By Howard SinkerThe news reporting class I teach probably isn’t what you’d expect. The college where I teach doesn’t offer a journalism degree — and I’m good with that. My hope is that students learn a little about how to write a story and a lot about things they might be interested in writing about. That seems like an excellent plan for most majors.
So we don’t sweat deadlines (too much). We do sweat lots of the traditional stuff: Writing an engaging lead, an eye for detail, stone cold accuracy, interviewing. A 100-level class isn’t a place for the “publish or perish” mindset.
More than anything else, I hope, we sweat humanity. Technical prowess doesn’t mean much if student journalists lack the ability to think outside of themselves and see things journalism does to perpetuates stereotypes. If professionals weren’t guilty of the latter, would we need the Native American Journalists Association bingo card?
That’s why our weekly class starts each session with a land acknowledgement. Many people familiar with Macalester College see it as a diverse, progressive liberal arts college in St. Paul. The Wahpeton Band of Lakota may see it as a place of privilege built on the ancestral land from which they were exiled. Both are true. It’s vital from the jump that journalists who want to tell stories understand that radically different perspectives often exist side-by-side in all areas of society.
I am convinced that Macalester’s commitment to recognizing its past contributed to a student-led movement a few years ago — sparked in large part by the college’s Indigenous community and coverage by the Mac Weekly student newspaper — that resulted in the name of the college’s founder being removed from the building where our class meets.
Be assured, we write a lot in our news reporting class. And the students become used to my (often) paragraph-by-paragraph critiques of their stories. “This is a good start; here’s a way to make it work even better.” … “Is there a better phrase?” … “Excellent detail. I can *see* this scene.” … “This paragraph makes me want to read more!” … “Omit needless words (Thanks, Strunk and White!).”
But after more than 30 years as a non-tenure track faculty member (“Wordy! Why don’t you use ‘adjunct’ and save some words?”) I’m just as intent on students understanding that how we perceive our surroundings plays a big role in how we write about them. If we succeed, that is setting students up to become excellent journalists just as much as our handouts on quotes, leads and how to write a personality profile.
I made perception gaffes as a young reporter and could tell you about two that haunt me even now that I’m an old web editor. I can also tell you that more than 30 years ago, when I was doing front-page “stories for non-sports fans” about the Minnesota Twins playing in the World Series, I wrote about all seven games without using the nickname of Atlanta’s baseball team. If you look in the archives, you will see the nickname in spots in stories under my bylines. It was the (understandable) work of copy editors. But I wanted to do this without calling attention to it in real time and on deadline, to prove to myself that it could be done so I could more forcefully argue that it should be done.
Gender issues that linger in journalism
Most Macalester students are urban, suburban or international. Most come from backgrounds of privilege. So an important part of their education here is to see the 2021 documentary “Storm Lake” and understand the Cullen family’s passion for community journalism and how it plays out at a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in a small Iowa town. Seeing “Love Them First,” the Minneapolis NBC affiliate’s story about the challenges of teaching in an urban elementary school, shows how journalists can tell a troubling-yet-hopeful story with honesty and compassion. Watching “Police on Trial,” the Frontline/Minneapolis Star Tribune collaboration on the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath is aspirational and inspirational.
And every year we have a class session devoted to sports journalism to make a point about gender issues that are still unfortunate constants. I call it our Title IX class. But it’s much more. The class watches the 2013 ESPN film “Let Them Wear Towels,” about the battle to break down gender barriers in sports reporting in the 1970s. The students gasp and laugh nervously at a former commissioner of baseball who says that women shouldn’t have locker room access because it wouldn’t be fair to the players’ families. They learn the stories of Lisa Olson’s harassment by the New England Patriots and Hall of Fame baseball journalist Claire Smith’s treatment by the San Diego Padres, Reggie Jackson and others during the first years of her career.
“Before watching ‘Let Them Wear Towels’ in class, I never thought that male and female journalists were treated differently by athletes and coaches,” said Ziyue Xue, who will be a reporting intern this summer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “After this class, I (started) to think about … some of the invisible gender discrimination in other journalism fields, such as business reporting and politics reporting.”
After the movie, the professionals take over the room – three Twin Cities journalists in different fields who describe their experiences. My role? Get out of the way.
Rachel Blount, the Olympics and horse racing writer at the Star Tribune, lived similar experiences to many captured in the movie. Blount’s sports editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was an ally who made it clear to schools in the Southeastern Conference about what wouldn’t be tolerated. (Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, is a good guy in her story-telling to the class.) In the 1990s, Blount was the hockey writer for the Star Tribune when Minnesota North Stars owner Norm Green was involved in a sex harassment suit filed by his executive assistant — currently the majority leader in the Minnesota State Senate — that was settled out of court. Blount tells students about how Green treated her — “Tried to kiss me, pawed at me, often commented on my appearance.” — and the dynamics of how that situation was handled by her male editors.
Sloane Martin, lead women’s basketball announcer for the Big Ten Network and play-by-play voice of College Football Saturday Night for Learfield Sports, shares her experience going from a Division III basketball player to full-time sports announcing. She connects dots that include juggling play-by-play with being a news reporter for the main AM radio station in Minnesota — a career combination that included being the station’s lead reporter in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of killing George Floyd.
Lindsey Young, a multimedia reporter for the Minnesota Vikings’ web site, had a career path that went from being an English major at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul to covering pro football. This year, we laughed about a “mansplaining” story she told about a social situation, while knowing full well that such behavior is an unfortunate part of the workplace and student life. Things that were said loudly and stupidly 50 years ago, in Title IX’s infancy, are things that are still being said (albeit more quietly) in 2023.
The pros learn, too
After her visit, Young sent me an email:
“It’s the only class that I’ve done where I’ve been alongside two other women in sports, and it’s become a fun way to connect with Sloane and Rachel. But more than that, I am impressed every single year with the engagement level … and the thoughtfulness of questions from students, both men and women. When Howard shows the film Let Them Wear Towels, I tend to take a look around the room just to see students’ expressions or attentiveness, and it’s interesting to see what questions the film prompts. I know that Rachel, Sloane and I are invited as resources to the students, but I benefit from it so much, as well.”
Sloane Martin wrote:
“Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day grind over the years of our jobs and trying to make the most of our careers. The class is a time for me to reflect on the journey to get here, and the obstacles that have been present along the way. I see it from students’ perspective, where you can set out thinking the work world is a meritocracy, when in fact there are many systemic challenges at play that can’t be ignored. It’s not to frighten them or to steer them away — I actually come away feeling the exact opposite: that it’s an opportunity for them to feel motivated and propelled to see this as a career because of hearing from our own experiences as women who have succeeded in this industry.”
At the end of last semester’s class, a student submitted a course evaluation that included this comment:
“My favorite night was the Title IX night because it was something I didn’t know much about, and I found the stories really inspiring. It’s definitely important for prospective female journalists to hear stories of the boundaries they will likely face, and how to navigate them. It makes it feel a lot less daunting and more attainable.”
When that awareness is transferred to telling the stories of others, we are on our way to helping student journalists succeed – and to become models for their peers, young and old, to emulate.
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Howard Sinker (@afansview) is a senior instructor in Media and Cultural Studies at Macalester College and web sports editor at startribune.com. His course materials are available by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.