On July 12, 2014, I got an atypical offer while attending the annual general meeting of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) subscribers.
I know Bernard Tabaire, the ACME director of programmes, not usually to be on the asking side. But on this day, he prodded me to author regular articles about my US experiences for their apolitical and non-for-profit organisation, which is helping “journalists seek and achieve excellence…”
Noble cause, it is. I didn’t commit because I was unsure what awaited me at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University. Bernard was one of two referees for my successful application for the Humphrey (Fulbright) fellowship that I was due to take up in the United States. Still, I didn’t immediately yield.
It will be paid-for if you so require, he said. Money is a sweetener and a deserved reward for labour if honestly earned. And cash holds higher worth if you were transitioning from a local full-time job for a sabbatical in a foreign land like I was.
Bernard and ACME Executive Director, Dr Peter Mwesige, were my editorial supervisors and mentors at Monitor Publications Limited and my loyalty to both has endured, as have their mentorship and commitment to professional integrity and finesse.
It is this high regard for ethics and quality that defines and gives credibility to individual journalists as it does institutions, in this case journalism schools (J-Schools).
“If we give up our ethics…there will be no reason to believe us and no reason to buy us,” argued Akron Beacon Journal publisher, James Crutchfield.
Some media outlets have had audiences or circulation decline partly because they trade their defining core values for cheap short-term commercial or personal gains.
At the Cronkite J-School, students learn early by adhering to similar touchstones they demand of others. It has been a value built over decades.
The J-School, located in Downtown Phoenix is named after legendary American broadcaster Walter Leland Cronkite, who passed on in 2009, and the institution prides in a tradition of “excellence, integrity and innovation”. Its students learn hands-on, irrespective of specialised journalism or communication field.
Dean Christopher Callahan (a Poynter Institute board member) and Arizona State University President, Michael Crow, call this approach the ‘teaching hospital model’ of journalism training.
That is why it is instructive, and not discretionary, that journalism teaching must directly integrate practice, the same way medical students examine patients or dissect a cadaver at teaching hospitals under the direction of seniors.
Cronkite J-School’s $71 million building is a high-tech facility, customised to produce the finest of enterprising journalists for traditional and digital media operations.
It has onsite three TV stations, 14 digital newsrooms, up to 280 digital student workstations, editing suites and a theatre where students intern in complete professional settings.
In my first lecture for Online (Digital) journalism, 23 students showed up. The Instructor, Prof. Monica Chadha, asked those not among the 20 who had signed up, to leave. Why? The digital lab has 20 computers. Matching students to learning infrastructure is rigorously enforced because lecturers want every student to succeed. The Instructor regards a student’s failure as their own failure.
I had never been astounded by what hands-on can involve. In one of the class exercises (on photo-audio slideshows), the Instructor asked us to upload our assignments on YouTubeand share with her only the link, a public display that sharply contrasted with my Makerere University years where students concealed test scripts because none wanted the colleague (unless close friends) to know their scores. Here we were subjected to online scrutiny from strangers in ways that stories open their authors to public inspection in real journalism world.
But there is a difference regarding preparing a student for the challenge. There are, for instance, enough digital cameras and audio recorders, handycams and video cameras from the school equipment unit for each student to borrow for practicals. Only Mac computers are used at the Cronkite J-school, which is how modern newsrooms are resourced.
I am aware that the US is markedly different a country from Uganda, but some of the installations at Cronkite have more to do with the software aspects of an institution’s training focus.
Ugandan J-Schools of course integrate, in varied respects, some elements of ‘teaching hospital’. The wide gap between enrollment and facilities however condemns majority students as observers rather than doers. I have had firsthand opportunity at the Daily Monitor to directly handle some university students’ internship placement, and got both inspired and heart-broken.
Things are made tougher that newsrooms are resource-constrained, sometimes unwilling to invest in teaching, not only newcomers but also old staff to acquire skills for the ever evolving news reporting and delivery style.
Journalism training without hands-on learning, churns out unprepared and slightly above-ignorant journalists who misinform an increasingly sophisticated audience. It’s an epic professional mercy killing.
The new trajectory for J-Schools, as adapting newsrooms have found, is to sharply focus on collaborations, especially with technology firms.
The author is a 2014/15 Humphrey (Fulbright) fellow at the Cronkite Journalism School, Arizona State University.