Why I Teach Journalism
By Rick Brunson ’84 | Illustration by Edmon de Haro
They say teaching is more than a vocation; it’s a calling.
My call came on a hot July night in 1999 in the newsroom of the Orlando Sentinel.
I was working as a desk editor at my hometown newspaper, up against a deadline, when a news clerk yelled, “Rick, you’ve got a call. It’s Fred Fedler from UCF.”
Here I was, 15 years into my professional career, in the middle of committing daily journalism, getting a call from the esteemed professor who taught me the craft. I hustled over to pick up the phone. Little did I realize in that moment that a big bang was about to occur: My past was colliding with my present to sling me into my future.
“Rick, we hear you’re back in town and that you have a master’s [degree],” Fedler said. “We have a section of News Reporting that needs a teacher. Would you like to come back out to UCF and teach the class?”
It was something that had never been far away. My mother was a longtime teacher for Orange County Public Schools. I grew up watching her grade papers and draft lesson plans at our kitchen table night after night, long after supper was eaten and the dishes put away. It was a job that never seemed to end, with an amorphous goal — learning — that had no guarantee and resulted in no obvious product at the end of the day.
At least with the newspaper, I walked out every night with something tangible under my arm that I, along with a dedicated team of rabble-rousers, had spent an adrenaline-filled day to produce. I made something.
Teaching would be different. And like my mother’s job, the pay would be meager.
By that August, I was standing before 17 young people who had plunked down their tuition to learn how to write and report news.
I honestly had no idea what I was doing in a classroom. People who have never had to teach like to blithely and contemptuously say, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” Those people are full of male bovine fecal matter.
But as the semester progressed, I found my groove. The students were incredibly patient with me as I sought to share with them what I knew. And by the end of September, I experienced the moment that hooked me on teaching.
We were covering how to write effective leads, the first and most important sentence in any news story, be it print, digital or broadcast.
As I worked the room, something happened. In showing them how to rearrange their twisted syntax into a sentence that would sing across the screen or over the air, I watched their faces go from contorted confusion to smiles of delight. Learning was happening before my eyes. It was like watching a comet streak across the sky.
It was the look every teacher knows and lives for. I had found a new calling.
UCF kept inviting me back, until one day in 2003 the faculty asked me to join them full time.
The last 15 years of my career have actually been better than the first 15. I have discovered that teaching is far more than lecturing and grading papers. I’m in the people-development business.
As a teacher, I enjoy a sacred relationship with my students in the most formative years of their young adult lives. In addition to launching them into meaningful media careers at news organizations large and small — from The Wall Street Journal to the Palatka Daily News and from WMFE here in Orlando to NPR in Washington, D.C. — I continue to be part of their lives long after graduation. I go to their weddings, their baby showers and even the funerals of their loved ones.
As one of the more than 2,400 dedicated teaching faculty at UCF, we all share a common mission: “Lifting lives and livelihoods.”
There’s no higher privilege. As an educator and a journalist, I also share a mission that goes back to Thomas Jefferson and the founding of our republic: Only through educated and informed citizens can there be “security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” Tyranny loves the uneducated.
Journalism education has never been more important and never more challenging.
To fulfill their constitutionally mandated First Amendment role in our highly polarized country, today and tomorrow’s journalists must be trained to be honest yet skeptical, compassionate yet brave. The news media faces intense political and economic pressure — from those who would deem us “the enemy of the people” to technological disruption and falling profits that have led to smaller staffs, diminished coverage and shallower reporting.
But as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said recently, “I think the press in America is a check and balance on power. … Sometimes [the media] can be a pain in the ass, but you’re not the enemy of the people. As a matter of fact, without a free press, I wouldn’t want to live in [this] country.”
My students, who stubbornly keep showing up to be trained to be the journalists of tomorrow, agree with him. And they keep teaching me the truth of what my mother already knew. As she toiled each night preparing for her next day in the classroom, a plaque engraved with a Henry Adams quote hung in our home: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
As a teacher, I make the future.
Rick Brunson ’84 is an associate instructor of journalism at UCF. When he’s not teaching, he serves as the writing coach at WFTV Channel 9 Eyewitness News and works as a part-time sports production editor at the Orlando Sentinel.