What We Learn from Our Students When They Call for Change

The image above with the inscription from Deuteronomy, “Tsedek tsedek tirdof” (justice justice you will pursue) is being printed on t-shirts and sold to raise bail funds for arrested activists. The image was created by @maimonides_nutz and promoted on Twitter by the Jewish feminist website @hey_alma.

By Laurel Leff.

Professors often say that we learn a lot from our students. We mean it, but in a fairly limited way. A student might offer a particular insight into a subject we have spent decades studying. We appreciate the perception but rarely does it upset our fundamental understanding.

But for me, this period has been different. On June 3, Northeastern’s School of Journalism held a virtual town hall for our students, alumni and faculty on “Journalism Under Attack: Protests in American Cities, Attacks on Journalists, the Role of Racism and Police Brutality.” Almost 60 students and former students participated via Zoom from as close as downtown Boston to as far away as Egypt. They included undergraduate and graduate students. Some of the alumni have been covering the protests for The New York Times, or the San Francisco Chronicle. Others have been working for local outlets or student organizations, such as The Huntington News (including Managing Editor Deanna Schwartz, a journalism major and Jewish Studies minor who is this year’s Ruderman Scholar, and wrote an earlier post on the blog). Some were people of color. Some were not. All of them in their impassioned comments changed the way I understand journalism.

Listening to them, I began to understand as I never have before:

How central issues of social justice and equality are to their everyday concerns and how inadequate they have found our curriculum in addressing those issues. As a student put it in an accompanying chat: social justice and equality aren’t a “’specialty,’ they are things we all NEED to know.”

How aware they are that routine coverage tends to be slanted toward police and prosecutors who serve as authoritative sources in much of local reporting.

How they believe that they are always making choices about what to cover, and how to cover it; they don’t assume that rioting and looting is more obviously newsworthy than peaceful protesting.

How a lack of diversity in newsrooms, and, frankly, on our faculty, hampers their ability to tell the stories they think should be told.

How well they understand the ways that biases of all kinds shape coverage and how much they want to be trained to deal with them, including by unearthing their own prejudices.

How they recognize interview subjects as people with their own traumas, sensitivities, concerns, and not just as fodder for stories. “Humanize your interviewee,” one student wrote in the chat, “and recognize that they’re more than a story.”

How sensitive they are to the effects reporting traumatic events has on their own psyches. “Mental health should always be an important part of the conversation,” one student wrote.

How deeply affected they are by being harassed, particularly online, for what they write and photograph and how they feel they need better tools to defend against it.

How they don’t see themselves as standing outside of society but as a part of it and even of particularized communities. “We’re humans before we’re journalists,” wrote one student.

How mistrustful they are of notions of objectivity.

Certainly not all journalism students feel this way. A self-selected group chose to participate in our town hall at a particularly difficult, if illuminating, time – though I should say it included many of our best and most ambitious students.

their impassioned comments changed the way I understand journalism

Taken together, the students presented a very different vision of how to practice journalism than the one my colleagues and I were trained in. Traditional journalism pushes practitioners to set aside their own subjectivity – in making decisions about coverage, in treating interview subjects, in responding to their own trauma and fear.

In recent decades, both the academic and professional journalism communities have acknowledged that setting aside subjectivity isn’t possible, but have clung to the idea that it is still something to strive for. Many of my students reject that. They want to use their own sense of right and wrong as journalists and as people to present the world they see. How that jibes with journalism’s ultimate goal of getting as close to the truth as possible requires a deeper, more tortuous discussion. But what my students have taught me over the last weeks of brutality and protest is that they start that conversation from a very different place.

Laurel Leff is Associate Director of the Jewish Studies Program and Associate Professor of Journalism.

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