SPJ Reading Room
Editors, call professors to get scoop on recent grads
By Beth Haller
As I watch students march across the stage at graduation each May, I am torn between happiness for the talented students and disgust at the few students who are just putting on a show for family and friends. These few students aren't really graduating because they haven't amassed the full number of credits needed for a diploma, or they failed a course during their last semester.
Many colleges and universities allow this graduation walk because they can't wait for all the grades to be filed or they have no August graduation and don't want those with only a couple of credits left to have to wait until December for a ceremony.
In some instances, these "graduating for show" students want to become journalists. But having had them in classes and watched some of them practice what I would call "Jayson Blair in training" behaviors, I would like to warn media organizations.
Unfortunately, the media organizations don't call me for references when these students apply for journalism jobs.
In my more than 10 years of teaching college journalism, only a handful of media outlets have contacted me about former students. In only one instance have I been able to caution a media organization about a student with questionable ethics — someone caught cheating several times and who walked through a graduation ceremony but didn't receive a diploma because of credits lacking.
Faculty recommendations should be the backbone of news media hiring. But unfortunately, even in these days of post Jayson Blair hiring, they are not.
I also wonder how many media organizations are requesting college transcripts to confirm students' actual graduation and their grades in classes.
Thankfully, these unethical students making it through college to a graduation ceremony are rare, but as journalism faculty I would like to be called for a reference, so I have the chance to sing the praises of my good students, too.
I am writing this essay to make a plea for changes in the evaluation of people for media jobs, especially entry-level jobs. If we want to restore some credibility to journalism as a profession, then the professional thing to do as a media organization is to request college transcripts and ask journalism faculty about the person's performance in the college classroom.
My question for the media is why haven't recommendations from faculty begun to carry some weight in the post Jayson Blair environment? If you do the math, we as faculty spend almost 50 hours with a student during a regular three-credit, 15-week semester.
Journalism faculty, most of whom have real world professional experience, can give an in-depth evaluation of a student's work and behavior because we see how they handle each step of the reporting and writing process. We are there for the daily "hand-holding" that editors don't have time for when someone is learning. And we see the "a ha" moment when they catch on to the style and format of journalism.
During the many hours we spend with students, we see the students who take shortcuts and can't follow through with commitments, although they may be good writers or reporters. We also see the students who work numerous hours at the student newspaper or broadcast station and still take their classes seriously enough to have excellent attendance.
We must say goodbye to the old days when it was a badge of honor for students to blow off classes for their student publication work, because gathering clips was all that mattered. Journalism is growing ever more complex, and students, although they may never recognize it, get much of what they need to be good reporters from their classes, as well as through student publication work. To be blunt, grades in college classes are important.
Journalism classes, especially, allow students to learn the process of researching and writing without the pressure of daily deadlines. I realize that students must learn to meet deadlines for a career in journalism, but in a class, they can learn to perfect the process before adding heavy deadline pressure into the mix.
In addition, our many hours with students and many years of experience evaluating student behavior, give us much expertise to notice whether someone has the moral backbone to become an ethical journalist. Over the years, we also develop a detector to know when students are really doing what they say or are just crafting the art of sucking up to people with power over them.
Here's what my students read in every one of my syllabi: "Never lie, cheat, plagiarize or fabricate. A mature person asks for help, rather than taking these unethical shortcuts. If your professor cannot give you the help you need, then she will refer you to the numerous on-campus resources, such as tutoring services or the Writing Center. If the class is still too difficult for you, become self-aware enough to understand when or if you should drop or withdraw from the class. There is no shame in withdrawing from a class and taking it another semester. Respect yourself enough to try your best, and the professor will respect you, too."
Then each syllabus has a full page in which I detail in concrete specifics what plagiarism is and what fabrication is with definitions such as "Making up direct or indirect quotes in stories. Quoted material should be what a real person actually said." Finally, for each story a student turns in, he or she must turn in a source list of names, phone numbers and e-mails, as well as attach any document materials such as news releases or police reports.
All my students know about my expectation of honesty and ethical behavior from the first day of classes. For those who have a strong moral compass, following my syllabus is no problem. In fact, these students don't even know how they would go about cheating because they are so used to doing their best work.
All this to say, I believe I can give any employer a thoughtful evaluation of any student who has taken my journalism classes.
Finally, I would like to warn media employers about relying on published clips as the backbone of media hiring. Many student publications have talented student editors who may have completely rewritten a student's work. The same goes for clips from an internship site — they may have been heavily edited.
I realize that editors have long relied on their gut instincts about people when hiring, and that is fine. But several other components need to be added to head off the future Jayson Blairs of the world from entering journalism. I don't think it is too much to ask that media organizations require college transcripts and that they actually talk to faculty who had the prospective employee in class.
It is only through more rigorous hiring practices that we can illustrate that we care about the credibility of journalism as a profession.
Beth Haller is associate professor of journalism at Towson University in Towson, Md., where she teaches courses in news reporting, magazine publishing, feature writing, media law and newswriting. She is the co-author of An Introduction to News Reporting: A Beginning Journalist's Guide (Allyn & Bacon, 2005). She holds a Ph.D. in mass media and communication from Temple University and worked as a reporter for regional newspapers in Texas, New Mexico and Illinois.