I was this close to attending the University of Missouri at Columbia for an undergrad degree in journalism. Instead, I went to Shimer College, intrigued by the Socratic seminar-style classes and original source readings and hoping to feed my obsession with classic lit and philosophy. Through various twists of fate, I wound up as an independent journalist anyway. I’ve strung together my journalism education through professional groups, online courses, various forums, conferences, coaching, and trial by fire. I’ve been looking at grad programs recently to see what a more formal approach would look like.
Although each of the many programs I looked at teach the basics of writing, editing, and reporting, and cover media ethics and media law, I’ve noticed a lot of missing pieces. Many programs have worked to keep up with the times by adding in courses on computer-assisted reporting, and entrepreneurial journalism electives are also on the rise. Despite these additions, there are many missing pieces. Here are seven courses or electives I would somehow add to the excellent programs already out there–areas I think are painfully missing–based on my five years of freelancing experience.
1. Hostile Environment Training
Even journalists who hadn’t originally planned to put themselves in harm’s way for an assignment may find themselves in a high risk environment, whether they’re deliberately choosing to cover hostile regions or just hopping on a plane to a remote location for a travel story when a hot opportunity strikes. Freelance journalists are often the most vulnerable, both because we’re often still trying to make a name for ourselves and taking unnecessary risks, and because the outlets we write for don’t invest in us the way they would a full-time reporter. Learning cultural awareness, threat identification, personal security, navigation, first aid, and even surviving captivity is frankly necessary in many regions of the world, and would-be journalists absolutely should receive this life-saving information in school. Many of these are five or six-day intensives taught to small groups, which could somehow be staggered throughout a semester.
2. Information Security
I’m not exaggerating by saying that even leaking metadata can get your sources imprisoned or killed and unfortunately, the actual mindset and practices that can increase your odds of keeping information (and people) safe isn’t something you can learn by reading a few articles, going to some conferences, or using some new apps or tools. This isn’t just for national security reporters or political journalists, either–at some point in time, most reporters will come across information they’d like to keep safe from an unwanted person or group’s prying eyes. Because it’s hard to predict scenarios in advance, this would be best as a hands-on course followed by a case-study heavy practicum, with scenarios based on real-world situations–sort of like Decisions on a Deadline, but with much higher stakes.
3. FOIA for Fun and Profit
I see all these people get great information from Freedom of Information requests, but usually I just get stonewalled. Reminding the agencies I’m querying that what they’re doing is illegal has been about as effective for me as trying to get organizations to enforce their sexual harassment policies–which is to say that it hasn’t been effective at all. Having experts available to give hands-on feedback on how to deal with various evasion strategies would be extremely helpful. I wouldn’t want to pass this course until I actually got documents–because that’s kind of how it works in the real world when you don’t have the data you need to report on a story.
4. Analyzing Large Data Sets
So your FOIA requests aren’t working, your sources aren’t talking, and you really don’t want to rehash someone else’s crappy blog post and don’t really trust their numbers anyway. This course would include hands-on projects where you actually have to scrape, clean, and analyze large data sets–real data, not a set someone created for the purpose of the course. It would then be analyzed with a fine-toothed comb by someone who’s really, really good. If your data is wrong or you can’t get any data, you fail the course. Again, that’s what happens in the “real” world of journalism. No data, no story. Bad data, you never write for the site again.
5. Dealing with Crazy
No matter how diligent of a reporter you are, there’ll always be some editor who will rewrite your post for link bait, ruin your relationship with your sources, and put you in this awkward no-win situation where you get to choose between throwing them under the bus (which looks unprofessional, ruins your relationship with your editor, and sometimes makes it look like you’re just making excuses for shoddy reporting), or taking credit for the editor’s error (which also looks unprofessional and can ruin your reputation and your relationship with your sources).
