In his Civic Journalism and Social Justice course, Tom Mullen, the journalism department’s director of public affairs, teaches students that journalists don’t just report the news — they often have a responsibility to tell stories that inspire social change.
“The whole notion of civic journalism has been bubbling up in the industry for some time,” he says. “I want students to see journalism as an instrument of democracy, as something that’s essential to a well-ordered society. They don’t always initially realize the power the media can have in shaping a public conversation.”
The course takes sociological and historical perspectives, addressing the role of journalism in identifying social problems and uncovering ways to resolve them.
“We talked about racial justice and how news reporters talked about the injustices that were going on,” Mullen says. “We talked about the way that poor people tend to be overlooked in the news media. We looked at the way The Washington Post covered mental health issues, focusing specifically on Katherine Boo, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the way she told great stories about how the mentally disabled were treated in group homes.”
Mullen’s course also is designated as a first-year seminar, a series of courses aimed at introducing new students to the academic discussion and communication skills that are necessary for a liberal arts education, while exploring a variety of interests. He feels the class is particularly well suited for a first-year seminar because of the broad viewpoint journalism requires.
“You can’t look at journalism without considering government and politics, human interest, the drama of daily life, and social-related forces that shape our society and shape the way we think,” he says. “Having the opportunity to focus on clarity, on solid reporting, on context, on honesty, on objectivity, will benefit any student, regardless of major.”
Gabbie Raffio, ’14, agrees the class was a good introduction to the University. “I was unsure how classes would differ from high school to college,” she says. “I liked that the class only had freshmen; This was our first step into college and we were taking it together.”
First-year seminars also are an opportunity for incoming students to test the waters before declaring a major. Mullen found that the class sparked an interest in several students to sign up for additional journalism courses, and some are even thinking about majoring in the field.
“I had this course in mind as a potential first-year seminar when I was scheduling, but it was not my first choice,” says Christine Wengloski, ’14, who took the class last fall and is now considering a major in journalism. “As we examined the processes and values behind civic journalism, I learned that journalism is not only about asking questions and getting answers, but about the impact of sharing those answers with the public.
“I came into my first year with little idea as to what my major would be, and I know I would still be clueless without having had the opportunity to explore journalism,” she adds.
Regardless of whether they decide to pursue journalism, Mullen hopes students leave the class as better news consumers.
“One of the requirements was to read daily news; it’s a habit that’s hard to break once you get into it,” he says. “I’d like people of any discipline to feel that good journalism is vital. We should be demanding more of the media to report well — to give us the things we need, not just the things we want.”