Lessons from Journalism 201  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   September 2002

Lessons from Journalism 201   

Writing short is tough, and some people really do spell it Caryn.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


When I was 19 I never could have imagined I'd be saying this, but I really enjoy going to class. The best perk for a dean is that when mine starts feeling too much like a desk job, I can simply get up, walk down the hall, drop in on a seminar or lab, and witness the magic of learning.

Just before the end of the spring term I eavesdropped on Ira Chinoy's Journalism 201 class. Ira, who has shared in two Pulitzer Prizes, is at the college working toward a Ph.D. as our inaugural Scripps Howard doctoral fellow. He also teaches a variety of courses for us, and it will come as no surprise that he is as deft in the classroom as he is in the newsroom.

Journalism 201 is our beginning reporting class, a real meat-grinder and meant to be. It's where the reality of life crashes in on these outstanding young men and women. Heretofore in their academic careers, getting a B on an exam might have been traumatic. Now they find themselves in a class where if you spell a name wrong, you get an automatic F. Get a state capital wrong, F. Misattribute a quote, F.

You get the idea. It's J-school's version of boot camp, and many are the days when our recruits look like they've run 10 miles on a hot day with a full pack. But F's have a wonderful way of focusing the mind, quickly getting students into the habit of accuracy and clearing the way for other important matters.

Since the semester was nearly over, Ira asked his students to provide Top 10 lists of things they were surprised to have learned in 201--about journalism or about themselves. He has done this before, and he shared several classes' worth of observations with me. Here are a few of my favorites:

An A can help my GPA, but an F can help me.

The shorter the story, the harder it is to write.

Caryn is a way to spell Karen, and it doesn't matter whether or not I think that is stupid.

I'd rather be a garbage man or toll collector than work as an obituary writer.

Pay attention to attribution, police said.

There is no period in "Dr Pepper." Dumpster is trademarked. (I have found both of these facts to be good icebreakers when conversation runs dry.)

The best defense against libel is truth.

Richard Nixon's Social Security number is 567-68-0515.

No question is a stupid question, even if the source calls you stupid for asking.

You have to be thick-skinned to be a reporter. Wimps are not desired.

Just because a 10-year-old story gives a location as someone's place of residence, it doesn't mean the person still lives there.

What sounds like a good sentence in my head doesn't usually read the way I want it to on paper.

There is ABSOLUTELY no food or drink allowed in the classroom.

We make more assumptions than we realize.

Being 99.9 percent accurate will get you fired.

Journalism is hard work. You have to question everything, double-check everything and always be on the lookout for inaccuracy. It's a profession for paranoids and neurotics.

Leads are for the reader, not the writer.

Your job is not to make friends.

The journalism building's maintenance people don't know how to fix air conditioners.

I really suck at grammar.

The guy in the back seems to have something to say every class even when not asked a question.

Humanity is an important element of news writing.

Experience is the best learning experience.

To become a good writer, you need to read good writing.

Even people who have worked in journalism for many years are guessing sometimes.

Professor Chinoy is a gentle monster.

This course wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

There were many, many lines in this vein, all of which make me feel quite content about handing off the business to the next generation. The students behind these particular gems are Robert W. Rebele, Renee Williams, Patrick Grzanka, Kate Schilling, Jeff Davis, Allison Peltzman, Diana Moon, Rachael Jackson, Robin Monheit, Frank Mauck, Robin Lundberg, Sarah Lim, Scott Goldstein, Ellie Ghatineh, Carolyn Wiedel, Emily Goodman, Anna Katsevman, Andrea Cohen, Cleve Bryan and Peter Haldis.

Remember, you heard about them here first.

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