Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Community service gives journalism students a better understanding of their surroundings

Journalism education programs should require students to serve in the community to gain a better understanding of their surroundings, writes Indiana University professor Emily Metzgar for PBS Media Shift. Metzgar requires all her student to perform 20 hours of service work in the community for their final grade.

Emily Metzgar
"For my class, titled Media & Society, students choose to work at one of several local non-profits focused on addressing social issues in the community—including domestic violence, food scarcity, mentoring for at-risk young women, interacting with prisoners, caring for the elderly and serving families in financial crisis," Metzgar writes. "To tie this experience to the rest of the course, students conduct research into media coverage of these issues across media outlets, comparing the messages contained in the coverage with their personal experiences derived from working with those issues up close. In the resulting content analyses, students often find the media coverage to be formulaic, superficial and devoid of input from anyone other than the usual suspects."

"For contemporary journalism education programs, the difficulty lies in ensuring that students acquire necessary professional skills and an appreciation for the democratic norms long associated with the practice of journalism in the United States," Metgar writes. "It is often said that 'information is the currency of democracy.' Surely there’s a place for journalism education in helping to ensure the continued circulation of that currency. Service-learning is one way to combine all these threads."

"Second is the matter of framing, a ubiquitous term employed to describe the lens through which media stories are told," Metzgar writes. "Framing assigns blame for problems, thus signaling whose responsibility it is to address them. Politics may be the 'art of the possible,' but media framing delimits the range of public policy possibilities that are even open for political debate. For journalism students, service-learning can promote awareness of key social issues and give students a chance to judge for themselves how these issues are covered in the media. The hope, of course, is that time spent with service-learning as a journalism student may result in more discerning reporting produced in the future as a working professional."

"Third is the issue of practical experience," Metzgar writes. "Service-learning provides students with tangible insights into how the media function in American society, particularly when it comes to difficult social issues. Service-learning is often students’ first unmediated exposure to issues such as homelessness, incarceration, domestic abuse and food scarcity. Ideally, after exposure to these issues and to people who live with them every day, students will develop a more compassionate attitude toward covering vulnerable populations. This exposure has the potential to compel students to become more involved in their communities beyond the time when it is required for course credit. And that is a public good no matter how one frames it." (Read more)

Metzgar is an academic partner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

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