By Julie Engebretson
What role should journalism play in a democratic society? It’s a discussion perhaps as old as democracy itself, recently expanded in scope as the internet and ever-evolving communication platforms have given us a world where information is available at light speed, 24/7.
The challenges of mastering and making sense of this new media world are daunting, but Baylor’s award-winning program in journalism, public relations and new media (JPRNM) is successfully positioning students to excel in navigating this ever-changing field. Students leave the university well-equipped for a variety of careers that will require thoughtful and ethical communication skills.
Baylor’s JPRNM program offers undergraduates a bachelor of arts degree with emphasis in one of three sequences — public relations (PR), news-editorial or new media communication. All three tracks share similarities, requiring many of the same courses and real-world experience across a variety of media platforms.
“Our primary goal is to make sure students can write and that they are strong storytellers,” said Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez, associate professor of journalism and director of the JPRNM graduate program. “We have a lot of students come to us who want a journalism degree because they know they’re going to become good writers in another field. We tell them that if they can write and tell a good story, they can do anything.”
Students in the program benefit from an average 15:1 student-teacher ratio and a world-class faculty, dedicated to the mentorship and success of their students as well as the community surrounding Baylor. Students write, edit, design, produce and broadcast a number of award-winning print publications and media programs, including the newly launched Lariat TV News, which won a Lone Star Emmy Award in October 2016.
Graduates of JPRNM have gone on to work for an impressive number of publications and media organizations such as CNN, Christianity Today, People, The Huffington Post, U.S.News & World Report, the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News, National Public Radio and the Washington Post. Many pursue law school, teaching or, increasingly, careers in public relations.
PR’s popularityDr. Sara Stone, professor of journalism, public relations and new media, has served as the JPRNM department chair for the past five years. She has seen both the undergraduate and graduate programs change and grow with shifts in students’ academic interests and career goals that evolve with rapid advancements in technology. For instance, in recent years student interest in public relations has soared. Of JPRNM’s roughly 375 journalism majors, about 75 percent of them now choose the PR sequence. And it just so happens that Baylor is home to some true PR gurus.
“Everyone in our department brings a tremendous amount of professional experience,” Stone said. “And everyone who teaches public relations has their students doing hands-on PR work for Baylor and the surrounding community. As a fulfillment of their coursework, our students do a lot of pro bono work for nonprofits — organizations that maybe can’t afford to hire a PR firm to create a press kit for them.”
Senior lecturer Carol Perry’s upper-division PR class is the stuff of legend among JPRNM alumni. Run like a fully operational PR firm, the class gives students the opportunity to do real-world communications work and put together an admirable portfolio to show future employers.
“Oftentimes our clients — various Baylor departments and programs — come to us, and my students get an opportunity to establish a relationship with the client, learn the scope of the project, pitch ideas to the client and then deliver the work,” Perry said.
Past Baylor “clients” of Perry’s class have included the Center for Global Engagement, the Center for Autism, Health and Human Performance and the university’s medical humanities program.
Before joining the Baylor faculty in 1994, Perry served 21 years as a public information officer, first for the City of Waco and then the Waco Independent School District (WISD). She excelled in the difficult job of being the City of Waco’s liaison to national and international media during the Branch Davidian standoff, and is known as the iconographer behind the Waco “W” on water towers and T-shirts all over town. Her experience has given her expertise in PR strategic planning and evaluation, media relations, print production, initiation, crisis management and management of cable television stations.
As it happens, Perry was also instrumental in JPRNM colleague Dr. Marlene Neill, assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media, deciding to make the foray into PR. Central Texans might remember Neill’s on-air reporting for Waco’s KCEN-TV in the mid- to late-1990s — a line of work that would have required her to leave the city in order to move up.
“The hours and pay in TV were difficult,” Neill said. “I also met my husband during that time, so I was looking to stay in Waco, but it really was difficult to advance without moving to a different place. I was covering WISD and that is how I met Carol Perry as well as a number of PR practitioners who became mentors for me.”
Through membership in the Public Relations Society of America, Neill gained experience writing for PR and landed a job with the YMCA as a membership director, where she did part-time PR and supervised customer service staff.
Soon thereafter, Neill took a position as community relations specialist with the City of Waco, where she served for 10 years. During this time, she had the opportunity to mentor approximately 40 Baylor student interns, which piqued her interest in higher education. She earned an online master’s degree through the University of Missouri that allowed her to begin teaching journalism classes at Baylor on an adjunct basis and try out a career in academia.
“I knew I would need a PhD,” Neill said. “So I quit my job with the City of Waco and began a PhD program at the University of Texas while still teaching a couple of courses at Baylor. I just commuted between Austin and Waco for two years.”
In addition to teaching, Neill is a prolific researcher currently focused on PR management, ethics and internal communication.
