How to build a better journalism school: Part 4, grammars

Journalism education, like the typical newsroom, is in need of rebuilding.

Journalism education, like the typical newsroom, is in need of rebuilding.

I had a traditional education in journalism school, focused on newspapering. That includes learning several rules for writing headlines — cutting out forms of the verb “to be,” not breaking phrases between the first and second lines of a multi-line headline, making all the lines of a headline roughly the same length. Rules like that were semi-technical — based, at least theoretically, on the limitations of print headlines and the supposed habits of readers. There were other rules — don’t use questions as headlines, say. And each publication I worked at usually had some additional rules based on newsroom tradition or the quirks of individual managers — oh, maybe avoiding gerunds.

When I was in charge of The Plain Dealer’s online efforts, I had to learn a new set of rules and guidelines, appropriate to the new mode of presentation. But I ran into opposition. Something as simple as putting keywords at the start of headlines — important for stories where we were chasing Google searchers — irked some colleagues. They seemed to see the rules we’d used in print as handed down from God, or at least Joseph Pulitzer, while my new rules were an outrage. When I dared push our homepage headlines in the direction of making it more likely that readers would click — well, that earned me a slap from our Reader Representative, Ted Diadiun.

Similarly, I had to deal with disgruntlement when we held classes in video. Many things about the classes were disgruntling to some colleagues, but that included the idea that they should have to bother about things like how to frame a talking head, or the need to avoid “uh-huhing” and “okaying” while their interviewees were talking.

Those experiences led me to propose that journalism schools include a course called “Grammars.” That’s grammar in the generic sense of the basic elements of something. For writing stories, that would include some (but not all) of what’s taught as grammar now in J classes. (I say not all because I don’t want to waste time with persnickety rules that do not reflect the language as it is actually spoken. More about that in a future post.)

We’ll also cover the basics of writing headlines, for various types of media. We’ll cover rules for photos, video and data visualization that will ensure students avoid amateurish mistakes and can produce content that is up to the current standards of a small or mid-sized multimedia newsroom.

What I hope to accomplish with the Grammars class is to establish a baseline of competency while making students realize that these rules have similar purposes, however different they may seem from one mode of presentation to another. I would hope that we could then include a broader perspective, talking about the difference between rules based on the technical aspects of each medium, those based on actual evidence of audience reaction, and those that are simply tradition or idiosyncrasy. We can talk about when it makes sense to break the rules, and why following them most of the time makes those exceptions more effective.

When I first posted my proposed curriculum, Penn State professor Curt Chandler suggested that these grammars should come first, ahead of Facts, because he saw a major lack of media literacy even among journalism majors. I’m open to that, but I will say that I’ve seen a lot of lacks even among journalism majors, so I will leave the question of which are most serious and need to be addressed first to more discussion and the situation at individual schools.

Also, American University professor Wendell Cochran noted that an essential grammars class would help students “learn to learn.” Quite right. We need to push far away from the notion that a degree in journalism provides 100% of the minimum career requirements. Instead, we have to emphasize that we’re providing the tools our graduates can build on, using their own initiative to seek out further education and to adapt to changing technologies and changing audiences.

This is the fourth in a series about improving journalism education.

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