Up Front and Personal

Life Lessons From ‘Sacred Task’ of Journalism

by Michael Rizzo

Why study journalism?

As director of the journalism program at St. John’s University, Jamaica, I routinely get that question when the new school year begins.

I’m sure other professors get something similar. Why do I need to learn algebra, philosophy or theology? I hope they respond that those studies impart logical thinking, critical thinking and deeper thinking. But let me focus on the discipline that I teach and still practice.

Besides just learning how to write and present news stories, majoring in journalism can offer life lessons regardless of one’s final career path.   

The first lesson it imparts is the way to lead one’s professional, and personal, life. Good journalism is grounded in ethical behavior. I begin each semester telling students that journalism is a “sacred task.” That’s how St. Pope John Paul II spoke of it in a letter to journalists in 2000.

He noted that reporters have “powerful means of communication” that they can use for “the common good and, in particular, for the good of society’s weakest groups.”

His words remind us of the standards in journalism that can be applied to all interactions in life: fairness, avoiding judgments, respect for others, minimizing harm and being accountable and transparent in our actions.

In his 2018 message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis wrote that journalism is “not just a job; it is a mission” and that “ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.”

We want journalists to be watchdogs, give voice to the voiceless and ask tough questions. But it can be done with respect and professionalism, and that is another life lesson to be followed in any line of work.   

Studying journalism also helps make better communicators. Stories in the news should be accurate, verified, easy to understand and clearly presented. Good journalism emphasizes engaging presentations of the facts. It should use words and images that properly represent those facts without bias or opinion. Learning and practicing those good communication skills can open a pathway for students to better engage with their parents, peers and future colleagues.

Of course journalism studies teach writing and reporting skills on how to present the news. The inverted pyramid story starts with a summary of the who, what, where, when and why. It’s followed by the body of the story with context and quotes from experts or eyewitnesses. Finally comes the end that recaps the story, adds more information or looks ahead to what’s next.

That structure of getting to the heart of a story reinforces the value of analyzing information, prioritizing key facts and delivering those details to others.

Finally, learning to do good interviews is learning to have conversations. Interviewing teaches how to break the ice of interaction. Purposeful Q&A, especially serious and hard-hitting interviews, need to be based on research and knowledge. Preparation is paramount, but so is the ability to react to the unexpected.

Who among us hasn’t once been tongue-tied at what to say? The skill, and courage, to ask questions and interact with others is a breath of fresh air in a world where it is all too easy to be isolated in technology.

Why study journalism? I embrace it for the chance to tell the first line of history. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 2006, the news media is “the protagonist of truth.” It allows me to apply my curiosity to find out the truth about events and the people involved in them.

To me it is more than a mission. It is a vocation.

I encourage my students to reflect if they have that calling. If they do, then I think they will be the great news providers of the future for trustworthy, solid reporting. But even if they pursue other careers, they will still have an understanding of ethics, communication and interpersonal skills from studying journalism that will help them in any vocation they choose.

Rizzo is an assistant professor and director of the journalism program at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He is also a freelance reporter for The Tablet.

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