Up until his tragic death last fall, my friend Sam was the best sounding board I’ve ever had. One of the nicest things he did for me was help me transform profanity-laden epithets to problem clients or editors into respectful and sometimes even diplomatic prose in order to get the best possible outcome–even if I’d already decided to drop the client. Sam understood the need to intensely and determinedly focused on maintaining the integrity of one’s work and one’s professional relationships, even when you’re willing to burn the bridge for integrity’s sake. He would help me figure out what to say in order to at least try to do this in a way that showed respect the people around me, even when they didn’t give that back to me.
This is an ongoing skill that needs to be learned… and it’s not always about bad editors and link bait. It can be navigating tricky social or sexual politics at work, dealing with legitimately crazy sources, online PR crises, online harassment, or any number of tricky situations. It’s that press secretary who’s losing her shit because you didn’t know you were supposed to submit questions in advance, or that person or mob who keeps calling your editor to try to get you fired. Case studies and role playing and practice. Do it in school and you can fail in front of your friends and colleagues, instead of in front of the entire world.
6. Doing the Impossible
Whether you’re freelancing or working on staff somewhere, journalism is full of impossible tasks.
The worst is when you quickly have to get up-to-speed in something fairly technical with very little time, despite your pleas to your editor that you’re unqualified. It helps to have a lot of rock star friends who will answer really dumb questions in exchange for a beer or some cupcakes. But there’s really no way to predict the impossible objective thrust upon you.
Once I had to ghostwrite health posts for the front page of a major health site. This entailed compiling seven to 10 myths in about 90 minutes–meaning I was researching about 15 myths–and quickly read various med journal studies, attempt to fact-check, and writing them up so they’d be “surprising” but not misleading. (Somehow I only had a very minor error for one post and none–that I know of–for the rest. Eventually I hired a part-time fact-checker to help me with this. .)
One time I was sick as a dog and had to get up at 5AM anyway because that 7:00AM interview was not one I could miss. I’m surprised I even managed to drive to my destination without getting in an accident because I really was that cloudy. I am sure I looked like hell but luckily that doesn’t come across in print.
Then there’s the times when you have to build rapport with someone in 30 seconds or less before you ask them that question they may hang up on you for. Or trying to find an expert in international law with a four-hour deadline when three people no-show. Or having to stay up until 5 AM to finish a rewrite so the post can go live right when the embargo is lifted. Or trying to get a Google spokesperson to give you information you can actually use.
Some aspects of journalism are particularly challenging for introverts, but can confuse even the most outgoing extrovert as well. More and more of my clients these days have some sort of collaborative environment going, whether it’s shared visibility in the copyediting process, shared wikis, or even big gigantic interactive cc: all pitch sessions, where three editors will tell you three different things. Learning how to navigate these systems can be confusing, so throwing all these challenges into one big messy interactive class project or series of projects with different “roles” can help people learn to operate in the typical “impossible” environment that journalists have become accustomed to–just throw in a really crappy CMS or two, a few technically incompetent people and an overworked tech whiz trying to meet an impossible deadline of her own, and all sorts of budget cuts, and you’ll be set.
Whatever the impossible task, again, failing among friends and classmates can help inoculate you towards the stressors of everyday reporting. Plus, I think a course comprised of assigning impossible tasks to students would be a really fun one to teach.
7. Debt Collection
I’ve heard through the grapevine that most media law courses don’t teach you what you really need to learn how to do as a freelancer–find a way to pay people who try to screw you over. You really need to learn how to follow up on invoices, and understand the process of going to small claims court, turning a debt over to collections, etc.–even if you decide not to go through those steps. It just saves a lot of time and aggravation down the road…and maybe it’ll even help you circumvent some of the common rookie mistakes I’ve made, like signing terrible contracts or working with verbal agreements. Editors sometimes really pick their targets, and sometimes the same editor or client can treat two freelancers differently–so making sure you have a good contract is crucial.
There you have it–the seven courses I’d want in a dream J-school curriculum. Feel free to let me know what I’m missing.