Reporting Out of the Comfort Zone
Setting college students loose in a low-income neighborhood doesnt quite inspire the enthusiasm Syracuse professors hoped it would.
By Steve Davis and John Hatcher
Steve Davis is the chair of the Newspaper Department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. John Hatcher teaches journalism at Newhouse and is completing his doctorate in mass communication.
It was a brainstorm, we thought.
The idea was to send 30 newspaper and magazine majors into the South Side neighborhood a dozen blocks from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and turn them loose. We figured it would be an experience in community journalism, in reporting and even in life, since most of the students were white and from neighborhoods quite unlike ZIP code 13205. It costs $35,000 to $40,000 a year to go to school here about $10,000 more than the annual household income on the largely minority South Side.
So how did it go? By a margin of about 2-to-1, our students hated it.
We'd read Thomas Kunkel's piece (Above the Fold, February/March) about how students embraced the assignments in his feature writing class. We'd had good experiences like that, too, but this was a real trial, a struggle for students who at 20 already were locked into some bad habits and some old newsroom conventions.
That said, the project was not a failure. We're going to do it again. It produced good stories one or two great ones and in the process challenged our students' notions of what it takes to create meaningful journalism. Ours, too.
As we plan to repeat this project, we tried to figure out why it was that instead of excitement, the assignment inspired dread. Our lessons included these:
There was fear: the discomfort journalists have interviewing people who aren't like them. Nine out of 10 of our reporters were white. At least eight in 10 of the people they interviewed were not. Even one of the minority journalists working on the project told us that the experience was a daunting one for her; she came from the same affluent suburbs as many of her classmates. The real problem is that our students and a lot of professional reporters aren't comfortable with "different" people, cultures, lifestyles or neighborhoods. They need practice, exposure. Classrooms and newsrooms must insist that everyone gets it.
Addiction: to phones, e-mail and Web search engines. Today, especially on a college campus, any story that can't be completed by using these tools is seen as a pain in the rear. Students are comfortable with keyboards and broadband connections. Our students knew they could get the Census data they needed online, but there was no Google search for the South Side of Syracuse that was going to yield the names and addresses (much less e-mails) of senior citizens trapped at home with inadequate health care, high school students who'd given up on college, young boys who couldn't find a basketball court even though they lived in the shadow of the Carrier Dome, one of the most recognizable venues in the country. Furthermore, we found ourselves fighting convention, which says that news comes from sources with titles next to their names not everyday people with stories to tell.
Laziness: It's an ugly word, a corollary to addiction, and it sounds so unkind. But after some debate, we decided to stick with it. Students discovered that it took the opposite of this ugly trait persistence to succeed. Many came to realize that it took half of their reporting time just to find the perfect source. This shouldn't have been surprising given the demographics of our reporting staff, their unfamiliarity with the neighborhood and the people, and the nature of the assignment. The least successful students went straight to the community centers, where they talked to social workers, volunteers and employees about "what they see," and where they asked for "names of people I can talk to." But the people with the biggest problems on the South Side don't go to the centers.
Nevertheless, there were some successes. One student volunteered to deliver Meals on Wheels to find the "perfect" source for her story on elderly shut-ins; a woman on the SU track team ran to an interview while other classmates moaned because they didn't have a car; one rode a city bus to report on how difficult it can be to get yourself to work, or your new vacuum home, when you don't have a car. So neither we nor our students should be tarred as hopeless pessimists. There was great value in the project for the Newhouse School and for the neighborhood we wrote about.
In the post-mortems, we realized that newspapers that call in "trainers" are facing the same problems. Editors tell their consultants: "We need to find a way to get more real people in the paper. To get our reporters out of the office. To look more like the people who read us."
Why are these problems intractable?
Because our journalism schools don't give enough tough, challenging, get-out-of-your-comfort-zone assignments. Neither do newsrooms, which designate such stories for a few reporters on a few beats.
The lesson is the same for students, teachers, reporters, editors and managers: It's about the way we work, and how we need to change it.###