Teaching students to report, write and overcome their fears

Dave TaitLearning to identify stories, find sources, interview, take notes and write isn’t enough, writes Carleton journalism prof Dave Tait. A teacher’s job is also to show novice journos how to accept anxiety and move past it.

I take care not to inflict too many personal stories on my introductory reporting students at Carleton University’s journalism school – but there’s one I’ve taken to telling that has a particular impact…that it took me a long time to discover is needed.

It goes like this: Years ago when I was in my mid-20s and a CBC Radio News reporter based in Inuvik, N.W.T., one recurring job was to bounce around on small planes for a week or so, visiting outlying Arctic communities with environmental assessment panels, territorial politicians or other touring roadshows.

This meant travelling with a couple of clunky cassette machines and a tangle of cables, and feeding reports back to Inuvik and the regional newsroom in Yellowknife, and sometimes to the national newsroom in Toronto.

It meant visiting breathtaking places, meeting fascinating people and witnessing history – and in the week or so prior to a trip, I’d walk around Inuvik thinking that if I were to get hit by a car just a little bit, just a weeeee bit, I wouldn’t be able to go and it wouldn’t be my fault…and I’d be rescued from the prospect of screwing up.

Because prior to a trip, I would be pretty absolutely certain screwing up is what I’d do.

I never did get hit by that convenient car…and I’d go on those trips…and sometimes screw up a bit, but generally do just fine – and sometimes do very well – and have experiences along the way that had profound effects on me.

I tell this story not as proof that my reporting students shouldn’t worry – or that they shouldn’t let worries hold them back. “Don’t worry” is probably near the top of the list of the most useless advice anyone can give.

No, I tell it so they know that even several years after graduation, after working for daily newspapers and CBC Radio, I’d be scared. Very scared. Nauseously, anxiously, numbingly, near-tears scared. At the prospect of making myself look like a fool.

And the look I see on the faces of my students as I tell this story (right after the look of stunned surprise) is recognition – followed quickly by side-long glances at their classmates…because until then, they’d thought they were the only ones.

I tell this story about four weeks into the term, after they’ve covered a couple of meetings and interviewed a stranger for a profile, because I want them to have felt this nausea, felt this self-doubt, been held back from starting an assignment by it, failed to approach a necessary source because of it; I want them to have been scared – and only then do I tell them it’s OK, it’s normal, and it’s just about universal.

Somewhere out there are several someones who are right now rolling their eyes and groaning about educators who worry more about the “self-esteem” of their students than their proven abilities – and care only about everyone feeling good, rather than doing well. It’s important to those folks that they feel better than others, so I won’t rock their boat here – but they’ve missed the point, as any real teacher will recognize.

Confidence isn’t a character attribute, it’s a skill – it isn’t something you have, it’s something you learn. If it’s learned, it can be taught – or at least the learning of it can be helped…or at least not held back.

Someone afraid to admit to others (or themselves) that they can’t swim well will most likely never learn – and may well drown if they secretly try to teach themselves, hiding their weak skill from others. Someone afraid to admit their confidence in a certain area is weak will likely stay that way, failing to fulfill their potential and perhaps doing themselves real damage.

As a new batch of novices begin at our journalism schools, we’ll be meeting many young people who have a wide range of strengths and may have confidence in many arenas – but, for most, not this one: being a reporter.

We’ll teach them how to identify a story and the sources for it, how to pose questions effectively, how to take notes accurately, how to write it up clearly – but all that gets tripped up if we don’t also teach them how to accept anxiety, see it for what it is, put the threat they feel in perspective, and move through it to do the work.

The first step in this is letting them feel it; the second is making it clear to them it’s normal – it isn’t just them. Get them talking about this, swapping examples in the same way they’d talk about interviewing or using digital recorders. Make it just another part of the job – one more skill to learn. Strip fear of its mystique.

Part of this is also understanding what our own expectations should be. We need to mark their work against fixed standards, grading product and not effort – but all we have a right to ask of each individual student is this: Do the best you can.

Their anxiety (like mine back as a young CBC reporter) is rooted in the fear they won’t be able to do what’s expected of them – but everyone in the world is capable of doing this: the best they personally can do.

These bests will vary from person to person, and therefore so will their grades, but the best someone can do is all we can ask – for how can any of us do better than our best?

Then we say this: Here’s how we’re going to work together, you and I, to make your best better next time around.

Dave Tait has been teaching journalism at Carleton University since 1994.