My journalism education at UH continued.
The following is a slightly edited email that was sent to an education reporter recently, detailing my problems at the University of Houston. The struggles herein illustrate some big and longstanding problems in journalism education.
I hope students with similar problems find this and feel less alone because I believe it was loneliness that played a big part in my lack of confidence and success in journalism.
I got into journalism when I became very interested in OER (open education resources) after seeing a TED talk by Richard Baraniuk of Connexions (one of the early pioneers of OER) on the subject. I talked to Dr. Baraniuk for an hour at Rice (after cramming for 6 hours for the interview outside of his office), got an endorsement from Noam Chomsky for OER through email (since he’s brilliant and teaches at MIT, where OCW/EdX is), dug through tons of lobbying reports and found that Pearson (biggest book publisher) was lobbying against TAACCCT/federal support of OER, found that the founder of Flat World Knowledge (OER Profiteer) was from Pearson, which -led me to an article/interview with the founder (Jeff Shelstad,) in which he spoke about Pearson’s interest in getting into OER (not the most shocking thing, but interesting,) I spoke to a couple of education professors about OER, I googled and read tons about OER, added TAACCCT to my Google Alerts, etc., and I put all of what I found together in a rough draft for my school paper.
Not long after I joined the school paper – in the middle of working on the OER story, they ended up unofficially firing me (they didn’t give me a reason/written notice as their code says they must) because my editor and I couldn’t agree on Noam Chomsky’s quote being a sentence fragment making it unquotable/unusable (even though the news editor for the Houston Chronicle later said it was a good quote.) The way they put it I “refused to make changes” after they explained things to me (they really didn’t.)
Later I found that an editor who I was working with blatantly plagiarized a website (she was fired) and I also found the editor I bickered about the Chomsky quote arguably plagiarized, as well as another editor – who the student paper never responded to me about once I told them.
Before I joined the school paper, I analyzed the summer’s news stories and found that over half were based on press releases by the school, some very strongly (plagiarism.)
Which brings me to something I really would like to see more attention given in the media – the fundamental flaw of teaching journalism at a university with a university owned paper. Asking journalism students to report on their owner is essentially ensuring they’re doing public relations/anti-journalism from the start (my school paper even had editors, etc. doing advertisement pamphlets, etc. to keep the paper afloat and also, I think I remember some reporters doing PR for the school as well – in a freshman indoctrination magazine.)
This PR mindset led to me being placed on the “environmental beat” (least popular) after showing the Reporting professor a list of story ideas I was working on, including investigating the school President because where she was provost is now 450 million$ in debt , she and a man she brought to UH helped build 9 buildings there, and I felt it deserved exploration and would be good practice investigating prestigious people.)
All of my problems with the school/paper are recorded pretty thoroughly – including a conversation with the school paper Editor in Chief, in which he tells me, before I go to my Reporting class, the beat that I will be assigned to: the least popular – environmental. I guess the Reporting professor and EiC had a meeting about me after they saw that I took journalism seriously and decided to discourage me. Not long after that, I was threatened with being removed from the Reporting class by the Editor in Chief (not the professor) for leaving critical/insightful comments about news stories on the paper’s website.
The Reporting professor equates 2 tiny UH press release rewrites, aka “Newslines”, with one news story in how he grades his class. He couldn’t emphasize the value of Total obedience enough (after I told him about my problems with my OER editor) and FOI requests are FORBIDDEN in his class because school lawyers were “getting too many” in a previous semester.
I asked him in front of the class while filling out the beats I wanted if the beats hadn’t already been chosen. He lied and said that they had not been assigned – though he later informs me after class, away from students, of the truth. Maybe this is kind of petty, but this is just one more thing coming to mind. And maybe it was silly to try to investigate my school, maybe I should have just done “nonschool stories for a while”, as one education reporter told me, but a quote from Noam Chomsky often gave me the resolve to continue with what I believed to be right (as well as become more cynical about school):
“If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you’re saying, because it’s too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience.”
