Mistakes were made: What we’re seeing in future journalists

By Jason AkstI get many opportunities to glimpse what college journalism students think about, so I like to think one of my “other duties as assigned” is to be a Catcher-in-the-Rye kind of kind of guy.

It’s one thing to teach news writing, but quite another to alert tomorrow’s journalists about cliffs they could fall off … especially when the terrain keeps changing. Recently, our NINA colleague Jim Killam asked me to chat with the Northern Star staff about mistakes I notice beginning journalists making.

Here’s a snapshot of significant thinking/attitudinal errors I have noticed in the last few years.

In video we trust

Students are profoundly visually oriented. What concerns me is that we forget that imagery is compressed and edited. Imagery is frozen moments of time, but video is especially beguiling in seeming to present the whole story …

Until, too late, we realize we only saw a part of the story, and the part we saw might be horribly misleading. Remember Shirley Sherrod?


Overwhelmingly, most of the social media usage I see is … social. We as educators and professionals need to do more to make journalism and social media intersect in interesting ways. That’s one of my main professional goals for this year.

 Two ears, One mouth: get a clue

Human anatomy favors journalists. The reason we have two ears and one mouth is not so we can hear in stereo (though that’s cool too). It’s because we should listen twice as much as we speak.

Beginning journalists sometimes don’t realize the awesome power of the uncomfortable silence: many people will do nearly anything to avoid it (like answering questions or supplying information). A substantial hurdle to overcome these days, what with all the texting.

Unwillingness/inability to read

A couple years ago I asked students what they read for fun over the summer. There was nervous chatter because many couldn’t think of anything.

“Just tell him ‘Harry Potter’,” somebody said. I chuckled too, and said, “OK, but I’ve read every book, so I’d want to know which one you’re talking about.”

Crickets. It’s a safe bet that if they aren’t reading for fun, they aren’t reading unless they have to.

Face value

Don’t take anything for it. Despite their media/technological sophistication, students seem alarmingly ready to accept information at face value, without analyzing it (or its source) for what’s missing, what’s incomplete, what’s over-generalized, and so forth.

Government, schmovernment

Students are disinterested in day-to-day, routine government (city councils, school boards, etc.), even though they know governmental reportage is critical to journalism. I require students to cover a meeting of public government because I know few of them have ever been to one. It’s an assignment several of them skip, knowing they will get a zero.

Anti-journalism pop culture

Each semester, I task students to watch for journalists portrayed in movies, TV shows and books. With the noteworthy exception of the Stieg Larsson novels (“The Girl Who …”), journalists are scum. It’s fictional portrayal, but what I want students to realize is that when the same fiction is manifested so thoroughly via so many channels, people aren’t going to be thrilled that there’s a journalist in the room.

Avoiding news consumption

I give weekly news awareness quizzes, carefully explaining that part of getting hired and being a journalist is knowing what’s in the news and who newsmakers are, but I’m very careful to choose BIG news questions that students should have seen/heard/read in many places. “If you’re going to be a doctor,” I say, “very early on, people are just going to expect that you know anatomy. If you’re going to be a journalist, people are just going to expect that you know what’s happening.”

They nod understandingly … and then fail miserably on news awareness questions.

Single-source reliance

What’s on the internet must be true. That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s amazing the extent to which students submit work based on a single source, and often that single source is a website.

Jason Akst, a NINA board member, teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. Contact him at



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