Journalism and Moral Courage: A Course Bridging Past and Present

15 Oct 2022 12:23 PM | Erika Pribanic-Smith (Administrator)

by Melita M. Garza, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

On May 29, 2020, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, producer Bill Kirkos, and photojournalist Leonel Mendez were arrested on live television by armed National Guardsmen while reporting on the police killing of an unarmed Black man—George Floyd. The CNN crew was held for one hour and later received an apology from Minnesota’s governor. However, as the New York Times media critic James Poniewozik noted, “the messages had already been sent. The arrest told all media that there are people within law enforcement who now feel empowered enough to shut down coverage of unrest — unrest resulting from police violence — flat out in the open.”

The anecdote was provocative—and at the time I wrote the first syllabus for my course, among the most timely and powerful exemplars of U.S. journalists’ truth-telling struggle. What follows in this teaching essay is an overview of how I developed the Journalism and Moral Courage course, which in 2022 won the Jinx Coleman Broussard Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Media History from the AEJMC History Division.

Clearly, the incident involving CNN’s Jimenez was neither the first threat to happen on U.S. soil, nor the last. It was nonetheless jarring since attacks, harassment, and murders of journalists are often popularly linked to repressive regimes in distant regions of the globe. The election of Donald Trump—a president who made journalists his prime bête noir—and his administration’s blatant bending of the truth with “alternative fact-making,” raised the stakes for journalists in this country. Of course, presidential disdain for the media was nothing new, but Trump was very far from Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” name-calling. In this contemporary culture of fourth-estate contempt, I asked: “How might students make connections between abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy’s 1837 murder and the 'Rope. Tree. Journalist' meme?” Or between 1892, when Ida B. Wells feared returning home after her press was attacked, and 2018, when in an attempt to shut down and discredit Yamiche Alcindor, Trump accused the then PBS NewsHour correspondent of asking “racist” questions at a White House news conference.

It was that year when my idea for this course began percolating. Time had trained a spotlight on the contemporary attacks on journalism in 2018 when it named the “‘Guardians of the Truth’” as its “Person of the Year.” Among the magazine’s honorees were slain Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi as well as the staff of the Annapolis Capital Gazette, five of whom were murdered in the newsroom by a disgruntled story subject. Time’s cover story rebutted Trump’s “enemies of the people” frame against another proposed by Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, who countered that journalists should be described as “protectors of the truth.” In fact, Time portrayed the journalists as “guardians” who were battling “the manipulation and the abuse of truth.” But what is truth?

These issues of today in the news struck me as an opportunity to get firmly present-minded students to explore connections between current events and journalism history. Moreover, it was a way to get students thinking theoretically about the concepts of truth and moral courage. In other words, one aim of the course is to enable students to move beyond the Kovach and Rosenstiel maxim that the purpose of journalism is to provide people the information they need to be free—and to ask at what cost? This course differs from typical war reporting or conflict journalism courses per se. It doesn’t focus on skills or safety training, and it doesn’t focus on international conflicts, but on challenges that journalists, both internationally and domestically, have faced, with a particular focus on the struggle to find and convey “the truth.”  

The overarching objective for this course is to help students develop an understanding of the role of journalists in promoting democracy, justice, and equality, whether reporting domestically or in conflict zones abroad. The first part of the course focuses on defining “truth” and moral courage, while providing a grounding in key attributes of journalism. Readings for subsequent weeks relate to specific journalists and historical periods and are broken out by themes. I teach this course as a readings and research colloquium. Students lead class discussion for assigned weeks, interspersed with mini-lectures from the professor, visits from guest speakers, and in-class assignments with professor-developed worksheets and reflection prompts. Looking for another way to sneak journalism history into the curriculum? This course enabled me to teach historical methods in a way that let students see how researching the journalistic past can illuminate our understanding of the journalistic present.

Although I designed this course for undergraduates, most of whom were not journalism majors, the course could easily be adapted to the graduate level. For instance, in the first part of the course, one of the required readings is Lee McIntyre’s Post-Truth (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018). McIntyre’s book is a pocket-guide to understanding theories of truth, including the impact of post-modernism. Graduate students might be asked to explore conceptions of truth from Aristotle, Plato, Milton, and others directly. Likewise, the final project for the course, which is a research paper exploring a specific journalist’s struggle with moral courage and truth, might also be developed as a graduate project and conference paper submission (as it might be for undergraduates also).

Meanwhile, new attacks on the nation’s journalists continue to grab headlines, including the brutal stabbing of Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative journalist Jeff German in September 2022. These current issues offer an unabated opportunity to encourage students to live in two dimensions, asking them to explore the dimension of the past to contextualize today’s lived experience.

Copyright © 2022 AJHA ♦ All Rights Reserved
Contact AJHA via email

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software