UMass-Amherst Journalism Professor Teaches Students To Be Culturally Sensitive

A cursory glance at the courses in Nick McBride’s teaching load at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst would suggest his priorities and goals mirror journalism educators everywhere.

Like his colleagues, McBride wants his students to hone their writing skills. He wants them striving for accuracy. And he wants them to be fair and to consider all the sides to any story they report, edit or photograph.

But, unlike many of his counterparts, McBride, an associate professor of journalism, routinely pushes students to consider issues of race and ethnicity and to examine historically marginalized populations in their class assignments. Courses developed and taught by McBride titled “Covering Race” and “Community Journalism” reveal his passion — and insistence — that his students, most of them White, learn how to cover disadvantaged people in their reporting and how to interact with them on a daily basis.   

McBride and others believe it’s imperative to sensitize future journalists to racial issues so that they can adequately report on hot-button topics such as this summer’s arrest of Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a White police officer. 

Unfortunately, this level of commitment to diversity and cultural sensitivity among journalism faculty around the country remains rare, says Dr. Linda Florence Callahan, chairwoman of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s commission on the status of minorities.

Why?

“There aren’t enough faculty who are comfortable handling diversity issues,” Callahan says. “Too many faculty don’t try to find out how to incorporate diversity. They have no incentive either. If anything, there’s disincentive.”

Journalism educators face the same workplace expectations of conducting research and undertaking university service as do faculty in other academic fields, she says. Add to that institutional pressure on journalism teachers to continue practicing the craft — publishing op-ed pieces in local and national newspapers, for instance. Some college educators are also tapped to lead high school journalism workshops and projects.

For McBride, though, requiring his students to interview people who frequent food pantries, public health clinics and day labor job sites is as innate as breathing and blinking.

“I have never been content to ignore communities that are so routinely neglected” in mainstream news coverage, says McBride, who is in his 20th year teaching at his alma mater. 

Class discussions are common about media coverage of race and racial issues, he says, describing them as “pillars of my curriculum.” They include such incidents as conservative TV talk show host Glenn Beck calling President Barack Obama a racist or Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouting “You lie” to the president during his nationally televised health care address.

“If things happen to the president, they can happen to anybody,” says McBride, a former reporter for newspapers such as The Washington Post, Afro-American, and the Christian Science Monitor.

A first-generation college student, McBride’s father labored in hazardous workplaces such as coal mines, slaughterhouses and construction sites. However, McBride takes issue with phrases such as “escaping poverty” when discussing working-class life. He tries to get his students to understand that intelligence and dignity are as likely to exist among low-income and disadvantaged people as they are among those of middle and upper incomes.

Callahan, now a North Carolina A&T State University professor of journalism and mass communication, developed a course called “Diversity in Media” at a predominantly White institution where she formerly taught. However, she believes cultural components should be woven into entire curriculums seamlessly.

“Journalism history courses ought to incorporate the contributions of minority journalists,” she says. “Layout and design courses ought to include photos of minorities.”

Callahan does not foresee any immediate sea change in attitude among the professoriate. Because major media outlets are so focused on their own economic survival, they are not demanding journalism schools produce culturally sensitive and sophisticated graduates, she says, adding, “This won’t change unless a media CEO is convinced millions of dollars are at stake.”