Adding an honor society to the mix

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Advisers say honor groups create space for service, engagement, and recognition of excellence

By Lindsey Wotanis
Marywood University

College media advisers have a lot on their plates.

They’re doing their best, day in and out, to train the next generation of journalists–a difficult task at a time when the free press is constantly under attack and when more and more university public relations teams are working overtime to control their schools’ images.

The thought of incorporating something else into the mix might be overwhelming. But adding an honor society has the potential to pay dividends for advisers, students and campus communities who are in the trenches engaged in everyday collegiate media work.

Chapters can motivate students and reward excellent work

One of the most obvious benefits of starting an honor society chapter is the opportunities it affords for rewarding outstanding work.

Next week in CMR: A guide to Honor Societies

Some societies, like Lambda Pi Eta, which is the official honor society of the National Communication Association, honor communication students who excel academically. Students earning a 3.0 overall GPA and a 3.25 major GPA are invited to join. The National Broadcasting Society/Alpha Epsilon Rho (NBS/AERho), a society geared toward students in broadcasting and other electronic media, has similar GPA requirements for new members.

At Kappa Tau Alpha (KTA), a society geared more toward journalism and mass communication, students must achieve a 3.0 GPA to be inducted.

Holly Hall, associate professor of strategic communication at Arkansas State University and vice president of the national KTA organization, said via email that being asked to join KTA on her campus is considered “a mark of highest distinction and honor.”

“The membership is for a lifetime, looks great on resumes and LinkedIn profiles and is a wonderful way to be recognized for effort, dedication and high character,” she added.

With no GPA requirements to join, the Society for Collegiate Journalists (SCJ) –”the nation’s oldest organization designed solely to serve college media leaders”–allows its chapters to select members based on criteria they set. This criteria could include a number of semesters or years working in student media, demonstrated campus media leadership, a specific major or GPA, or some combination of these. This allows each chapter membership to define what “excellence” means on their campus.

The same is true for campuses with chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ), a professional organization “dedicated to encouraging a climate in which journalism can be practiced more freely and fully, stimulating high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism and perpetuating a free press.”

And all of the societies offer opportunities for contest or other awards. AERho, SPJ and SCJ offer annual national contests where students can submit individual works of journalism for consideration, and SCJ is one of the only mass communication societies remaining that does not charge entry fees for their national contest and awards.

According to Brenda Witherspoon, senior lecturer in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University and adviser to the SPJ campus chapter, contests like the Mark of Excellence awards can be motivating.

“[Access to contests] can sometimes inspire people to do excellent work,” she said.

Most societies also offer honor cords so student members can be publicly recognized for excellent work and commitment to professional ideals at commencement ceremonies.

Chapters can educate and serve campus communities

At Buena Vista University, Associate Professor of Digital Media Dr. Andrea Frantz advises the campus radio station KBVU as well the photography club. But she also advises a chapter of SCJ–an organization she said can work in a variety of ways for campuses nationwide. She knows because she’s also the president of the national SCJ organization.

On her campus, the SCJ chapter serves as an umbrella organization, providing a space for students in the various media outlets to converge and work together.

“We meet every other week, and one of the things we do every time we meet is we ask who needs help with whatever they are working on,” she said. “This has fostered greater collaboration, and has been extraordinarily successful to that end.”

On the national level, these are the kinds of things that are the hallmark of SCJ, which according to Frantz, allows campuses the flexibility to use their chapter in ways that make the most sense for them.

“Individual chapters can sort of form their own missions with respect to the needs that they see on their respective campuses,” she added.

At Iowa State University, husband and wife team Mark and Brenda Witherspoon work together with the SPJ chapter on things like programming and community education. Mark is the full-time editorial adviser to the Iowa State Daily, and Brenda is a senior lecturer on the Greenlee School faculty. They revived a dormant SPJ chapter about a year ago, but in just a short time have made great impact in their community.

Their chapter now spearheads the school’s annual First Amendment Day celebration, which is now in its sixteenth year. What was once a one-day celebration has transformed into a weeklong series of events, all planned by SPJ chapter members.

