Clash of titans, journalism vs. strategic communications

By Victoria Blow

On Feb. 24, Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications hosted a discussion by Simone Weichselbaum and Bill Keller, the staff writer and editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a non-profit news outlet that focuses on criminal justice.

It touches on topics ranging from Investigative reporting on the criminal justice system, short pieces with context analyzing the news. The Marshall Project avoids doing what everyone else is doing, said the speakers. They published a daily newsletter and partner with larger news organizations such as NPR.

The idea is to get the most eyes on their stories, said Weichselbaum and Bill Keller.

Keller told a story about Neil Barsky, who was inspired create this project because of his parents courageous acts during the civil rights movement to facilitate open housing.

Keller also said Barsky was inspired by "Devil in the Grove," a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a rape case in the 1940s that highlighted the civil rights work of Thurgood Marshall. Barsky was so struck by this book that he began to dig deep and research this event. He came to the realization that people needed a voice for these stories and created the Marshall Project.

The speakers talked about the ethical dilemmas that journalists face in publishing stories and the need for people of color in newsrooms to shed light on stories that get thrown under the rug.

Weichselbaum was able to offer the journalism students tips and strategies on how to cultivate sources and who to seek relationships with if you're a journalist in a new city.

"You talk to three different people and they'll each have a different version of the truth," she said.

Not only did she have truth for journalism students, but also for the Strategic Communications students as well, whether they liked the delivery or not.

Assistant Professor Drew Berry asked the 50-student audience if strategic communications students are of service to reporters for information? Many students said "no" due to their connection and ties to the brand or company they serve.

Weichselbaum in turn ruffled some student's feathers. "What do they teach you in flack school?" she asked.

Rashad Williams, a senior strategic communications major, answered, "Aside from what we're taught, service was brought into question and I think that PR students and PR work is more of servitude depending on what field that you're in. The same PR position you would hold for a corporation can be for black businesses. The core competencies that we learn are similar to journalism and can be applied in a different way."

Scripps Howard School students were surprised to learn that outside of these walls the world of journalism and public affairs is actually divided among the truth seekers versus the brand preservers.

"This is the first time I've heard of a bad relationship between public relations professionals and journalists," Jennifer Lowe, a strategic communications major from California.

Assistant Professor Lynn Waltz said, "I hope that students recognize that there's a lot of really important work to be done. Too many students think they want to be in the limelight. Sometimes you can do far more in the role of a journalist telling the truth for your country."

The writer is a student in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

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