by Catherine Zhang
Taking the 201-1 Reporting & Writing class from the Medill School of Journalism was one of the best decisions that I’ve made since coming to Northwestern.
Initially, it was awkward telling people that I wasn’t a Medill student even though I was taking a Medill class. I often felt compelled to clarify this minor but crucial detail.
There’s a misleading prestige associated with journalism students at this university. I don’t think that these students are automatically better journalists than me for any particular reason.
The title “Medill student” is rather esteemed, but it’s not a necessary step to take to be a successful journalist. I would argue that it’s simply a starting point for people interested in journalism, because it’s all about what you make of this opportunity.
Still, it was a bit nerve-wracking to sit in a lecture surrounded by other students who generally were much more certain about what they wanted their futures to look like.
201-1 is the introduction class that all journalism students/prospective students interested in transferring are required to take. It teaches basic yet fundamental skills valuable to every path to which journalism may lead.
From the experiences acquired, I learned many things:
1. This class forced me to dive headfirst into something new every week. Sure, we were briefed with a quick lecture and a short lesson in lab, but then we were quickly ushered out of the nest with nothing but a reporter’s notebook. There were no practice interviews; we were graded on our real world experiences with actual people.
2. In this way, we were allowed a lot of freedom; there was no hand holding in this class. The potential for creative license nearly destroyed me at a point. While there was a theme for every article we submitted, the content of the piece itself was entirely up to the student to decide. The only guidelines we followed for article writing were the tips that our lab instructor gave us, as well as a few examples that we read in class. But we weren’t required or even encouraged to follow along these closely, because there is not standard format for journalism, and even if there were, it would become outdated very quickly.
3. Understanding this, everyone in the class was extremely dedicated, each of us listening to the instructor intently, not distracting each other. We always took diligent notes and asked questions when we were confused, eager for feedback.
4. We followed deadlines along closely. With an article due nearly every week, on the minute, we learned that deadlines don’t work around you; you work around them.
5. Most importantly, we didn’t make excuses for not showing up because we always showed up. Every lab felt invaluable, and missing one was just not an option. This course moved extremely quickly, and copying notes from a classmate just felt…wrong.
6. At the beginning of the quarter, there was a required grammar workshop for all students. I know others were not at all motivated for it, but I found myself secretly excited because I have a strong background in grammar. This particular workshop revealed the importance of seemingly mundane details that other people normally neglect. When communicating through writing, generally we can understand what others mean when they misspell a world or makes a grammar error, but journalists do not have that luxury. A grammar error instantly bruises one’s credibility.
7. This journalism class reminded me of my experience in debate, mainly because it required me to sort through “evidence”, picking out key pieces of information from a mundane stack of words, using my judgment to decide what was essential for others to hear, in the most efficient way possible. Every word was valuable! The audience’s time is precious and its attention span is weak.
8. The weekly current events quizzes pushed me to read the news every day. I signed up for many newsletters and newspapers to get a sense of what was happening in the world, and all for a grade! Additionally, this journalism class has led me to be more aware of how the ledes to these news stories were written. I found myself re-reading the first few sentences multiple times, amazed at how succinctly reporters could communicate the main idea of a story. Amazing! In all of my years of policy debate, which required me to read news article after news article, I had never paid attention to such details.
9. This class taught me to write without my opinion. This is something I’m not used to, because unlike writing analytical essays for English classes and whatnot, I was required to withhold any bias when presenting information, letting the reader formulate his or her own opinion. I learned that to do anything more than that, such as subtly insert preferential phrases, is almost selfish. It’s not fair to influence someone’s opinion on a subject; that’s not the role of a journalist.
10. Strange, how I spent most of my time working on assignments for my journalism class, meeting with people for interviews, listening to recordings of said interviews, obsessing over minor details, and moving words around until they sounded like something someone might want to read. Yet, the articles that I produced were the shortest, compared to full-blown essays I wrote for my other classes. The fruits of my labor were presented to my instructor in a mere couple hundred words.
11. My instructor said at one point that the whole process of being a “seasoned journalist” is 80% reporting and 20% writing. Though I initially signed up for this class to improve my writing skills, I ended up getting much more than I ever expected from it. I learned how to conduct an interview, and from this, I learned how to listen attentively, take detailed notes, be unbiased, ask the right questions, find the best sources, and never settle for anything but the best.