Why would anybody want to be a journalist today? The old business models are dying, the hostility toward reporters from the public (not to mention the president) is at an all-time high, and then there are the odd pipe bombs and white powder that arrive in the mail. Much safer, not to mention more lucrative, to pursue a career in computer programming.
Yet according to Kelly McBride, senior vice-president at the Poynter Institute, “Journalism school enrollment in many places has risen, even as the profession has gone through all sorts of contractions and contortions.” Not all of these students plan to become journalists. “In some ways it’s the new liberal arts degree, or political science degree,” she says. “People go into it intending to do something in politics, or nonprofits, or public relations.”
And that represents an opportunity for Poynter, a leader in training, teaching and supporting journalists worldwide. “It’s a fraught place,” she says of today’s college campus, “but it’s where many of us first encounter difficult ideas. I was passionate about the idea that we should be teaching journalists on college campuses to engage with provocative ideas and, through their product, help their communities to engage with provocative ideas.”
The College Media Project, launched in September, is Poynter’s move to do just that. A free year-long program, it brings Poynter’s signature real-world training to nine college newspapers, with a particular focus on community responsibility and the evergreen question of ethics in journalism.
McBride, who got a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, spent the first half of her reporting career as a police reporter. After earning a master’s in theology, she switched beats and began covering religion (“from sinners to saints,” she likes to say). That deepened her interest in the ethical quandaries journalists face daily.
But it was an experience working for the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, WA, that brought her in contact with Poynter. The paper had committed the kind of gaffe that haunts many an editor and reporter. “Someone put a really nasty headline on a story that was meant to be a joke for people inside the newspaper,” she recalls, “and then forgot to strip it off, and then it went into publication.” The story concerned the then-president of Gonzaga University, a controversial and conservative priest at the Catholic school who had banned Planned Parenthood from an event on campus. “The woman who’d written the headline wrote, ‘Nazi Priest Signs Books.’ It gets worse. The next day I had to write the story saying how horrible this was. Then I went and talked to the president and he was very generous and forgiving and said, ‘I converted to Catholicism from Judaism.’”
In the ensuing fallout (the 24-year-old copy editor was forced to resign), McBride talked to longtime Poynter ethicist Bob Steele, who was impressed enough to offer her some teaching gigs. In 2001, the nonprofit, based in St. Petersburg, FL, offered her a full-time job, and in 2002 McBride moved her three kids, a dog, and a guinea pig across the country.
“Poynter people before me had done a lot to develop the ethics of journalism,” she says. “They’ve been working since the 1980s in creating codes of ethics, and the Society of Professional Journalists has a standard code they use that was written first here at a gathering about ethics in journalism.”
Most professions have some codified way of handling ethical questions (doctors are enjoined to “First, do no harm”). McBride says the same questions come up again and again in journalism: “What’s the journalistic value you’re trying to accomplish? What’s the societal value? What harm are you causing? And are there better ways of doing this?
“I went back to my police reporting roots and how we covered kidnappings. I’ve done a lot of work on how we cover sexual assault, vulnerable people, marginalized people etc.,” she says. “It’s the same issue but you look at it through a variety of different problems.”
Too many reporters, she says, just want to know where the bright lines are: What’s the news organization’s policy on unnamed sources, or naming victims? “It’s not a good idea to have a bunch of rules,” says McBride. “You should have some general values and basic expectations of standards and behavior. What you want is a process that allows you to figure out what you’re trying to do, and what’s the best way to do it that serves your high principles and minimizes the harm that you would cause.” Equally important: Letting readers know how you arrive at those decisions. “The reason much of the public doubts the process is that they have no idea what it looks like,” she says.
And what better place to talk about these ideas than college?
“I had read about provocative speakers on campuses being physically intimidated into not speaking, even injured,” she says. “As a journalist, I am offended by the idea that we would not allow someone to speak.” Invited to teach a course in ethics to the Charles Koch Institute’s media and journalism fellows in 2016, she shared some of her passion for working on campus with an Institute representative. “I started talking about the role that campus journalism plays in this conversation, and how hard it is for campus journalists to get it right. They don’t have a lot of support; they’re amateurs by the very nature of what they are doing.”
Poynter imagined a program for college journalists and then the Charles Koch Foundation signed on as a funder. The program has launched at the University of Florida, North Carolina A&T University and Saint John’s University; future schools include Bowdoin, the University of Michigan and San Diego State University. (Applications are closed for this year.) McBride’s enthusiasm for finding an organization to make common cause with wasn’t shared by everyone. The Columbia Journalism Review wrote a story critical of the partnership. “It caused us to have interesting conversations with some of our dearest supporters about what our strategy is,” says McBride. “The partnership also caused some people to give us money: ‘We want to give you money so you don’t have to take Koch money!’ I don’t see a world where that is going to happen,” she says with a laugh. “I want the threshold for rejecting money to be around compromising our values.”
Meanwhile, Poynter continues in its mission of educating the press about its responsibility to the public—while also trying to inform the public about how the press works. “When we in the press talk about objectivity, we’re not talking about our own viewpoint,” says McBride. “We’re talking about the objectivity of the process. Is the process of reporting the news objective enough that it can arrive at the truth? The reason much of the public doubts the process is that they have no idea what it looks like. All they see is the finished product. We have to be more transparent.” —Sean Elder