An Egyptian Educator Reflects on Teaching Journalism and Media Job Prospects
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Before the current academic year started, I received an invitation from Egypt’s Suez University to teach media practical applications and online journalism to first-year students at the Faculty of Media and Communication Technology.
That invitation raised several questions about how to present the basics of journalistic writing and the ever-changing media industry to young people who had just chosen to study a field that interacts with their daily lives.
We can easily notice this overlap and even monitor a full-fledged communication phenomenon, in a gesture, sign, mere “like” or comment between one person and another on Facebook or other social media platforms with billions of users, as various reports reveal.
Since journalism is an academic field that entails rapid, transient social behaviour and affects people’s interests, I found that I needed to build a precise equation to find a quality practice that keeps pace with the new generations’ interests, taking into account the changing requirements of the labour market.
The real challenge was not only in how to formulate this equation but also in translating it into a practical approach, to be given to a batch of about 80 first-year students, as principles of rational professional media practice, and as if they were part of an already existing journalistic production course.
Before Studying Journalism
What should not be overlooked in talking about teaching first-year students is identifying the path they took before deciding to enroll in this college, and its ranking among their preferred majors upon finishing high school. In my first classes, I found out that journalism was not their first choice but rather it was their last choice, due to low grades on high school exit exams.
“If journalism is about revealing contradictions, then it is a direct exercise of critical thinking that urges people to apply reason and employ logical analysis tools.”
This gives the university teacher another task, besides teaching, which is to constantly alert students to strive to explore and gain opportunities from the best available options, instead of crying over the opportunities they think they have missed.
The Language of Instruction
Just as clear language has great value in the practice of journalism, it is an obligatory necessity when it comes to teaching. We need to choose a language that suits the capabilities of students who have just finished their school education and keep it away from any elitist language. Journalists commit to using smooth, coherent language, devoid of any unnecessary complexity, to enable all readers to understand, regardless of their educational attainment.
Practice in Classroom
I worked to turn the lecture hall into a weekly workshop. It was a heavy task in light of the large number of students, but the results were very promising.
It was not possible to achieve positive results without directly linking students’ lessons to what they think about on a daily basis, in terms of subjects related to public life and people’s interests. Did food prices rise again? Did the price of a carton of eggs increase? Has the dream of some people owning a new car been shattered after the recent doubling in their prices? What’s new in the story of a famous singer’s dispute with her husband? What is the latest about the transfer of a famous athlete from one club to another? How do all these things affect our lives?
Both students and I put general issues on the discussion table. We then try to arrange these issues in terms of importance and impact on people’s lives. Amidst enthusiasm, over a class period of about two hours, we explored the principles of journalistic news, the foundations of proper writing, and how to write news headlines, in an advanced practice that students were amazingly suitable for it despite their fresh experience in media, study, and practice.
From our classes to the mid-term exams, my passionate students continued to shine, and their answers in the oral exam were thought-provoking. I asked them to evaluate the most prominent news stories in the morning on their way to the university, and to list them in order of importance. I asked them to ask a specific question to a public official regarding an issue of concern to citizens. They showed an appreciable practical performance.
“Media work is not limited to specific printed, audio, or visual media, but rather linked to basic rules that can be applied by students, if they master them during their education, in any traditional or innovative medium.”
This approach was not far from the strategy of the department I was honoured to join. I have reviewed previous final exams, prepared by Dr. Hussein Rabie, head of the Department of Journalism and Online Publishing. I was impressed by the keenness to link study and practice.
Moreover, some questions were about news published in newspapers, asking students to evaluate and comment on them. Other questions were more practical, including one that asked them to imagine themselves as the head of the external department in an Egyptian newspaper, asked by the editor-in-chief to nominate an editor to be the outlet’s correspondent in France: so what are the qualities and criteria that will govern your choice of this reporter? Another question asked each student to identify the questions they might ask themselves, before deciding to select and cover a specific newsworthy event amongst dozens of concurrent daily events.
Multiple-Window Journalism and Critical Thinking
If journalism is about revealing contradictions, then it is a direct exercise of critical thinking that urges people to apply reason and employ logical analysis tools, the foremost of which is asking questions exploring the essence of matters in order to describe problems and search for solutions.
If this is the case, then media work is not limited to specific printed, audio, or visual media, but rather linked to basic rules that can be applied by students, if they master them during their education, in any traditional or innovative medium. This was clear in one of my student’s plans to create a YouTube sports analysis channel. While mastering technological photography and editing tools is important, the values of journalism itself remain essential, which includes choosing the discussion topic, determining the angle of treatment, or even measuring the importance of the content that is presented to the target audience.
Likewise, if we want to present the journalistic content itself, using any new digital media, we must remember the basic rules of work before deciding on the appropriate format that best suits the audience’s consumption behaviour, whether it will be an interactive TikTok video, a podcast, or any of the many constantly evolving digital formats.
“Providing students with the necessary practical media skills, in its varied applications, should be a basic obligation from the first day at school. Decision-makers in higher education institutions should make this matter a priority worthy of support.”
The discussion about the challenges facing the media industry in the digital era is not new. I do not think it will ever stop, especially with the continued development, including what technology adds to our online experience, and the speed, efficiency, and spread of the Internet among users.
Several studies dealt with this topic, including a 2015 study by Gareth Price, a researcher at the British policy institute Chatham House, titled “Opportunities and Challenges for Journalism in the Digital Age: Asian and European Perspectives”.
The Future of Studying Journalism at Universities
In conclusion, based on my experience, I see the need to question the future of journalism studies in Arab universities, by involving academics and experts in a discussion aimed at exploring effective solutions to the crisis of thousands of unemployed journalism graduates.
While recognising that the crisis needs a more in-depth study, I believe that the means of treatment should not lose sight of the importance of linking academia to practice in a serious, rigorous manner, using measurable mechanisms, and not to be satisfied with loose initiatives or organized visits for students to the headquarters of press and media institutions with no real results.
Providing students with the necessary practical media skills, in its varied applications, should be a basic obligation from the first day at school. Decision-makers in higher education institutions should make this matter a priority worthy of support.
Ismail Alashwal is the senior editor of the Arabic edition of Al-Fanar Media. He also works as a lecturer and trainer in journalism and digital media applications. You can contact Alashwal at [email protected].
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