I also drove to the Texas Tribune Festival and slept in my car 2 nights to report on it for my school and see some media/politician logrolling. I found and reported on my old editor in chief at my school paper making racist jokes, etc. on his Twitter account, which linked to the school paper on his Twitter homepage and said he was an editor (another rule broken.) I talked to several members of the Student Publication Committee about problems at the paper, only one was very receptive (the paper’s manager/advisor) though he soon got sick of me, which is understandable since he has to work with all the other people who were already sick of me.
I searched BoardEx and other places for connections between contractors working on the huge expansion of our campus (which is expanding since the new President came because, They say, prices will never be better due to the economy) and the Regents approving expansion, since it includes rich busienssmen/developers/people with shady backgrounds, and because I think they probably feel safe from investigation. I bought a new copy of the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook (hadn’t bought a book in ages) and joined IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors.)
I filed several FOI requests (before I got into my Reporting class) and learned how tricky lawyers can be. I obtained royalty data w/ the FOI requests from some big publishers for our school, and tried to follow up on the names on the forms to do a story about custom textbook publishing problems, but the school PR department has a very strong grip on employees. The PR department even has an “expert” index which seems fairly arbitrary in it’s selection of professors the media should talk to. I could never get a clear answer about what they base who is in the index on, but my guess is it’s professors who have been versed in PR.
I’ve found some lies in school PR statements and an environmental survey (this wasn’t allowed to be included in my environmental story) and sheer propaganda in the school’s health center “Marijuana 101” class, which a professor, who is an expert on drug war propaganda, debunked thoroughly (this was never published either, but partly due to me just being worn down from no encouragement, PR bullying, feeling alone, etc.)
I asked the school paper manager for the paper’s reader survey results and categorized the comments to find out what people liked, didn’t like about the paper, etc. (though this was never put to use due to my problems with the paper.)
I came up with long lists of ideas on how to improve the paper, which were dismissed and disregarded. I thought about journalism incessantly. Not to sound arrogant, but I really feel I was nearly an ideal student. And, again – no one else was doing anything even close to this level of critical/investigative reporting. The only other student I met who was investigating the school/doing FOI requests was a sociology major.
I also did a random sampling of the school paper for a project in another class and found almost no criticism of the school, as well as other things.
Of course this is only my side of the story and maybe this isn’t very compelling, but I feel like it hits on some big issues and it’s a good illustration of of big problems in journalism school.
I hope you at least see why I’m so cynical and spiteful towards my school now, when I started off quite optimistic (I stayed awake, elated, for 2 days straight in my 2nd to last semester when I finally found a journalism professor I liked – because she talked about problems in the media, the importance of debate, etc.)
I was extremely excited with the idea of being an investigative reporter and read/investigated feverishly. I read a few books on journalism throughout the summer – I hadn’t read books to a great extent in almost 10 years.
Now I’m depressed and feeling hopeless – especially about journalism. I’m surprised I typed this out so (I hope) coherently, to be honest. I’m not putting that all on the school, because I certainly could’ve done some things smarter, but if there had been just one student who seemed to be into doing Real reporting, or maybe one professor who really pushed me – I think I would’ve been a lot better off.
I think I had a lot of potential and it was squandered, and a lot of that is on the school. For the 20+ Thousand dollars I spent there, I think I could’ve got a lot better deal at a used book store or paying a newspaper to let me work for them. Or even just burning the money might have been better, because like I said – they really teach PR to a very great extent, which is very detrimental to j-students.
The professor I mentioned who taught the extremely easy class online was a PR professional and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more j-professors like him.
A UH alumni who I got to agree to ghostwrite a paper for me was also in PR. I was going to do a story on ghostwriting using the emails received from the many UH alumni, Ivy League Alumni, UH students, and even a Uni of Phoenix professor, who asked to write my 101 papers for 10-15$ a page after I posted an ad on craigslist, but that never came to fruition either.
I know this doesn’t flow well, and it’s really long, and I’m kind of egotistically trying to make myself the story but, again, I hope it helps lead to a good story. It helped me vent at least. And like Thoreau said, “I should not talk about myself so much if there were anyone else whom I knew as well.”