They celebrate with a feast on the opening day, and they invite people from various campus groups, such as the College Republicans and Democrats, as well as other religious groups, to participate in a “soapbox” event. Students stand on actual soapboxes–built by Mark and a friend–and talk about the First Amendment. But, since that format didn’t really foster conversation, the event was expanded.

“We added Depth and Discussion Day, and every hour we lead discussions on different topics, and we bring in different experts,” said Mark. Those topics, he said, usually revolve around current events but always have some connection to First Amendment issues.

Chapters can help students gain professional and community connections

Another benefit of adding an honor society to the mix is promoting networking.

Brittany Fleming, assistant professor of digital media at Slippery Rock University, advises the campus chapter of NBS/AERho. Most of her chapter members are also active at The Rocket, Slippery Rock’s newspaper as well as at WSRU-TV, the campus television station, which she also advises.

Fleming developed a young professionals mentoring program for the executive board members of Slippery Rock’s NBS/AERho chapter.

“Each student is paired up with a professional in the field and they have biweekly chats,” said Fleming. “They’re young professionals, so they’re new to the industry and our students don’t feel intimidated talking with them.”

Many societies also sponsor conferences or conventions, which allow students the opportunity for additional education as well as further professional networking.

Mark and Brenda Witherspoon and their students are gearing up for a regional SPJ conference, which will be hosted by their Iowa State chapter this April. Fleming and her students just returned from the annual NBS/AERho national convention in Washington, D.C. And, Frantz and the other SCJ national board members are already making plans for SCJ’s next biennium, which will be held in October in conjunction with the College Media Association Fall convention.

In addition to networking skills, students can bring back new journalism skills and ideas from conferences and apply them at their campus media organizations–skills they can use to organize events and serve their campus as well as their communities.

The Iowa State SPJ chapter recently organized one such event called “Muslimedia,” which is part of a national SPJ initiative that encourages chapters and their communities to have “a blunt debate about the way journalists cover Muslims at home and abroad.”

Mark and Brenda’s students and colleagues recently organized a visit to a local mosque for one such discussion in their campus community.

“We had about 50 people in all at the lunch, and we had a feast and then we talked about Muslims and the media and how they are portrayed in the media both locally and at the Iowa State Daily,” Mark said.

At Slippery Rock, Fleming’s NBS/AERho student regularly engage in community service, from participating in activities like Relay for Life or annual campus cleanups to offering their skills to people in the community.

“Our student reporters have just completely taken over the Slippery Rock community. They do promotional and PR work for the community since it’s so small. There’s not much news, so they also provide news, mainly on social media,” she added.

Frantz’s SCJ chapter also does community service. In the past, her students have organized community education courses to help the elderly learn to use smartphone technologies. These kinds of connections can help create trust between student reporters and the readers in their communities.

Each organization has its own strengths; choose wisely

Selecting an honor society (or two) that will meet the needs of your students and your campus means making big decisions. Costs vary, as do the benefits to students and to the campus communities they operate within.

Still, one of the main values of any honor society, according to Brenda Witherspoon, is that such organizations have the potential to allow students a moment of breathing space in what are usually hectic, work-filled days, to step back and examine the “big, practical questions” of the journalism profession–questions like “What are we doing?” “How are we doing it?” and, of course, “Why?”

“[The students] don’t need more things in their day,” she said. “So you would hope the things the things they are choosing, they see value in them.”

The same can be said for their advisers.

For more information, see next week’s news brief, which will provide links to each society mentioned and gives a quick overview for easy comparisons.

Lindsey Wotanis, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication arts and director of the journalism program at Marywood University, a private Catholic institution in Scranton, Pa. She serves as co-adviser to the student-run online news source The Wood Word, and the student-run television station TV-Marywood. She also advises the Marywood chapter of the Society for Collegiate Journalists. She currently serves as Vice President for Communication for the Society for Collegiate Journalists (SCJ), the nation’s oldest organization designed solely to serve college media leaders. She was named SCJ’s Outstanding New Adviser in 2013.