What Challenges Face Enviro Journalism Teaching?

December 20, 2016

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EJ Academy: What Challenges Face Enviro Journalism Teaching?

By Eric Freedman, Mark Neuzil, David Poulson and Kevin Duffy

Journalism and journalism education continue to change dramatically and at a fast pace. That’s particularly true for environmental journalism, which began as a reporting specialty in the 1960s, and for EJ education, which began later.

Drivers of that change include news media company downsizing, the Internet, media convergence, mainstreaming of environmental coverage and the advent of niche news outlets focused on the environment. We also see more aggressive and direct public outreach by environmental and industry organizations, individual corporations, bloggers and politicians.

We wanted to explore what these factors and others — for example, university policies and funding — mean today and in the future for EJ educators and students. That meant identifying major challenges confronting EJ education and instructors. So we asked.

We solicited current and recently retired full-time and adjunct EJ educators for interviews, using lists from SEJ, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the International Environmental Communication Association. We included science journalism educators because of the close overlap of content, types of stories and news sources in environmental and science journalism.

We interviewed 11 instructors from public and private universities in the United States and Mexico. Before the interviews, participants completed a preliminary questionnaire about their course offerings and professional backgrounds.

Here’s what we found:

Navigating administrative support, student interest

One common theme touched on the interaction between administrators’ desire to keep courses as full as possible and the waxing and waning of the number of students interested in EJ. Journalism programs face fiscal constraints, students’ changing interests, periodic curriculum overhaul and pressure on faculty to secure grants and publish research.

“There’s a little anxiety every time I teach the class because it’s an elective, and it’s not required for any major,” an instructor explained. “I’m trying to work on that because I think that [making it a requirement] would definitely help fill up the seats.” She added, “I feel it’s nothing personal towards me. It’s just that our institution, like most other universities, looks at numbers.”

David Poulson
Co-author David Poulson, senior associate director of Michigan State University's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and academic membership representative on the SEJ Board of Directors.

Another professor noted that enrollment challenges are not unique to EJ classes: “We are always fighting the balance in a certain way. We are always fighting to increase the size of our classes, but none of that is specific to environmental journalism.”

Many instructors said their courses are often populated by non-journalism and non-communications majors — mostly from environmental studies, environmental sciences and other sciences.

“I think there is a sense among science students and in the sciences that communication about science has to improve, and the people working on the science side need to improve their communication skills,” one said. “Collaborating with folks outside of journalism is really important,” said another.

A long-time instructor said that when she first offered an EJ course 20 years ago, “journalism majors did not fall all over themselves to take it.” She persuaded her department to open the course to non-majors, and then “the courses became writing courses. Critical thinking on issues became harder. Students struggled with basic story issues.”

Several instructors worried about how to effectively teach non-journalism students. “The quality differs,” said one. Another said, “I would prefer pre-reqs for the class. More newswriting. Now I have to teach half newswriting and half on this topic.” Another said “a significant challenge is that few students understood journalism, let alone such a specialized form of it.”

Is it advocacy or is it journalism?

An effect of opening EJ courses to science and social science students is that new enrollees often bring strong points of view into the classroom and their work. In other cases, communications students major in public relations or advertising rather than journalism.

Instructors deal with that situation in a number of ways, but nearly all said they continue to teach their courses as journalism.

Many PR students want to learn how to communicate environmental messages more effectively. “We have students coming in [who] are interested in environmental topics but do not necessarily want to approach it from a journalistic standpoint,” said another. “Journalism skills translate well into advocacy jobs, and maybe advocacy is a better place for them where they may be preaching to the choir but feel as though they are making more progress, rather than if we try to hold to journalistic standards.”

Many environmental studies students bring an advocacy mentality to EJ, 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.”

Balancing technology, storytelling

Another common theme was finding ways to integrate new technologies as they relate to the function of EJ.

“How do you tell stories in different kinds of channels, including social media?” as one professor put it. Another said learning ever-changing platforms is challenging for instructors, but on balance mastering the new tools are worth it because they support better learning.

Students who are used to writing short social media posts may struggle in the classroom. “It is hard to keep them interested in longer forms of writing,” one faculty member told us. “Students are not familiar with journalistic forms. They write a lot in the first person.”

It is hard to make the case

when there are not jobs

on the other side.

Facing dim career prospects

A final common theme was student and faculty concerns about job prospects. Faculty acknowledged that specialty reporting jobs such as covering the environment at mainstream media are increasingly rare, particularly for entry-level employees.

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

Solutions in opening the ranks, adding skills

The challenges of EJ education parallel challenges facing journalism. Easy access to digital publishing technology has prompted a redefinition of what constitutes a journalist. Shouldn’t it also redefine what constitutes an EJ student or instructor?

While the ranks of traditional journalism students may be declining, several faculty have witnessed growing engagement with non-journalism students and partners in environmental science and policy. Some said this non-traditional constituency for journalism skills and values provides support that may be unavailable to many other forms of journalism.

Capturing non-traditional students isn’t simply a strategy for increasing enrollment. Equipping environmental policy, science and advocacy students with the tools and critical thinking required of journalists surely benefits society.

If we can’t stem the loss of what are thought of as traditional journalism jobs, can universities preserve the journalist’s functions by imbuing a broader range of students with an appreciation of the profession’s values and the ability to implement them as part of whatever it is they do?

Meanwhile, non-journalism students enrich EJ students through exposure to diverse viewpoints — the kind of competing perspectives journalism students must reflect when they cover environmental news. Journalism is a messy profession, so why shouldn’t the EJ classroom be likewise?

Some instructors are behind their students in digital media skills, but that frustration will ease as they either get skilled or retire. Meanwhile, there’s always been a premium for faculty to learn the same lessons they often teach: be flexible, learn to learn and remain rooted to principles of accuracy, fairness, transparency engagement.

Many of these challenges aren’t limited to EJ, but they can been seen as more acute when discussing a specialty area of journalism. These concerns are especially significant for journalism programs and faculty because environmental issues aren’t going away — indeed, with such global concerns as climate change, rising energy demands and depleted natural resources, they promise to loom larger in the public arena.

Nor — as science becomes growingly complex — will these issues become easier for overworked generalist journalists to understand and explain to lay audiences. Thus there will be an adverse societal impact if future journalists lose the opportunity to study and be trained in EJ before they enter the profession.

“Clearly our customer base has widened beyond simply students who are going to become environmental journalists, and that’s great,” an instructor told us.

But the future of EJ itself is unsettled, creating a challenging opportunity for academics to help chart a new course. He points to growing collaboration at his institution among faculty in journalism, media studies, environmental studies, computer science, communications, digital arts and other fields as an exciting development that must continue.

“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,” he said. “That’s the dream, anyway.”

Eric Freedman, a 20-year newspaper veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner, is professor of journalism at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and chair of its Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. Mark Neuzil is a professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and previously spent 15 years as a newspaper and wire service reporter and editor. David Poulson is senior associate director of Michigan State’s Knight Center and was a reporter and editor for 22 years. Kevin Duffy, a recent graduate of Michigan State’s environmental journalism program, is currently a Ph.D. fellow and research assistant at the University of Maine in Orono. This article is based on the authors’ paper presented at the World Journalism Education Congress in New Zealand in July 2016. 

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 1, No. 8. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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