Stop Asking Your Journalism Students to Interview Working Journalists

Thursday, February 16, 2017 / 1:14 AM

Last year, I received an email from a journalism student who had an assignment in one of her classes to interview a working journalist. The email I received explained the assignment briefly, and then a list of 8 questions she had copied and pasted from the professor (I assumed they were copied and pasted because she didn't bother to remove the professor' notes on each question).

No request asking if I was available, no offer to speak by phone – oh, and her assignment was due Tuesday morning. I got this email on a Sunday night.

It's not that I don't like helping young journalists out. What I dislike is being asked to essentially complete an assignment for them. In this case, I wasn't even asked. It felt like a command or an obligation, like an expectation that I would fulfill.

In my career, I've done informational interviews with people, and I helped a student once with one of these interview assignments (it was a student who I knew because she interned at my company, she asked me well in advance for my help, and we spoke by phone). But the more and more I get these requests from students for their classes, the less inclined I've been to do them.

Again, not because I don't want to help, but for other reasons, which include a lack of time and also something that needs to be addressed with journalism instructors everywhere:

Dear Journalism Instructors,

Please stop asking your students to interview journalists. It's not a productive assignment.

Not only is it really difficult because many journalists are busy with their own work – which probably causes a lot of stress to your students as they frantically try to get someone to say "yes" to being interviewed – but the amount of time your students are spending finding journalists and then interviewing them (unless they do that copy/paste shit, which again: no one has time for that), they could be working on articles. Reporting. Practicing being a journalist – not just talking to one.

As one of my colleagues pointed out in a recent conversation about this topic: if you want your students to practice reaching out and interviewing someone, have them interview a police officer or a political figure. Those are skills that can be critical, yet glossed over, in journalism.

If your intention is to have students seek mentors and learn from people in the field, why not consider arranging for guest speakers? Those can be done in person or on Skype. Or encourage your students to reach out to people for informationals, but not as an assignment? It's also worth understanding that, because a journalist's job requires a level of objectivity, some of the questions you've asked them to ask might not be answerable. And in those instances, would you end up docking the student for not getting all the answers? That also puts the student in a frustrating position.

Of course, I'm willing to hear arguments otherwise; maybe I'm missing the point of the assignment...

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  1. Keen observations! This problem isn't limited to journalists, either. My husband is a PhD student in geology and he gets emails from undergrads all the time with long, open-ended questions that he's pretty sure a professor told them to ask and that they should really be able to look up on their own. (Top two: What's it like to be a graduate student? and What's the subject of your research?) I think colleges need better mentorship programs and also a course on email etiquette.

  2. Exactly! Email etiquette is so important...