Capping a journalism career that began in junior high school, retired University of Idaho professor Becky Tallent was recently awarded the Wells Memorial Key, the Society of Professional Journalists’ highest honor.
Tallent said she has wanted to be a journalist since she was in the ninth grade, when she launched an underground student newspaper she named the Freshman Phoenix.
Despite getting into a bit of trouble for founding the Phoenix, she would go on to lead her high school newspaper as editor. She eventually received a full-ride scholarship to study journalism at what would become the University of Central Oklahoma, where she was chief staff writer of the student newspaper, the Vista, while writing freelance.
After college, Tallent’s journalistic career ranged from a job with Reuters to oil and gas reporting for a handful of print media outfits. She also has close to two decades of experience doing public relations work for state government and medical institutions. Eventually, she completed her doctorate in education with a focus on mass media education. She joined the UI staff in summer of 2006 and continued to be active in journalism.
Though she has been an active member of SPJ for more than 40 years, Tallent said she had no idea she would be receiving the Wells Key. When the award was announced during a banquet at an SPJ conference earlier this month, Tallent said she was in the back checking football scores on her phone. Tallent, who is of Cherokee heritage, is the first American Indian and also the first Idahoan to win the award.
Founded in 1909, the Society of Professional Journalists, according to its website, is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.
Tallent said the award was largely for her work with “Press 4 Education,” an SPJ program that places journalists in K-12 classrooms.
“We’ve placed more than 200 journalists in classrooms around the country — thousands of children — and we talk about fake news media literacy, we talk about reporting basics, editing, broadcasting, legal issues, ethics — there’s like 10 different topics,” Tallent said.
Tallent said her involvement in Press 4 Education began in 2011 when, as chairwoman of SPJs education committee, she spent three years investigating the closing of high school journalism programs throughout the country.
She said the committee found that some programs were disappearing while others were doing very well, but more than half of high school journalism teachers had no experience in the field. Instead, she said, they were librarians or history and English teachers who had been asked to adapt to the role.
“There’s a big difference between writing in English and writing in journalism, and if you don’t know what the nine principles of news are, if you don’t know what AP style is, if you don’t know how to go out and interview someone, then it’s really difficult to teach those skills,” Tallent said. “Now, in teaching those skills, you’re not just teaching people how to be a reporter, you’re teaching people how to think critically, how to think creatively, how to communicate well, and also how to be collaborative.”
When Tallent’s friend and colleague, Rebecca Baker, took over the SPJ presidency in 2017, she was asked to again head the education committee and began discussing Baker’s idea for a program that connected professional journalists to high school classrooms.
After settling on the name Press 4 Education, Baker said Tallent asked for time to put something together. Four months later, Baker said Tallent had came to her with a huge program, including education tools that could be used by visiting journalists or teachers on their own, application forms and even released an instructional book called “Still Captive?: History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism.”
“Our goal was to make 100 matches in that first year. We reached our goal in less than two months — the amount of response was overwhelming,” Baker said. “It was just a runaway success from the word go, and it’s probably the signature program of my presidency.”
Baker, who assumed oversight of Press 4 Education when Tallent retired this year, said she is immensely proud of the program and intends to do her best to ensure it continues. She said with so many competing narratives being popularized today, it is particularly important for young students to be familiar with the truth of what journalism is.
“We’ve estimated there’s between 5,000 and 6,000 students now who know more about journalism than they did two years ago because of this program,” Baker said. “They’ve met journalists, they’ve talked with journalists, they’ve asked questions, you know, and they know more about what journalists do and who they are and how they are, and you can’t put a price on that.”
Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636 or by email to email@example.com.