“I’ve been fortunate the past two summers to be awarded a summer sabbatical, which has allowed me to work year-round on research,” Neill said. “I’m very grateful for the support I’ve received from Baylor in that area, and the support I’ve received as a junior faculty member through professional development training like the Summer Faculty Institute. It has helped me grow and has really offered me the opportunity to succeed in this new role.”
Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez joined the Baylor faculty in 2001, the same year she earned her MA in journalism from the university. Prior to teaching, she began her career as a general assignment reporter and intern at the Bryan-College Station Eagle, later taking a position as staff writer and columnist for the Waco Tribune-Herald. She also spent time as editor and publisher of Elegant Woman magazine and earned a PhD in journalism from the University of Texas in 2006. At Baylor she teaches courses in PR and media research theory and methods.
“The overarching theme in my own research is the representation of women and other underrepresented groups in the media, and I usually use framing as the theoretical background,” Moody-Ramirez said, referring to her focus on the fields of meaning in which events are placed, rather than the events themselves. “Most recently, I’ve started looking at social media platforms and it has been fascinating to look at how citizens actually frame different issues and events.”
Recently, Moody-Ramirez has studied a number of well-publicized events that deal with social justice, such as the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and resulting unrest in Ferguson, Mo., the 2015 biker shootout at a Waco Twin Peaks restaurant, the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and how citizens talk about those issues on Facebook, Twitter and even Pinterest.
“Previously we had gatekeepers, professional journalists disseminating the news, but now it’s actually citizens who are pushing the news out and may be the first ones to break a story,” Moody-Ramirez said. “This happened with both the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion and the biker shootout. We have found that citizens build on historical narratives that traditional media outlets have used previously. Many of my studies have concluded that where we thought citizens would bring new perspectives to the table, in fact, they mimic the traditional media outlets. We are conditioned by the media even from childhood, and by our upbringing, schooling and socioeconomic status — these factors affect the way we receive and interpret the news.”
Despite a lengthy list of publications to her name and a queue of work in progress, Moody-Ramirez strives to keep her own research from compromising the quality of her teaching. In April 2016, she was selected as a Baylor Fellow, one of 10 outstanding professors recognized for their excellence in teaching and desire to transform student thinking through innovation.
“In the way [this year’s Baylor Fellows] teach, we emphasize what’s called the ‘blended classroom’ and not the ‘sage on a stage’ — where the professor stands up and lectures for an hour in an auditorium. In a blended classroom, there are shorter lectures combined with hands-on projects in class and outside class,” she said.
Learning about borders
Another outstanding Baylor journalism teacher is Macarena Hernández, lecturer and The Fred Hartman Distinguished Professor of Journalism. Incoming students may already be familiar with her autobiographical five-part newspaper series “One-Family, Two Homelands,” which explores Mexican migration and is frequently taught in Texas schools. Other essays and columns by Hernández have been anthologized in high school and college textbooks, and she has spoken to both English- and Spanish-speaking audiences at Baylor recruiting events.
Hernández brings a wealth of professional writing and reporting experience to her Baylor classroom. She has spent her career covering U.S.-Latino issues such as immigration and education for the San Antonio Express-News, Dallas Morning News, Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Latina magazine. Her video work has been featured on PBS Frontline and she has appeared on shows such as NBC’s Dateline, CNN Headline News, Fox and Friends and on National Public Radio.
The courses Hernández teaches include Magazine & Feature Writing, Reporting & Writing for Media and News Media & American Society.
“I also teach a class called the Writing Coach, through which a group of students and I started a multimedia magazine called thebundlemagazine.com,” Hernández said. “I really enjoy teaching writing at Baylor because this is where I got my start, in this very department. It’s incredibly rewarding to see students grow confident in their writing voice, and as a result, in themselves. Writing is an extremely valuable skill — one you can get better at if you put in the time. As a professional writer, I’ve been part of many workshops and I love bringing that to my classes. So we workshop student writing, which means students get to exchange copy and edit and learn from each other. Hopefully, they learn to embrace criticism as a good thing.”
Her own research and writing focuses broadly on borders, specifically the lines that divide states and entire nations, and the politics that surround them.
“I spend at least one month out of the year outside the U.S. exploring the physical lines between countries and documenting what the locals say. It’s remarkable how the conversation on the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti sounds very similar to that about the U.S.-Mexican border,” Hernández said. She looks forward to a time that she can take her students with her to visit the jagged borderline that divides the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
“The conversation around German, French and Spanish borders is similar to the one between Mexico and the rest of Central America,” she said. “I like to say that everyone has a ‘Mexico.’ By that I mean that one country is always importing cheaper labor from a neighboring country and that creates all kinds of dynamics and fuels many debates.”
Learning to see
If a picture paints a thousand words, then strong storytelling not only requires skilled writing, but also an eye for the image. Baylor photography students in JPRNM study under some of the best practitioners of the craft, including Rod Aydelotte, chief photographer for the Waco Tribune-Herald and adjunct professor of photography at Baylor, Dr. Clark Baker, associate professor of journalism, public relations and new media, who teaches media photography and history of photography, and senior lecturer Curtis Callaway, who came to Baylor following a 26-year freelance career to teach media photography and video journalism.
