institute

In 2005, as a final project for a college class, I looked at all the syllabi of required courses within a well-known university’s journalism curriculum. I specifically wanted to know how many planned lessons specifically focused on issues of race or diversity. What I found was disturbing, but hardly shocking. A student could go through the entire curriculum and have as few as three total class sessions — not courses — dedicated to the topic.

Now it’s 2022. A great deal has changed as it pertains to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging and journalism, but not with how J-schools approach such issues. The big change is that we look at “diversity” issues in a much more complex way, one that factors a multitude of issues both inside and outside of the newsroom. Better engagement of communities of color has been an issue for a very long time in our country and the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 laid out many of the reasons.

If we are to truly transform how newsrooms serve communities of color, these same conversations must also take place in college classrooms across the nation. We must centralize issues related to DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging), community engagement and trust-building within the core classes of all programs. We must build in courses focused on source auditing, content auditing and being accountable to the community for failures. We must also find ways to get students interacting with populations outside of campus and learning how to become more culturally competent in their interactions with both sources and co-workers.

This is the journalism that is needed in 2022. My fear is, outside of a few programs, most J-schools approach DEIB work no differently than they did in 2005, or even 1968.

Provide an excellent liberal arts education

Dan Gillmor, co-founder, ASU News Co/Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

I thought about this a long time ago and what I said still basically stands, though I’d certainly modify it if I were doing it now.

The main change I’d make to this is to insist that journalism education not train people to do business as usual when it comes to a few key issues — in particular, that we should train students that activism, not neutrality, is appropriate for journalists when it comes to protecting democracy, freedom of expression and the planet.

Investigate and make a difference

Karl Idsvoog, associate professor, Kent State University 

From the beginning, every class needs to drive home the point that journalism requires verification. What’s the evidence?  What’s the source? If it’s a survey, what’s the methodology and who paid for it? Students should be encouraged to do stories that make a difference. Students should certainly be encouraged to investigate problems at the university and hold university officials accountable, not just take a statement from the spokesperson.

For any of that to happen, you have to have a university that wants an actual journalism program. Most do not.

The direction comes from the top.

Treat journalism education like a working newsroom

Gordon Cameron, group managing editor of Hamilton Community News, Glanbrook Gazette and The Sachem, Torstar Corporation Community Brands

If I was able to design a J-school from the ground up, I’d give all students one term of fundamentals and run the rest of the program as if it were a working newsroom.

Students would be graded based on expectations of their year and experience with a topic/team.

Professors/instructors would act as senior editors mentoring and correcting student work, both on an individual and a group basis. There would also be seminars on ethics and legal topics, along with talks by professionals who can both answer specific questions and tell war stories (you can learn a lot by listening to journalism war stories).

From an industry perspective, one of the biggest issues I have with new grads is that they’re not used to the pace of the newsroom. They may be used to having a full week to write a single story, but the reality is that I need at least a story a day. I’ve had many new grads and academic placement interns tell me that they learned more about the craft of journalism by working with me for six weeks than they did in their entire program. I don’t think it’s that I’m an amazing teacher, but rather that I treat them like a reporter and expect them to act like a reporter.

At the end of the day, journalism itself is a trade, and like any trade, you learn it best by doing it. Yes, it’s helped a great deal by a broad base of general knowledge and innate curiosity, but if you can’t write a serviceable lead, organize your information into a coherent narrative and have it in when your editor needs it, all the knowledge and curiosity in the world won’t make you a successful journalist.

Blow up the faculty model

Maryn McKenna, senior writer at WIRED and part-time faculty at Emory University

Speaking as a several-time adjunct, now part-time faculty: I would blow up the faculty model for most instruction that takes place in journalism schools. To be tenured for life is fantastic for a professor; to be taught by someone who was last in a newsroom 30 years ago is absurd to ask students to accept. I would replace tenured faculty in any craft-focused class (writing, interviewing, visual, socials, business practices, data analysis, etc.) with rotating casts of working journalists recruited for terms of no more than two years. Students deserve to learn from people who have recent experience in the markets the students are about to enter.

Make it cool to shop local

Patrick McGrail, professor, communication and broadcasting, Jacksonville State University

Local papers aren’t coming back, at least in their current form, any time soon. People must have some method by which they can hold a check on their local leaders and learn objectively about local events in their various neighborhoods.

We need a way to make it “cool” again for our students to get a job at a local television station, and — where they still exist – at a local newspaper. I hope therefore that we can, through specific courses directed at such a result, emphasize the importance of local reporting, of becoming part of a local community and working on that community’s behalf to objectively and fairly report the news in our nation’s smaller population centers, and striving to reach out even to those who live, as many in the rural South and Upper Midwest do, far afield from cities and towns.

Local news matters, and it especially matters to local folks who elect their public servants and seek information about the appointed law enforcement, fire and health officials in their area in an objective and fair way. I hope that as journalism professionals and educators we can come together to help solve this pressing problem by addressing it in our places of journalism education.

