What goes through a news editor's mind when a story as explosive as Saddam Hussein's capture breaks just before her publication is going to press? Is it possible to fact-check a photograph? How do you know when a science story is based on a genuine piece of research rather than commercial promotion? MHC students are pondering these questions and many others this semester in a course titled Can You Trust a Journalist? taught by visiting instructor Priscilla Painton '80, executive editor of Time magazine.
Painton is one of a number of Mount Holyoke alumnae in journalism who have worked with the College to provide expanded opportunities for students in the field. Last year, for example, Pamela Maffei McCarthy '74, senior vice president/deputy editor of the New Yorker, and Nancy Novogrod '71, editor in chief of Travel and Leisure and editorial director of American Express Publishing Corporation, hosted trips for journalism classes. Former trustee Sheryl McCarthy '69, a former columnist at Newsday, has helped coordinate efforts to expand access to alumnae journalists for the MHC community.
Painton is thrilled to be teaching journalism at Mount Holyoke. She is concerned about the shortage of women in the news business, a problem that has been highlighted by recent studies of several news organizations, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "I want to get young women interested in journalism. You look around and see who's running the major newspapers and networks. Women aren't leading these places in sufficient numbers."
Painton has invited a number of experienced journalists to visit the class throughout the semester. On October 2, two Time colleagues, chief of reporters Jane Bachman Wulf '76 and deputy chief reporter Ratu Kamlani, who supervise the magazine's monumental fact-checking operation, shared their insights on accuracy and truthfulness in reporting. They showed the students examples of fact-checked drafts, explaining that literally every word is reviewed before an article goes to press. "Remember, there's always somebody out there who knows a lot more about the subject than you do," Painton interjected. "Don't get distracted by the 'wow factor.' Nerd-proof yourself." As an aside, Wulf told the class about her own struggles to land a job in journalism after graduating from Mount Holyoke with a degree in French and a passion for sports. The only job she could find was as a photocopying clerk at Sports Illustrated, the lowest entry position at the magazine. She took it, despite the protestations of her father. "Don't be afraid to start at a place you think is beneath you," she said. "People will find out who you are and what you are capable of." She added that having "bottom-up" knowledge as been useful throughout her career. "There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that get put together."
Students have been extremely enthusiastic about the course. Meg Massey '08, sports editor of the Mount Holyoke News and an editorial assistant at the Alumnae Quarterly, said the class has given her a "totally different approach to reading the newspaper." Analyzing news articles for the class has helped her "to distinguish between misleading hype and a legitimate story." Massey, who plans to go into journalism after graduation, has found it "very inspiring to learn from a Mount Holyoke alum who has had so much success in journalism. She's given us a great inside look at the industry."
Painton, in turn, has high regard for her students. "They are incredibly engaged in the world," she said. "They see how things relate to each other. They are also savvy consumers of news."
While Painton's course is about journalism, she believes that the analytic skills she teaches have a broader application in liberal arts education. "What I'm teaching is how to understand and get reliable evidence and present it in a seductive fashion. We happen to be using news. But this is a goal academically for a lot of departments. You want to locate reliable evidence, test its reliability, and present it accurately."
Other visitors to Painton's class will include Dan Okrent, formerly the public editor at the New York Times, and Joe Klein, Time columnist and author of Primary Colors. Having a guest speaker almost every week "is pretty cool, to say the least," Massey said. "Overall, it's definitely one of the best classes I've taken at MHC."