Guest presentations have the potential to expand student perspectives, showing how course concepts are applied in the real world outside classroom. This spring in my feature writing class, Craig Ruttle, a freelance Associated Press and Newsday photographer, visited my class. He shared his boots on the ground reporting experiences that gave students an appreciation of the work needed to gather facts and information from primary sources to photograph his news and feature stories, and long form journalism articles that want to get to the truth.
Professional guest presentations in the classroom illustrate real world challenges. Through Ruttle’s work, students realized that trained journalists produce thoughtful and credible work not provided in Facebook news feeds. Ruttle’s photographs and his commitment to travel where the news is happening enlightened students to the commitment reporters make to inform the public. One student observed that “remaining objective is a big part of journalism and [it] can be very hard to maintain.”
This observation was a revelation for my BMCC journalism students, who never held a newspaper in their hand; read a magazine article more than a 1,000 words or tuned in to an hour-long news program that airs more fact-based news stories rather than weather and traffic reports. Some students believe Apple is a news source, while others get their news from Facebook, a social media platform whose user information was used to build fake profiles to influence the 2016 presidential election. Students need to learn how facts from primary sources are gathered. And that credible journalism is thoughtful and informative. News stories leave it up to the reader to decide how they feel about a subject and Ruttle’s experience showed them how.
Ruttle’s work spans several decades of breaking news in New York City, across the nation and the world. His images of human caravans from Syria, and North Africa crossing the frigid waters of the Aegean Sea in leaky rubber rafts in the early dawn hours had one student wipe tears from her face. Another photograph of a swaddled infant resting on a beach rock in Lesbos, Greece, after the family made it to dry land offered a human connection to this numbing world event. “When you see people in this situation, any nationality or race, it’s the same look of desperation. It puts people in the same equal space,” said Ruttle, after students asked how he managed the emotional upheaval of witnessing human life at extremes of uncertainty and death.
Ruttle explained that a journalist is only human. He did not hedge to extend his hand to help pull in refugees to safety from their rafts. “There is a thin line between activism and journalism,” Ruttle told my students. “Are you acting as an agent or are you covering the news?”
Through his work and personal stories, my students comprehended the raw power of journalism and how it captures all expressions of the human condition, whether in moments of crisis and trauma, or of joy and celebration. These insights were written in a 500-word feature article about Ruttle’s photographs. Students asked Ruttle questions about his work and quoted him in their stories. One student wrote that Ruttle’s photographs are “powerful pictures such as children in a refugee camp having ‘the tea celebration’ in one of their only pleasant moments. Their faces depict pride, joy and sadness as they try to understand their reality.”
Such sharing went far beyond a textbook, as students could see that shooting a photograph represented only a small part of Ruttles’ work. The larger part was his commitment and dedication to journalism and adhering to the ethics trained professionals follow. One student who considered the craft of photography quoted Ruttle’s own philosophy: “Subtlety isn’t just a technique. It tells a story.” Bringing a professional like Ruttle into the classroom gave my BMCC students a dose of reality they will never forget. They heard a voice that is passionate and inspiring that transcends into professionalism.
Student learning can be transformed when “the world” walks in, and guest presentations are a powerful way to make that happen. My students learned that the news of the world does not have to divide us with uninformed opinions. In fact, covering the news with journalism ethics brings people together with shared experiences. This brings empathy and understanding to the events around us.