Ashes to ashes – mourning the passing of Emory’s journalism degree

By Guest Columnist RICHARD T. GRIFFITHS, vice president and senior editorial director of CNN as well as a member of the Emory Journalism Program Advisory Board

Note to readers: Richard Griffiths delivered these remarks on April 25 at a reception celebrating the Emory Journalism Program’s “18 years of courageous inquiry and ethical engagement.” As of now, Emory no longer offers a degree in journalism.

You know, from time to time, I’ve had a dear friend – someone I’ve grown up with – die.  There’s the disorientation.  How could this be?  What cruel joke of nature was played on my brilliant / funny / loving / challenging friend?

There’s a sense of loss, grieving at the sense that somehow he or she was cheated out of a full and complete existence.  So young, with so much to offer.  Never got to see how the children turned out, never got to meet the grandchildren.

I’m feeling a bit of that tonight.

Richard Griffiths

Richard Griffiths

As if a good friend has met an untimely death and we perhaps are all still processing it – Some of us in different stages of grief:  Disbelief, Anger. A few might have even reached acceptance.  (And some here are twitching at my use of “untimely death.”  Most editors and all journalism faculty will tell you that all deaths are untimely.)

Like all good departed friends, this journalism program has left a mark on each of us.

Just as good friends challenge us, push us, and tell us the truth we sometimes don’t want to hear, Emory’s journalism program has over the last 17 years challenged hundreds of students to more fully develop their critical thinking, taught them – you – not to be afraid to question authority, to hold those in leadership accountable.

That’s part of the reason perhaps this program did not go quietly.

Unlike my dear friends who have died, this program did not die a natural death.  It died young, a relative teenager, just as it was hitting its prime.

Certainly the administration has made its decision.  And certainly given that this program was resurrected in 1997 from the ashes of a previous journalism department closed in 1953, it is now not likely to be brought back to life.

So that brings us to the search for meaning.

At most funerals and wakes, a speaker or two will talk fondly about some of the foibles of the dear departed:  The eccentricities that made him or her beloved.

One of the endearing eccentricities I loved most about Emory’s journalism program is its co-major requirement… A requirement that not only must the Emory students develop the critical thinking skills, the writing, the reporting skills, but that every student had to have another major, a field of learning about which the journalism student also developed a passion.  Pre-med, mathematics, chemistry, sociology, anthropology, Chinese, French.  A way of better understanding the world and a way of expressing that understanding.

That’s what has made the Emory journalism students so consistently strong:  A specialist’s understanding and a journalist’s ability to convey the larger truths.

Special editorial cartoon drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Luckovich in memory of Emory's journalism degree

Special editorial cartoon drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Luckovich in memory of Emory’s journalism degree

Nurtured by some very dedicated faculty, you have learned investigative journalism, crisp writing, video literacy, an understanding of story-telling, a history of the profession, a sense of the legal and ethical challenges that will await you.

And you have learned to develop that most valuable friend of journalism and a healthy society – curiosity.  Certainly, after this experience, you will likely be more prone to be skeptical as you question authority.

So, let me charge the graduating students and the students who will graduate next year, and the year after:

Do not allow the achievements of Emory’s journalism program – your achievements – to be forgotten.

Show the world what you have got, what you’ve learned, what you can accomplish.  Show the world that the critical thinking you learned in this program is worth something.  And when asked, proudly say that you are an Emory Journalism graduate.

Ten years ago, I was invited to begin regular talks to Emory journalism classes.  Those encounters grew to sometimes two or three times a year.  Every faculty encounter was positive, constructive, impressive.  As a member of the Journalism Program Advisory Board, I learned about the passion of the faculty and their drive to adjust the journalism offerings to meet the needs of a world that is changing at astonishing speed.  Sadly, many of those faculty are now leaving the university.

As the last act of the Journalism Program Advisory Board, I want to convey our thanks to each of the faculty for what you have done…

David Armstrong… for sharing his prodigious investigative skills that serve to keep society healthy.

Sissel McCarthy… for infecting others with your enthusiasm for journalism, both in your news literacy and electronic media classes.

Sheila Tefft… for inspiring the countless students to stretch their thinking and writing to reflect the large world we live in and for directing this program for nine years.

Hank Klibanoff… for your ability to discern truth, your passion for history and ethics, and your exemplary leadership.

I understate it when I say you have all made a real difference, changed the world in a positive and constructive way.

Isn’t that what we all strive for?  Whether a dear friend or a journalism program we all want to be remembered for making a difference.

The history of this program might ironically be ashes to ashes, perhaps. But this program is not mere dust.

It’s left a legacy of fine professionals in countless fields who understand journalism and its importance.  It’s left a legacy of serious journalists, in this room and in newsrooms around the world.

So, let’s think good thoughts about the dear departed.

It had a great life.

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1 comments
Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

Emory's journalism program was never more than an accommodation for wealthy students who fancied journalism while attending Emory. The serious students attended, and continue to attend, the Grady J school at UGA. Both of my siblings and my son are Grady J school graduates.