Celebrating 75 Years of JEM: Forward Focused
75 Sparkling Years: The Diamond Jubilee
This article was written by students as part of the next issue of SCOOP Magazine, an annual publication created through the guidance of faculty members.
Introduction by Christian Knox
Symposium interviews by Christian Knox, Andrew Peters, Chloe Sutton, Natalie Welch, and Riley Woody
As the rate of evolution within the field of journalism increased exponentially over the past 75 years, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media (JEM) adapted at every twist and turn along the way to provide a top-tier theoretical and practical journalism education to its students.
Starting in 1923, UT journalism classes were offered through the English department. In 1947, after the Tennessee Press Association asked the university to build up its journalism program, the journalism department was created as part of the College of Business. Thanks to free tuition from the GI Bill of Rights, World War II veterans poured into the journalism department—and wrote for The Orange and White, the predecessor of The Daily Beacon.
The School of Journalism was founded in 1957, laying the groundwork for the creation of the College of Communications in 1969. As broadcast media grew in popularity, the university opened the Department of Broadcasting within the College of Communications in 1970. Sam Swan, who replaced Darrel Holt as head of the department in 1985, was a catalyst for development. He required all broadcasting students to work at WUTK and he launched the UT Today program on WBIR in 1996. “The program was the only kind in the nation produced by students and broadcast on a non-owned network affiliate,” says Swan. He also led 19 students on the college’s first study abroad trip in 2000, establishing what would become the college’s Global Programs initiative.
Three years later, the Department of Broadcasting merged with the School of Journalism to form the School of Journalism and Electronic Media; around the same time, the college acquired the School of Information Sciences and changed its name to the College of Communication and Information (CCI). Since then, professors have adapted their courses to include web journalism, social media, podcasting, digital newsletters, and even virtual reality—all while preparing students to compete in the ever-changing field. As the world of journalism and media continues to morph at a rapid pace, JEM continues to adapt to the newest emerging media while educating students on the time-tested tenets that sit at the heart of journalism.
A Symposium Concerning the School of Journalism and Electronic Media (JEM) at the University of Tennessee
Members of the SCOOP 2022 team chatted with six JEM faculty members about the past and future of our school—and the enterprise of preparing students for a world of ever-changing media and communication.
Catherine Luther, JEM Director and Professor
Nick Geidner, Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies,
Director of Land Grant Films
Guy Harrison, Assistant professor
Rob Heller, Professor
Joy Jenkins, Assistant Professor
Mustafa Oz, Assistant Professor
[Interviews have been edited and condensed for publication.]
Rob Heller: The 75th is a wonderful time to celebrate. I have students I’ve been in touch with from a very long time ago. Recently, I chatted with a student I had about twenty-five or so years ago—and it was like no time had passed. She’s a vice president of marketing at a major software manufacturer. She told me she still uses the things that I taught her back then. The best thing about being here this long is that you build up this network of former students—in the thousands sometimes.
Catherine Luther: I’m excited about our school of journalism and electronic media because it encompasses so many different areas—strong journalism, ethical communication, creative communication, production, visual communication, photojournalism.
Nick Geidner: I think we’ve always had excellent students who we prepared and taught—and who were then able to go out and build careers through journalism, or television production, or science commentary that really added to their community. Today, we’re preparing students to benefit their communities through media creation. A lot of what we were doing decades ago is similar today—but slightly different, slightly tweaked, slightly better. I hope we’ve gotten better over the last 75 years! The idea is still the same: to give students the tools to create journalism and media ethically that adds to the community—and to the world.
Luther: All those skill sets that students are learning are what employers are currently looking for: strong writers with the ability to communicate interpersonally; electronic communication skills; and ethical standards that value diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our recent hires give us strength in social journalism, data visualization, diversity, and equity. We’re always paying attention and learning. Our challenge is to keep up with the times—and I’m thrilled to see the faculty doing that. Journalism has to be an innovative career. You have no choice; the industry has changed so much.
Guy Harrison: Even though it’s this big anniversary and we’ve been around for so long, the things that were important when this school first opened are still important now. Fairness, being a good storyteller, being honest and transparent, minimizing harm to individuals—those are all still very important. It still all comes back to writing: Whether it’s feature stories or breaking news or even broadcast writing, writing is the most important skill we teach.
