Reporting out of the Comfort Zone: Setting College Students Loose in a Low-Income Neighborhood Doesn't Quite Inspire the Enthusiasm Syracuse Professors Hoped It Would

Article excerpt

It was a brainstorm, we thought.

The idea was to send 30 newspaper and magazine majors into the South Side neighborhood a dozen blocks from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and turn them loose. We figured it would be an experience in community journalism, in reporting and even in life, since most of the students were white and from neighborhoods quite unlike ZIP code 13205. It costs $35,000 to $40,000 a year to go to school here--about $10,000 more than the annual household income on the largely minority South Side.

So how did it go? By a margin of about 2-to-1, our students hated it.

We'd read Thomas Kunkel's piece (Above the Fold, February/March) about how students embraced the assignments in his feature writing class. We'd had good experiences like that, too, but this was a real trial, a struggle for students who--at 20--already were locked into some bad habits and some old newsroom conventions.

That said, the project was not a failure. We're going to do it again. It produced good stories--one or two great ones--and in the process challenged our students' notions of what it takes to create meaningful journalism. Ours, too.

As we plan to repeat this project, we tried to figure out why it was that instead of excitement, the assignment inspired dread. Our lessons included these:

* There was fear: the discomfort journalists have interviewing people who aren't like them. Nine out of 10 of our reporters were white. At least eight in 10 of the people they interviewed were not. Even one of the minority journalists working on the project told us that the experience was a daunting one for her; she came from the same affluent suburbs as many of her classmates. The real problem is that our students--and a lot of professional reporters--aren't comfortable with "different" people, cultures, lifestyles or neighborhoods. They need practice, exposure. Classrooms and newsrooms must insist that everyone gets it.

* Addiction: to phones, e-mail and Web search engines. Today, especially on a college campus, any story that can't be completed by using these tools is seen as a pain in the rear. Students are comfortable with keyboards and broadband connections. Our students knew they could get the Census data they needed online, but there was no Google search for the South Side of Syracuse that was going to yield the names and addresses (much less e-mails) of senior citizens trapped at home with inadequate health care, high school students who'd given up on college, young boys who couldn't find a basketball court even though they lived in the shadow of the Carrier Dome, one of the most recognizable venues in the country. …