Add new courses on race, gender, trauma and entrepreneurship

Dorothy Bland, professor, University of North Texas

A few suggestions for journalism curriculum:

  1. Make a race, gender and media class part of the core for not just journalism students, but all students, with inclusion of media literacy concepts. Also, offer a global journalism or international communication class.
  2. Make digital communication analytics and metrics part of the journalism core.
  3. Make entrepreneurship and branding 101 part of the journalism core.
  4. Make covering crisis, trauma and recovery courses part of the core. Everyone will face these issues at some point in their lives. What’s important is that students build resiliency.
  5. Redesign classrooms so that they’re more interactive and students spend more time in service learning/applied learning environments.
  6. Offer more short courses, flexibility and certificates for integration with other subjects (e.g., computer science, environment, health, business).
  7. Encourage more rotating externships in industry and develop more research partnerships with industry.

Use the teaching hospital model

Mark Plenke, retired, former news professional in residence and student newspaper adviser at Chico (California) State University 

My ideal journalism curriculum would incorporate what’s been called the teaching hospital model, in which students work with professional faculty to produce news for a community. Experiential learning is already an emphasis of some of the best journalism schools in the country.

My ideal curriculum would (be) a semester-long, 15-credit capstone experience in a digital newsroom where students would produce text, video, audio, photographic and social media news content for a nearby community under the supervision of several faculty with professional news experience. Students would rotate roles throughout the semester to acquire experience as reporters while learning a variety of digital tools. This experiential learning capstone would combine the journalism skills classes normally taught as separate three-credit courses. Students would be graded on a portfolio of their work during the semester. The faculty would serve as editors, instructors and champions of innovation. More theory-based courses, including mass media law, would be taught in the traditional way in traditional classrooms.

Better preparation in language and visuals

Michael A. Longinow, chair, department of digital journalism and media, Biola University

My sense is that 21st-century journalism education at the college level needs to get students ready for conversations: big ones, little ones, impromptu ones and those they need time (maybe months or years) to prepare for. The generation coming into our classrooms and labs isn’t being prepared to talk (or listen) to people around them, particularly those whose skin color, language, or nation of origin are different from theirs.

Visual language is also essential in this era. Our students need to really get how to explain a moment, a trend, an encounter, a personality — complex things — in a frame, maybe a series of them. Video skills are crucial too, and not just the kind done with a phone. Meaningful video — carefully edited, with depth and context and crisp audio — this is what our best students must know how to put out there.

Then there’s writing. Clarity, elegance, well-chosen words, concrete description based on careful, persistent observation — this will continue to be what thinking readers want. And we want readers to think, to imagine, to understand our complex and confusing media-driven age.

Writing, it must be noted, is also what we put into our ears. Podcasts are exploding in popularity because we as a society never got over the collective gasp that radio gave our forebears in the 1920s. Words well-crafted and paced with a trained voice allow us to go to worlds we’ve never seen; words like that help us grasp things we miss when we’re distracted by our eyes.

Can one curriculum do all this? Maybe. It has to be a team effort. And we’re all in the line-up.

Focus on freelance and embrace young audience trends

Gary Moskowitz, adjunct journalism instructor at San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley, and UCLA

Freelancing needs to be woven into journalism education in very concrete, dedicated ways, not just one-off conversations. Our journalism students at San Francisco State University keep asking for it and we’ve begun thinking about curriculum, and I’ve hosted a lunchtime Zoom session to answer student questions about freelancing. It was clear at that session that many students have very little understanding of how freelancing works creatively and from a financial/business perspective, and how nuanced and fickle and unpredictable it is. Freelancing should be part of core major coursework but also needs to constantly adapt and change with the industry.

I think journalism education also needs to actively adapt and adjust and react to contemporary shifts in thinking among young people, in terms of media consumption and media production. So many of my students are passionate about things like solutions journalism or various multimedia tools and various social media platforms but they often seem disappointed or bored by “classic” journalism methods. Don’t get me wrong, our classes still need rigorous reporting and fact-finding, interviewing and critical thinking, and it can come off as silly or disingenuous when J-schools jump too quickly onto platforms like TikTok without really thinking it through, but journalism education should always remain contemporary and modern in genuine, smart, authentic ways, and avoid coming across as late to the game.

Change textbook language and thinking

Denise Bates, communications instructor, Alvin (Texas) Community College

Journalism schools do need an overhaul. The legacy media that we so heralded in the 20th century is not the media of choice for this next generation of the 21st century, and we must accept that. Sure, you still need to know how to write, how to report, produce, edit and shoot, but not just for broadcast and print. The craft is still essential, but the language is wrong. Books and courses with radio and broadcast in the title just turn some of these students away from an industry that (while it got turned on its head) is exploding online.

Help me be an engagement reporter

Hannah Ihekoronye, aspiring engagement reporter, @hi_ihekoronye

As a recent college graduate, I think about this all the time. First off, journalism schools need to teach the basics of reporting beyond the inverted pyramid. I believe students need to learn skills in reporting, audience engagement, community engagement, multimedia storytelling, and career planning (freelancing, budgeting, mental health tips, and work-life balance).

I aspire to be an engagement reporter; however, I never learned about engagement reporting in school. I believe it’s essential for students to learn about both audience engagement (SEO and data analytics) and community engagement (callouts, tip lines, social media engagement, AMAs). For students like me, it’s difficult to get roles in anything beyond social media management because we don’t have the necessary experience in these emerging areas.

Lastly, I think every upper-level journalism course should have an internship component. Students need to gain hands-on experience working in a news or communication organization while in school. Furthermore, students need mentors in the field and opportunities to develop professionally in school and post-graduation. Building out mentorship programs could help, especially for students of color like myself.

This story was originally published online at

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