Always Have a Question
Chad Curtis talks about being BYU’s Broadcast News Manager
Written by Sarah Ostler Hill[image lightbox=”true” height=”550″]/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Chad_full.jpg[/image]
“As a journalist, the most important thing we have is the question,” says Chad Curtis, BYU’s Broadcast News Manager. “Being able to know that when there’s a time we don’t understand something, we can ask questions. No matter what you’re being told in the community, there might be an objective truth nobody knows about. There’s power and beauty in knowing the truth.”
On its own, this statement seems like inspiring advice for all journalists. Considering it came as Curtis was telling why he finds the Joseph Smith story so compelling, it reveals part of how broadcast journalism is a little different at BYU — and maybe a part of why his students’ work was named “Best Newscast in the Country.”
Curtis himself is a product of BYU’s broadcast journalism program. He cites his high school’s TV news studio for laying a good foundation of basic journalistic skills. Curtis appreciates that he learned a fair amount of behind-the-scenes skills before going to college.
“I was really grateful for that experience in high school,” Curtis said. “When I came to BYU I already had a good foundation, so I was able to move into the editorial side relatively quickly. After working in the industry for nearly 20 years, I wanted to make that same opportunity available for other generations.” This fall marks the beginning of Curtis’s fifth year at BYU.
Teaching Journalism the BYU Way
Objectivity, balance and fairness are basic the basic tenets of journalism, but they aren’t the hardest principle to teach, according to Curtis.
“Most students have learned, since the second grade, essay or book report style. As they get older, they’re taught the ALA or MLS styles,” he explains. “Broadcast is its own style. We’re writing to be heard. Other styles are received through the eye.”
Curtis then laughs a little as he uses the stereotypical third-Sunday high council talk as an example. “It’s probably a well-written talk, but it’s the way someone would write a business essay. Since it’s being delivered through the ear, it comes across as boring and hard to understand. We can’t do that in a newscast.”
Another principle Curtis teaches is probably exclusive to BYU students.
“The Holy Ghost is a confirmer of truth,” Curtis says. “Nobody wants to report something we later find out is false. But the fact is, people will lie to you all the time. The importance of the Holy Ghost is one of the hallmarks of BYU students. If they value and protect that relationship through worthiness and obedience, they will have an extra tool to divine what is true and what is not.”
BYU’s students must be doing an effective job at applying the principles they are learning, because they continually win awards for the quality of their production.
“Our students in the broadcast journalism program are top notch,” he says with a hint of pride. “Many have known for years that this is what they want to do. I give credit to the faculty who show them how things are done. Then these students come to the newsroom and put the classroom into practice. That’s what makes the broadcast lab and all sequences so strong in competitions. We take our students and help them apply what they’ve learned.”
Curtis and Dale Green, the production manager, are “the two grown-ups in the room.” They enjoy working with the students and seeing them excel, but they also don’t shy away from correcting and critiquing student work.
“There’s no market for grads with poor skills,” Curtis says, speaking with the confidence of a veteran. “It’s not enough to play with the equipment. We work with the students to get the best, explaining why things are working and when they’re not. I want them to make their mistakes here, get them out of their system, and then not make those mistakes again.”
Mistakes are inevitable, but Curtis uses them as teaching points. He understands that news is a high-pressure, tight-deadline, fast-moving and unforgiving field.
“We do a newscast Monday through Friday,” Curtis says. “We can’t delay that. One of the things that makes our students particularly valuable for entry-level is that they’ve had two years experience working with hard deadlines. We stress working at a professional level.”
His hope, and the feedback he’s received, is that the jump from student to professional employee is shorter than graduates of other programs. Curtis views the BYU Newsroom as a protected setting with mentors who care about their students and want them to succeed, training them so they don’t get into trouble in the industry.
Responding to the Changing Media Landscape
Over the years, the journalism department has evolved. Print, radio and broadcast news were considered separate sequences. Now they fall under the same umbrella, as the lines between the fields are blurring.
“You’ll see a newspaper advertising for a videographer,” Curtis says. “The web is the great equalizer. It’s not enough to have one skill set. BYU is approaching journalism from a ‘here are the skills you need to succeed as a journalist’ versus ‘here’s what you need to work at a newspaper or network.’”
Curtis says that the basic principles of journalism aren’t changing, but rather the means of distributing information. “Think about people who refresh their Facebook newsfeed every few minutes, looking for updates. The demand for content is booming. What’s changing is how we get our content to our consumer.”
Recently, Curtis was chatting with a seasoned journalist and asked him how deadlines work when distributing news on the web and through mobile-based channels. “He said you should just approach it with the mentality that you’re already behind deadline,” he says, with a laugh.
Curtis and Green work with a different news team every day of the week. The newscast is the lab for beginning and advanced reporting and producing students. The students get assignments, pursue leads, write scripts, get video, edit everything and submit the finished package in time for the newscast at noon, which is student-produced.
“Dale and I are here to supervise and approve, but the work is done by students,” Curtis says. “We are serving the community of Utah County, and we take that seriously. We’re helping the students become skillful but also self-correcting. If they can get to the point where they catch their own mistakes, they will be better employees in the future. A self-correcting employee will be less of a burden to future employers.”
Curtis tells students to learn from their mistakes and not take it personally when they are criticized.
“You’re at a university,” he says, matter-of-factly. “When we’re tough on you, it’s not out of a sense of meanness. You need critiques so your work can get better. Professors who are easy aren’t doing you any favors.”
Preparing Future Journalists
Curtis’s advice to current and prospective students is to study the First Amendment to the Constitution and the protection it gives the press.
“Ask yourself why that was so important to the founders,” he says. “I believe the reason is they knew there needed to be a group of people who were watching what was going on in our governmental system who were, in some degree, out of the reach of the government so we could make decisions and have discussions to keep things going in a positive direction. Ultimately it comes down to ‘What do we owe the people of this country in exchange for this constitutional protection?’ When you can answer that, you understand what it means to be a journalist.”
As his words trail off, he laughs quietly and mutters, “Now cue the 1812 Overture, I guess.”
Curtis is no-nonsense but warm. He is passionate about his work, but in a way that inspires excellence. He doesn’t take for granted the work his students put out and says that each day he tries to recognize and help the students see how incredible their production is.
“There are small markets in this country that would be thrilled to put on what we do,” he says. “I hope we never lose sight of that.”
At the heart of both journalism and teaching is the question. Curtis cited the Joseph Smith story as one that resonated with him as a journalist. And he continually advises students to have a question.
“At the end of the day, it’s not just about getting a paper printed or broadcast aired,” he says. “It’s to understand what is and isn’t true.”
If you have any questions for Curtis or would like to learn more about BYU’s award-winning newscast, you can find him almost every day in the Brimhall Building. He’s one of the grownups in the room.[one_half] View Student Awards
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