This guest post is co-authored by Sheryl Swingley.
When I (Sheryl Swingley) found a proof copy of Thomas E. Patterson’s “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism” in my journalism department’s mailroom, I grabbed it.
I’m with Mark Twain. I don’t like adjectives, but I use knowledge-based journalism in every sentence I can.
I devoured Patterson’s book in just a few days. I didn’t want to put it down. Patterson put into words exactly what I had been thinking for years.
My next step was to buy two copies of Patterson’s book, and I gave them to two of Ball State’s younger and newest journalism faculty members, Robin Blom and my co-author on this piece, Adam Kuban. I said, begging, “Please, read this book.”
The Need for Knowledge
The point is I don’t know how today’s journalism majors can secure better-paying jobs and have rewarding careers without knowledge in another area to complement their journalism major. I tell my students to do everything they can to have a double major. I tell them if they are going to practice journalism vs. teach it, they’re leaving school with only skills. They can’t claim to know much about anything else – and they don’t.
Another phrase I’ll probably start using with my students is that a journalism degree is a gateway degree, which Jan Schaffer used in her article that appeared on MediaShift late last year. I have said over the years that if you can write, you can do anything. If you’re a good writer, you’re a good thinker. If you’re a good thinker, you’re a good writer. But, of course, you need knowledge to think or write.
The level of knowledge you have sets you apart from others.
I used to think journalism majors had a well-rounded education. Because of ACEJMC accreditation requirements, journalism majors take 72 hours of liberal arts courses outside of journalism. The problem is that journalism majors tend to take all 100-level liberal arts courses if you let them. These courses introduce journalism majors to topics, not knowledge.
Now it’s my turn to read. Kuban shared with me G. Pascal Zachary’s article in the Dec. 1, 2014, edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was titled “To Prepare 21st-Century Journalists, Help Students Become Experts.” Zachary’s assertion is that “good journalism depends on expertise that arises from subject-area mastery, deep engagement with rigorous disciplines and interdisciplinary skills.” This is knowledge-based journalism.
Knowledge-Based Journalism at Ball State University
At least 10 of the journalism faculty at Ball State are experimenting with what Zachary describes as “good journalism” and what Schaffer believes is needed to keep journalism programs and the profession viable. Ball State’s former President Jo Ann Gora, who retired in June 2014, made interdisciplinary learning experiences with community partners a hallmark of the university and a reflection of the university’s tagline “Education Redefined.”
An example of helping students acquire knowledge and learn more in-depth about a topic is an ongoing interdisciplinary course in Ball State’s journalism department. It is one that promotes a statewide understanding of water resources. Another ongoing interdisciplinary course is about police and the press and brings together students from criminal justice and journalism. Kuban, who as an undergraduate student majored in journalism and meteorology, has worked with numerous professors and professionals on campus to make these courses happen. He’ll be the first one to tell you putting these courses together wasn’t easy — but necessary.
The following is Kuban’s first-person story about one of his knowledge-based, interdisciplinary projects that focuses on water quality.
Water Quality Indiana
I work with Dr. Lee Florea in Ball State’s Department of Geological Sciences to co-instruct an academically diverse group of 14 undergraduates, whose majors represent journalism, telecommunications, geology, and natural resource and environmental management. Together, the team explores two storylines: a local angle that involves 11 logjams obstructing the upstream reaches of the Mississinewa River and a statewide angle that pertains to river headwaters and confluences in the Mississinewa watershed and throughout Indiana.
Red-tail Land Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust, and FlatLand Resources, a local environmental consultation firm, serve as community partners, one criterion of immersive-learning courses at Ball State. As a community partner, consultants from Red-tail and FlatLand offer students access to some logjam sites and teach students the importance and value of environmental organizations.
For the logjam storyline, students are collecting multimedia and water samples at each of the 11 sites. Students operate lab equipment to measure ion chemistry and the concentrations of nutrients. Media products such as photos and video of the logjams, interviews with property owners, and graphical depictions of scientific findings will illuminate the scope of these logjams and their potentially adverse impact.
In an effort to boost public knowledge of logjams and associated documentation of water quality, students’ scientific and mediated content can be viewed at the Water Quality Indiana website, created by one of our undergraduate graphics majors.
Their content also will contribute to logjam-removal grants submitted via the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. If successfully acquired, then these funds can help remove the debris at the logjam sites and restore the natural conditions of the river, which can relieve taxpayers of this burden.
The interdisciplinary team also is building on the idea that what happens in the Mississinewa River in East-Central Indiana eventually affects what happens downstream in the watershed, influencing other communities’ water quality.
These students have focused on certain Indiana confluence points affected by the Mississinewa River. Similar to the logjam storyline, the students are collecting water samples with the intent to examine certain scientific parameters, and they are generating media content, which when edited, will inform website viewers of these river locations – what they look like and their basic water-quality “health.”
This course is particularly challenging since the students are expected to do things not typically associated with their respective majors.
For example, science-oriented students are expected to create, edit and present media products, such as photos, video, and/or written stories. The media students are expected to learn how to collect samples and run equipment in a lab, testing for certain water-quality parameters.
The students have to learn how to work together with their different protocols and approaches, and they must teach each other about the “other side” of the project.
Two undergraduates enrolled in this interdisciplinary endeavor recently presented their findings at the Lilly International Conference on College Teaching in Oxford, Ohio.
The growing emphasis of working in interdisciplinary teams with students who are majoring in something other than journalism and the introduction of special topics courses are keeping enrollment in journalism strong and growing at Ball State. Some of our students do two or three interdisciplinary courses while they are with us, and they report back that they are the best experiences of their college career and educate them in ways that their other journalism and university courses don’t.
With all the information outlets available today, journalism students should be some of the best-positioned graduates to be producers and knowledgeable leaders in communications. Through flexible and creative pedagogy in journalism programs, we are hopeful about the future of journalism education.
Dr. Adam J. Kuban has taught the aforementioned trans-disciplinary course for two iterations. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Ball State, and he is on the “front lines” of the student experience, able to share insight into and cautionary details of his curricular experiment to align aspiring scientists and media professionals together to accomplish a real-world issue. This course has received media coverage in eight outlets, and it has resulted in conference presentations—some of which involved students!—at the regional, national, and international levels.
Sheryl Swingley, M.A., a journalism and public relations instructor at Ball State for more than 25 years, has taught trans-disciplinary courses where students learned about community economics; food tourism; water reuse. A trans-disciplinary course she has taught four times involves travel writing and tourism promotion and features a week-long trip to Budapest, Hungary. Swingley was the internship coordinator for Ball State’s journalism, public relations and advertising majors for more than 22 years.