Lessons You Don’t Learn in a J-School Classroom

A terrific quote appeared in a story by Marc Parry of Albany, New York’s timesunion.com today. The article about the increasing popularity of journalism as a college major mentioned the lousy job market for journalists these days but noted that many young people don’t seem deterred by it. (Yet.)

And Parry quoted Dow Smith, a professor at Siena College who is building the journaliam major at that college, as saying, “You don’t learn this job until you’ve been lied to by a cop.”

I cracked up, reading that. It’s the truth, too. I have a master’s degree in journalism, and believe me, I learned wonderful things from a veritable Who’s Who list of professors/great journalists, including the venerable Gene Roberts, Haynes Johnson and Carl Sessions Stepp. Trust me, I would not trade that experience for anything.

But I can tell you the exact moments when I really learned some of the most valuable lessons that would serve me in my career as a journalist. Here are the top three:

  • I covered the first inauguration of President George W. Bush in January 2001 for the University of Maryland’s wire service, Capital News Service. It was cold, and a steady frozen rain was blanketing the city. Upon trying to interview people for my story, I discovered that the ink in my pens had frozen. Bad enough that my notebook was half-soaked, but then I could barely scratch my notes into the soggy paper. Lesson learned: Be prepared. Carry plenty of supplies so you don’t get caught unable to write something important down. Stash extra pens and pencils in your pockets or bag.
  • That same semester, I was covering the Maryland General Assembly and was writing a story about the governor’s wheelings and dealings with other state lawmakers. The Maryland mayor’s spokesperson tried to retroactively take a quote back. I firmly but politely stood my ground. She demanded to talk to my editor. My editor told me she was supporting me because I was right. The spokeswoman backed down. I didn’t end up using the quote because I didn’t need it, but I had made my point. The spokeswoman treated me with much more courtesy after that. Lesson learned: Don’t be intimidated, especially if you’re right. And it never hurts to be polite and use good manners.
  • In 2004, a terrible car accident left a young mother dead inside her car, deep inside a ravine. Her young daughter Ruby was injured by not killed. She stayed by her mother’s body for nine days and survived by eating snacks in the car. I was asked by an editor at The Desert Sun to interview some of the family members about the accident. I drove to the dead woman’s house and met her brothers, her aunts, and several of her small children. Her young toddler daughter, barely out of diapers, told me that her mother was dead, while her uncle gathered her to his chest in anguish. I gulped back tears. (I still do when I think about that moment.) Lesson learned: Never lose your humanity. You can gather wonderful details for a story by listening to your heart, and  thenyou can write a  story that pays homage to someone who meant a great deal to many people.

I still have a lot to learn. I know that. But I do know that you have to DO journalism in order to really learn those lessons and let them shape who you are. So I hope to keep on learning.

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About jenniferlarsonwrites

I'm a freelance writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee. I have a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor's degree in English from Rhodes College. I'm a born-and-bred Southerner who spent a few years in Southern California, a rabid baseball fan and a would-be grower of tomatoes. You can also visit me at LinkedIn or on Twitter at @JenniferLarson.
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2 Responses to Lessons You Don’t Learn in a J-School Classroom

  1. Pat Washburn says:

    My best J-school teachers were the part-timers, the ones who were still reporting every day.

  2. jenniferlarsonwrites says:

    I lalso learned a lot from one of my other instructors who was working as an editor while also teaching at Maryland. Steve Crane, if you’re out there reading this, thank you!

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