Heller: With everything that’s going on in the world, and with news and journalism
being witness to all of that, it’s very important that students—and I don’t mean
just our students but the entire university—have access to good classes in media literacy and the importance of journalism in a democratic society. That should be a course that everyone in the university takes at some point.
Geidner: We’re fully committed to adjusting with society. Media is in a state of flux—it has been forever but more than ever over the last 20 years—and we are trying our best to prepare our students for working in an ethical and professional manner.
Joy Jenkins: Journalism has always played a valuable democratic role in the United States by giving a space to talk about important issues in society, to share differing views, and to help people understand various perspectives—and that value and function hasn’t changed. Holding people in power to account is still something that journalists strive to accomplish, and that remains important no matter the business models nor platforms nor reading habits of consumers. We still need this Fourth Estate to speak for us and to ask tough questions.
Luther: I think the need for journalism in our society has increased. The disinformation that now easily circulates because of the internet and social media makes it our responsibility to increase public awareness of the critical role true journalism plays. Journalists are putting their lives on the line just to get the story out and just to make people aware. It’s hard to put into words exactly how much our field matters.
Jenkins: Students want to challenge the traditional formats that have always been offered, like the evening newscasts, newspapers, and magazines. They ask: “How can we tell stories in different ways?” More and more people are turning not only to digital platforms for their news, but also to mobile devices as well as to social media. Facebook and Twitter are increasingly the most important news sources, and Gen Z have Instagram and TikTok—but as we look at these new tools and new opportunities, we also don’t want to throw out the foundational stuff.
Harrison: Many major stories have been broken in a feature magazine writing style. The practice of that style of writing is still important—even if students aren’t going to write for a magazine published in a hard copy.
Jenkins: I have talked a lot about magazine writing in other media. We see it online, in short-form video formats, on social media, in the podcast format. Magazine-style writing is everywhere now, and it’s really popular. This idea of having media that’s catered toward specific interests and speaking to us based on what we’re interested in—that’s a very magazine-style way of doing things.
Mustafa Oz: In my opinion, journalism’s whole purpose has not changed, but the way we produce the content, distribute content, and reach the audience has been changed. Students need to understand how to get data sets, analyze, visualize, and present those data sets to the public so people can understand.
Jenkins: Students arrive at UT and want to do any number of different things, from traditional journalism to broadcast. In all cases, we are giving them all those essential skills in terms of writing and interviewing and production and editing so that, when they go into a job, they’re ready to go.
Oz: Social media classes that I’m teaching are really important. We are also working on another class called data journalism. Everyone is producing data these days, and if journalists don’t understand the data, how will they help the public understand the issues? Right now, we need to catch up with technology— how technology is evolving—and we need to teach classes that provide the skill sets that are necessary for future journalism such as data journalism, social media journalism, and data visualization.
Harrison: Social media is neither good nor bad: it’s just a change. People used to get their news and entertainment from radio—and then there was television. There are older people might say, “I miss the days of radio.” Neither medium is better than the other—it’s just different. Now journalists have to adjust.
Oz: I was in Palestine for Social Media Week. I told the audience that audio is becoming more and more important each day because podcasts are making millions of dollars and people love them. Short videos, like TikToks—people love those types of videos. These new emerging formats are more and more important. Five years ago, I never thought audio would become so important, because people like visual media—pictures and videos. Of course, social media has disadvantages, but it is still beneficial because independent journalists can reach a huge audience. Especially for countries like Turkey—I’m from there by the way—and we don’t have independent media outlets, so some journalists, if they want to tell the truth about the government and about corruption, just work by themselves. They work as social media journalists and they rely on donations from their audience so they can survive.
Jenkins: We’re trying to be a place that is adaptable, flexible, and aware of shifts in the industry. We’re not going to teach the same classes and the same curriculum year after year. We teach the basics and the essentials, but we’re also a faculty who has an eye on what’s happening, what’s new, what students are interested in—and what might excite students. We are adaptable with our classes and formats. UT’s JEM program is a place where we’re going to do the best we can to reflect what’s going on to prepare students well; we want to push our students to ensure they achieve their goals in journalism.