As Environmental Journalism Education Changes, Challenges Abound

February 20, 2019

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EJ Academy: As Environmental Journalism Education Changes, Challenges Abound

By Bob Wyss

With enrollments in journalism education falling in recent years, university professors teaching environmental journalism courses have kept seats filled in their classes in ways that have produced both challenges and benefits.

Increasingly, non-journalism majors ranging from public relations and advertising to environmental studies and the sciences have been allowed entry into these classes, according to a recent study that examined the challenges of environmental journalism education.

“Not only do they fill seats in classrooms at a time when enrollments in journalism majors are slipping but they also bring substantive knowledge to assignments and class discussions,” said the authors of the study published in Applied Environmental Education and Communication.

Eric Freedman, a journalism professor at Michigan State University and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, said the study came about as a result of a series of continuing discussions with Mark Neuzil, who teaches environmental communication at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

They decided to interview journalism educators and then divided that work with two colleagues at MSU: David Poulson, senior associate director of the Knight Center, and Kevin Duffy, a master’s student at the time.

Instructor Mark Neuzil in a classroom. Neuzil was a co-author of a study that explored challenges for environmental journalism educators. Click to enlarge.

Eventually the team interviewed 11 educators, including 10 from the United States and one from Mexico. The interviews, conducted between March and May 2016, lasted between 30 and 45 minutes. The study was published in January 2018.

Freedman said he was satisfied with the sample size and he believed it accurately reflected what is going on. “We might have had different anecdotes but not different findings,” he said in an interview.

Some of the findings were not that surprising, considering the upheaval in the journalism profession, and many could be tied to more general and traditional journalism education issues.  

For instance, educators described the challenges of incorporating emerging technology issues and including social media into their teaching without failing to concentrate on the rigors of basic journalistic values like accuracy and fairness.

Educators also worried about the challenges that graduates would be facing in an increasingly chaotic job market. Some said that it can be difficult to support specialty courses when the job market appears so bleak.

“How do we find funding for environmental journalism education when it does not draw the students or corporate support?” asked one instructor. “It is hard to make the case when there are not jobs on the other side.”


In classes, fewer journalism students, more non-majors

With employment on the decline at traditional journalism organizations, it comes as no surprise that many journalism programs at universities are enrolling fewer students. A 2017 study reported that undergraduate enrollments in 70 programs surveyed had fallen an average of 9 percent between 2013 and 2015.

College administrators are intent on insuring class sizes remain robust, which creates pressure for many specialty courses.

“There's a little anxiety every time I teach the class because it's an elective, and it's not required for any major,” said one instructor. “I'm trying to work on that because I think that [making it a requirement] would definitely help fill up the seats.”


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She reported that her class, offered once per year, commonly enrolls 12 to 24 students. “I feel it's nothing personal towards me,” she said. “It's just that our institution, like most other universities, looks at numbers.”

The result has been the opening of many of these courses to non-majors.  

Many public relations students want to learn how to communicate environmental messages more effectively. “They want to get a little more training on those things, trying to understand those major environmental issues they might have to deal with in their professional lives as PR consultants or communications experts,” said one educator.

Sometimes these students, whether they come from public relations or environment studies and science, bring strong viewpoints, which can clash with such basic journalistic tenets as fairness and balance.  In virtually all cases, the educators interviewed said that they continue to teach journalism courses and insist that students write news stories without bias.

Many environmental studies students especially are prone to bring an advocacy mentality to class, said one instructor. “I wouldn't tell them they couldn't do it. We had discussions about the difference between advocacy press and traditional press, and I said if you want to do this, that's fine, but here are the challenges.”

While many students become interested in journalistic forms of writing, their career plans do not include working in journalism. In other words, as the study said, they are “students who are interested in a different form of communication than what they can get in their major program.”

One professor begins her course with about three weeks' worth of material on environmental issues and ethics. “I don't think I would need to do that if people were more informed about ethical questions — animal rights and environmentalism. But most people aren't,” she said.

Freedman said that at MSU he has found that students, no matter how impassioned their views, quickly learn in the first or second writing assignment that to prevail in the class they need to subdue their opinions.  “We make sure that they get it,” he said.


Programs aim to ‘preserve the functions of journalism’

The enrollment numbers at the home institutions of the two prime researchers are also helpful in understanding more about today’s state of environmental journalism education.

The MSU environmental journalism program was begun in the 1980s with a Knight Foundation grant under the guidance of Jim Detjen, the founding president of SEJ. Freedman said the program currently has five master’s students and nine undergraduates, although that latter number is misleading. He said that many students in the program are not listed in the concentration until they are about to graduate and the designation is placed on their diploma.

Neuzil at St. Thomas is part of the school’s Environmental Studies program, which offers a focus on environmental communication.  He said the numbers vary each year, but he has 14 students in his environmental journalism course this spring.

Both the researchers and those they interviewed said that this mixture of journalism and other majors should benefit not only the students but the fields that they eventually enter.


Can the academy preserve

the functions of journalism

by imbuing a broader range

of students with an appreciation

of the profession's values?


The researchers wrote in their study that adding non-majors goes beyond just increasing enrollment.

“Equipping environmental policy, science and advocacy students with the tools and critical thinking required of journalists surely benefits society. If we cannot stem the loss of ‘traditional’ jobs for journalists, can the academy preserve the functions of journalism by imbuing a broader range of students with an appreciation of the profession's values and the ability to operationalize them as part of whatever it is they do?” the authors asked.

Adding to that theme, one educator interviewed said:  “Not only would we be helping students get jobs in the existing realm of journalism, we might be able to turn out students who could push things in directions that will make journalism more successful. Maybe we produce students who could be leaders out there in changing the way things are done. That's the dream anyway.”

EJ Academy Editor Bob Wyss is a retired University of Connecticut professor of journalism, former newspaper reporter and editor, and the author of “Covering the Environment” (second edition).

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 8. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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