Media with a message.
That’s the key component of Fordham’s one-year, 30-credit graduate public media master’s program, according to director Beth Knobel, Ph.D.
“There are other programs that are here in the media capital of the world, but none of them are in a Jesuit school that brings an emphasis on ethics and on serving the world through communication,” said Knobel, associate professor of communication and media studies. “We designed a program that really takes advantage of our location in New York and really speaks to Fordham’s Jesuit mission of creating people for others.”
The program, now in its fourth year, has continued to grow, both in the number of students it serves and the number of partnerships it has formed.
The current cohort includes 30 full-time graduate students and eight accelerated students, who are Fordham undergraduates taking a few graduate-level courses, Knobel said.
Students in the program choose one of two tracks to pursue—multiplatform journalism or strategic communications—and they also can take a class or two as an elective outside of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Despite the separate tracks, all students get exposure to the many aspects of “media in the public interest,” said Garrett Broad, Ph.D., former director of the program and associate professor of communication and media studies.
“[We want them to] think about how can we use these basic principles of storytelling, of understanding contemporary digital media technologies, of understanding basic human psychology and persuasion?” said Broad. “And how do we kind of bring that together?”
Public Media Partners
One of the things that makes the program unique, according to its faculty, is the growing number of partnerships it has with public media companies, nonprofits, and NGOs in New York City and beyond.
All of the major public media organizations in New York City, including WNET, WNYC, and Fordham’s own WFUV, partner with the program. Prior to the pandemic, the audio narrative class was held at WNYC studios, while the video narrative class was taught at WNET. George Bodarky, FCRH ’91, the news and public affairs director at WFUV, also teaches in the program.
This year, WNET—parent company of Channel 13—is supplying two adjunct faculty members: Dana Roberson, executive producer of PBS NewsHour’s Weekend Edition, and Kellie Castruita Specter, chief marketing and engagement officer for WNET.
“[WNET has been] incredibly wonderful to us from the get-go, because they understand that we are trying to create the journalists and the strategic communicators that they and other public television stations need for the future,” Knobel said.
Neal Shapiro, president and chief executive officer at WNET, said Fordham and WNET share “common values” that have led to a natural partnership.
“The idea about how important the mission is, how important working with the community is…we think about who we serve,” he said. “And that’s what makes public media kind of unique.”
Amy Aronson, Ph.D., chair of the communication and media studies department, said that she would like to see the program continue to increase its community impact.
“The public media really seeks to report on a kind of local level, the kind of community stories, the kind of democratic spirit and the democratic values that go back to the earliest traditions in journalism, but aren’t always achieved in our commercial journalism landscape,” she said.
Strategic Communications for Partner Charities in Mississippi
On the strategic communications side, Tim Wood, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication and media studies, was looking for hands-on opportunities for students just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City. Some of the nonprofits and organizations in the city that he usually worked with were too overwhelmed to work with students, he said.
He reached out to Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning, who put him in touch with a few charity organizations in Vardaman, Mississippi, all of which needed help with strategic communications.
“The aim at the end of the year is to hand them a plan with step-by-step instructions that they can take and use going forward, and then to do as much of the on-the-ground prep work for that as we can,” Wood said.
One of those was the Catholic Charities’ tutoring program. Graduate students Julia Werner, Anne-Sophie Neumeister, Sajani Mantri, and Morgan Thweatt met with the local organizers who at first told the group they needed a website. But after learning more about the community, the team suggested a different approach.
“We learned that they don’t have people that would be able to maintain that website, and maintaining a website and Facebook page can be quite difficult,” Neumeister said, but they liked the idea of a brochure. “It would be easy for them to maintain. They’re already stretched so thin; we didn’t want to add any stress to their plates.”
The group is working on designing a brochure and newsletter template to give to the group, who can update it regularly and print it. Werner said that listening to what the group needed allowed them to provide the right product for them.
“The organization leaders [wanted to]keep parents up to date on what their children are learning, what kind of fun they’re having at the program,” she said. “A lot of them are immigrants and their main language is Spanish. So [we’re] able to give them a piece of paper to show pictures and have English on the front, Spanish on the back. That the parents feel involved with their child’s academic curriculum is really important.”
Thweatt said that experience helped teach her that sometimes scaling back ideas can be beneficial to the client if it fits their needs.
“When we went into it, all of our ideas were huge,” she said. “And as we started doing our research, and talking with them, we realized that our huge ideas, as great as they were, they’re not good for an organization like this.”
Meeting the Moment
Not only is it important to meet organizations where they are, said faculty, it is also important to meet the public where it is. With a growing distrust of media organizations across the country, but also a growing need for information, Knobel and others said that this program is even more essential.
“We see a need to create the next generation of public communicators who act in the public interest, who act in accord with the highest ethical values. So if anything, the media ecosystem today has just made the need for our program more acute and more visible,” Knobel said.
Shapiro said that he sees public media, and in particular the students who go through this program, as essential to restoring trust in both democracy and each other.
“Public media is a place that believes that it’s all about light, not heat—a place where it’s important to understand things in context and take the time to understand them,” he said. “I feel like our job is to try to make sure people understand everything, understand all points of view, without worrying if it’s not necessarily going to be a great 30-second exchange.”
The program is currently accepting applications for its next cohort, which will start in August 2021. For more information, visit their website.