Ethics and media meet at Catholic university programs

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On Catholic college campuses across the country, journalism students are still learning how to interview people and write the inverted pyramid news story that answers the who-what-when-where-why-and-how.

Tomorrow’s journalists are also being trained in how to shoot and edit video, produce their own podcasts, write breaking news stories for the web and figuring out the best way to disseminate stories on social media. In a Catholic university setting, they are also discussing the ethics and mission of journalism in the 21st century.

“A Catholic university really does mesh well with journalism, because journalists at their core want to do good,” said Maureen Boyle, the journalism program director at Stonehill College, a liberal arts school in Easton, Massachusetts, founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Boyle, an award-winning longtime former newspaper police and courts reporter, said journalists want to “give a voice to the voiceless. They want to make sure that people are not oppressed. They want to make sure people are treated fairly.”

“And I think that really does tie in very closely with Catholic beliefs of social justice and the teachings of Christ,” Boyle said. “There is a real link there.”

Several journalism professors at Catholic universities agreed, telling Our Sunday Visitor that they stress to their students that fair, balanced, factual journalism can be a force for good in a modern society being strained at the seams by polarizing forces and misinformation.

“Journalism, in my view, performs one of the most important functions in a democracy,” said Ana C. Garner, a professor and chairwoman of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Marquette University’s J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication.

“Journalists have one of the most important, in my own view, one of the most patriotic jobs in a democracy,” Garner said. “Their task is to serve the citizens of a community by keeping them informed about the world around them, particularly about the people they have elected or are overseeing their local, state or national governments.”

A noble pursuit

Journalism students at Marquette University and other Catholic universities learn about the traditional government watchdog role that journalists play in American society. They also discover an important part of journalism’s mission is to tell the stories of everyday people.

“A source is not a means to and end for the journalist, but it’s about coming alongside people, who are oftentimes in great distress, who are victims of crime, victims of natural disasters, and trying to tell their stories in a very truthful and compassionate way,” said Don Heider, the executive director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Heider, a former TV journalist, said the Jesuit principle of accompaniment often is emphasized among Catholic journalist students.

“It’s part of this idea that you are there to help people, that during your career you are not just learning a vocation for its own sake, but you have a larger purpose to do good, to help people, to give back to the world,” Heider said.

That noble, almost altruistic, vision of journalism runs counter to the negative impression that large swaths of Americans have of “the mainstream media” and journalism in general. Public opinion polling in recent years indicates that overall trust for the news media is at an all-time low.

The reasons for that diminished trust are complex and overlap with several factors that include the decline of local newspapers, widespread media consolidation and a fragmented landscape where partisan cable news outlets, talk radio hosts and strident blogs vye for smaller chunks of audience share with the traditional news media. The low trust in journalism also coincides with a similar mistrust of other institutions, such as those in government, corporate America and even higher education.

“Our response to that is for journalists to act as ethically as possible based on the standards of the profession,” said Mark Neužil, a journalism professor and chairman of the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Neužil said the university hasn’t had a printed newspaper since 2009, when it launched a student journalism website that consists of text stories, student radio news segments and video reports. “We like to think we’re ahead of the game in some of these issues,” Neužil said.

A broad set of skills

For students interested in the communications field, which can also include marketing and public relations, Neužil said the skills they learn in journalism — writing, especially — transfer well to those jobs and many other professions.

“You can’t have enough practice, and you can’t write too much, really, especially at a young age before you find your voice,” said Neužil, who noted that journalism students at St. Thomas not only acquire the multimedia skills of modern journalism, but also complete an ethics seminar before graduation.

Media literacy is an important component of what journalism students learn at The Catholic University of America, said Niki Akhavan, a professor and chairwoman of the university’s Department of Media & Communication Studies.

“Media literacy also means knowing the histories of the media forms that they’re using, asking themselves who is providing the information, doing the background research necessary to make sense of the information that we’re being given, especially since we’re being inundated with so much information all the time,” said Akhavan, who added that the faculty aims to help students think of themselves as moral actors in how they produce and consume media.

“It’s really foundational to what we do, especially in the age of information wars, fake news and all the various pressures that students face in the work world, because I think there are pressures in the media world to maybe undermine your own ethical and moral compass,” Akhavan said.

At the University of Notre Dame, journalism students are also learning skills across various media platforms, said Richard G. Jones, the director of the university’s John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy.

“We want to give our students a base set of skills they can use, that will help them to be ready for the future media environment. After all, 15 years ago, who knew what a social media editor was?” said Jones, a former New York Times reporter who said journalism students learn that public service is an important dimension of their craft.

“It’s about them using their talents to be of service to the stories they write, to the sources they interview, to their readers and viewers,” Jones said. “That’s the core of journalism — helping people to make informed decisions about their lives and to know what’s happening in their communities.”

Said Jones, “We want our students to leave Notre Dame with that sense of service.”

Boyle, of Stonehill University, has brought her students to other churches’ religious services to expose them to the wider community that they may one day be covering. She spoke of that assignment in the wider context of the journalist as a bridge-builder between communities.

“And being at a Catholic college, you can get down to what’s really important, and it’s the core of serving the community, providing information to a community, highlighting what a community needs and telling that community’s story,” Boyle said. “That really dovetails quite nicely with Catholic teaching.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.