Callaway has traveled around the world working as a documentary, commercial, editorial, and underwater photographer and cinematographer for clients including Jean-Michel Cousteau Productions, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries/Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, Discovery Channel and Smithsonian. He received a phone call from then-department chair Clark Baker one Wednesday morning in 2009 about teaching at Baylor.
“We met for an interview the next day, on Tuesday, and I told him I would be interested in a part-time or full-time position,” Callaway said. “And I was hired the following Monday as a full-time lecturer. The timing was perfect. I had an incredible career in photography and film production and it was time to pass it on to the next generation. I love teaching what I am passionate about and I think the students see that.”
Photography and videography are areas that have seen rapid evolution in the last decade. The quality of the camera on mobile phones is improving every year, changing the way we record, share and interpret life.
“Everything is getting smaller, better and more affordable,” Callaway said. “I wish I’d had access to the equipment students have right now [when I was a student]. When anything newsworthy happens, someone is likely to catch it on their phone and have it posted online within minutes. The quality is impressive and with some of the research and development I’ve seen lately, we are going to see some big changes with cell phone cameras. That being said, DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras and video cameras still have their place in the world and will always be used across the board.”
Skilled student photography and videography are vital to the success of Baylor’s award-winning student publications, in print, online and, most recently, on television. Baylor Student Publications (BSP), with each publication staffed by paid student workers, includes: the Baylor Lariat, the University’s award-winning student newspaper; BaylorLariat.com, an online version of the newspaper with additional features such as audio and video packages and photo slideshows; the Baylor Roundup, the university’s yearbook; and Focus magazine, published semiannually.
The newest addition to the BSP lineup is Lariat TV News (LTVN), which launched on cable in Waco in August 2016.
“We added a broadcast component to the Lariat because students working in the news or public relations business today need to be able to write for print, broadcast or the web. They need to be able to shoot and edit video,” Stone said. “We live in a digital world, and our graduates need to be able to write for the ear or the eye or for both. Visual communications is huge today, and adding the broadcast component was a natural extension for our department.”
Since its launch in the summer of 2016 LTVN has produced three newscasts, recorded in the studios of KXXV-TV in Waco. Baylor is still in the process of adding enough equipment to someday record its newscasts in an on-campus studio. Meanwhile, LTVN reporters provide on-scene coverage both on and off campus, and all video editing is done in the Lariat newsroom.
In October 2016, the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) held its annual national conference in Washington D.C. where all four Baylor student publications earned national Top 10 Best of Show awards. These include:
- The 2016 Baylor Roundup was named best university yearbook in North America (the previous year’s 2015 Roundup took No. 4 in the nation and received Baylor’s first prestigious Pacemaker Award);
- BaylorLariat.com was named the No. 2 college news website of 2016, the Lariat was named the No. 4 daily college newspaper and Focus magazine was named the No. 8 college news and feature magazine;
- Four Baylor students won individual awards –– Kate McGuire (2nd for magazine design), Stephanie Miles (3rd for yearbook design), Robby Hirst (8th for multimedia slideshow) and Trey Honeycutt (10th for feature news photo). The Baylor staff won a 4th-place award for a multimedia package; and
- The Lariat won its first Emmy for an LTVN sports feature by student Thomas Mott.
A group of seven Baylor journalists and broadcasters took advantage of an important opportunity to put their skills in the field to the test on Jan. 20, when they provided live coverage of the inauguration of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. In addition to covering the event for the Lariat newspaper and the Round Up yearbook, the students produced video content that aired local in Waco on LTVN.
All JPRNM students are taught how to write well, giving them a marketable skill they can take with them into any career they choose. With the additional experience broadcast journalism students receive in camera work, editing and on-air reporting, JPRNM’s venture into broadcast journalism offers students an even wider breadth of writing experience.
“Today’s students need to know more than just basic newsgathering and reporting techniques –– they need command of the tools that will allow them to tell stories on multiple platforms, including print, broadcast, tablets and the internet,” Stone said. “Being able to shoot and edit video and get it uploaded adds a skill. Lots of television stations are hiring print reporters to write for their websites –– our students are leaving here with the skills to work across those delivery platforms.”
All told, the pool of professional experience and credentials among Baylor JPRNM faculty is fathoms deep. But the strength and integrity of the department is perhaps best underscored by the fact that so many of its faculty members are JPRNM graduates themselves.
“We probably have eight or nine faculty members who have a degree in journalism from our department. So, we’re home-grown in many ways,” Stone said. “It’s interesting that when push came to shove, when we did national searches for these faculty positions, the very best applicants, and the ones we selected, were those who came from Baylor to begin with.”