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As newspapers reduce coverage of state government in an effort to cut costs and increase efficiency, some universities have stepped in to fill the void. A university like LSU can provide an arsenal of young mass communication students seeking publication to a news outlet interested in a story but unwilling to dedicate its own resources. There is a problem with that approach, according to Jay Shelledy.
“Jerry and I talked about doing this for years when I first got here, but as it turns out, not that many students really knew that much about government,” said Shelledy.
The Statehouse program at LSU is the product of those discussions between Dean of the Manship School Jerry Ceppos, Professor of Mass Communication Martin Johnson and Shelledy. Students begin their political education in the fall with Johnson’s class, Public Affairs Reporting: Politics and Issues. There they learn about state government and important elements of capitol coverage. Students with a B average or better in Johnson’s class advance to Shelledy’s Field Experience class where they cover state government. The stories students write are sent to newspapers and a few television stations in Louisiana and south Mississippi through the Manship News Service. News organizations may be interested in such stories but lack the resources to send their own reporters.
“It is an expense,” said Shelledy. “If those papers won’t send somebody but are interested in somebody for their area, then this gives students a chance to get a byline. Especially if they’re going into the journalism business.”
Many mass communication students are not planning on going into the journalism business. In addition to resume building, Shelledy pointed to other professions that would benefit from learning about state government. Among them, lawyers who work in the legislature, lobbyists, public interest groups and politicians. That assessment of the program aligns with the goals of mass communication junior Leiana Pineda who is enrolled in Johnson’s class. Pineda says she is interested in working in politics and subscribes to the idea that the public is not educated enough.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand how government works. I only know what’s happening because I see it on the news,” said Pineda. “I want to know what’s happening cause I’m there. I’ll get a better understanding of what is happening, not just what certain people want me to understand.”
Mass communication senior Justin DiCharia has begun the law school application process and says he is interested in education policy.
“Looking at the budget woes that the state is going to be having, it will be interesting to have the information that we’re being provided now as a framework during this class, using that framework in the spring semester in that class and actually applying it as student reporters in the field.”
Of course, before students can run in the field they must learn to walk in the classroom. The fall class will prepare students for fieldwork. In addition to lessons on government processes and issues of importance, the class will host several speakers who are familiar with how government works. Among them are Editor of LaPolitics.com Jeremy Alford, local political radio host Jim Engster and Louisiana’s Chief Economist Greg Albrecth.
As Johnson puts it, “I know how things work or I can refer students to someone who knows better than me.”
According to DiCharia, who mentioned Albrecht as a speaker of particular interest to him, a public possessing both interest and knowledge on government can be a part of positive change. In his estimation, that convergence of information and passion was demonstrated recently by the higher education budget crisis.
“I thought the coverage last year was actually really good. I would like to emulate that coverage this year and continue to create a legacy for capitol coverage in Louisiana because, as we were talking about in this class, the legislature normally doesn’t have as much power as the governor,” said DiCharia.
“Last session, the legislature had a big hand and they were a really big part of the discussion.”
Pineda added that if people were more informed, “politics in this country would be so different.”
An effective Statehouse program aims to contribute to that difference.
Story by Ian McCusker