From working as a reporter amidst the rubble left behind by the Oklahoma City Bombing to teaching journalism at multiple institutions of higher education across the nation, Willis reveals why he holds journalism and teaching so close to his heart.
Jim Willis is usually the one asking questions.
He has been doing so since the early 70s when he first stepped on to the scene as a young and ambitious reporter. But during this interview, the roles were flipped.
Through this excavation of his past, Willis, a professor within the Department of Communication Studies at Azusa Pacific, reveals the motivation and inspiration behind his passion for journalism and teaching.
The genesis of it all, as Willis puts it, began when he was in elementary school.
There was a library in between his home and his school, where he spent time delving into the stories of different people and places. With each turn of the page, Willis began to think if he could ever write something like that himself.
Later down the road, Willis’ reportage of the anniversary of the Berlin Wall, the Syrian Refugee Crisis of 2015 and 2016 and the Oklahoma City Bombing would prove that he could tell the stories he dreamed of writing as a child.
Willis’ father spearhead his love for journalism at a young age. His father was an “early pioneering television guy” who passed on his love of photography to his son, which paved the way for Willis to enter the media field as a school photographer.
But with a reminiscent smile, Willis admits seeing his name in print was what really sold him.
“The first time I saw my byline in print … I was kinda hooked on that,” Willis said.
As he continued progressing within the journalism field, he eventually found himself working at a small newspaper in the suburbs of Oklahoma city. He was hired on as a reporter, but a week later, he was promoted to editor of the entire publication.
Almost 40 years later, he sits back in his chair and jokes that he was either “chasing tornadoes or being chased by tornadoes” for most of that job. Willis then moved over to the “Dallas Morning News.”
Willis’ career as a journalist was just beginning to flourish. But at the same time, he had another passion brewing within him, one that many APU students see today –– his love of teaching.
In 1978, Willis began to transition into the realm of teaching to cultivate the responsibilities journalists must uphold in students. He took his first teaching step at a small newspaper, where professors took on the roles of editors and students made up the staff. That position was the first of many on the “national tour” he was about to embark on.
Teaching the importance of his craft across the nation began with his desire to help young journalists improve their skills and simply do a better job. Yet with a serious look on his face, Willis explains that teaching is now about something much more pertinent.
“The last few years it’s been more of a broader mission for me, which is focused on what I call fact anchored truth and how the country sort of seems to be slipping away from that definition of truth,” Willis said.
Willis describes this as truth that is tethered to facts versus opinion.
There was a point in Willis’ teaching career where he found himself at the cusp of retirement. He did retire, only to be sucked right back in by his obligation to continue preaching the importance of fact based truth.
“I felt that the truth that I was talking about, fact based truth, was under assault, and I still do… and it seemed to me that a lot of people were buying into the idea of truth which has come to be known by sociologists as post truths… truth that is not tethered to fact, or that is not fact based, but it becomes generally accepted as true –– sometimes because who is uttering it,” Willis said.
Willis believes the lack of fact based truth is linked to the ways we utilize social media and interact with those digital relationships. Willis explained how our hyper connectivity to our phones results in an overwhelming surplus of comments and opinions. Because of this, Willis believes we are running to social media and those utilizing it to discover what news is versus traditional methods of news media.
“There’s a real problem there because we are ingesting a ton of opinion from people we care about, and there’s always a tendency to believe [comments] if you have a relationship already with the person whose sharing that information, and objectivity just gets lost in the scruff,” said Willis.
The Changing Media Landscape
The idea of fact based truth was only one of many changes Willis witnessed in journalism throughout his time in the industry. Willis attributes this sea of differences to the immense pace at which new media platforms are being developed.
With the fast rise of new media platforms, Willis explains learning how to use such platforms is no longer enough. We must also understand the emphasis each platform has on individuals, how they affect the ways we process information and how we can now chase after news differently via the internet.
Willis believes the answer to this never-ending battle lies within the responsibility of both the consumer and the journalist to seek news responsibly.
“Part of the responsibility is yours to not just treat every source, every news source, every news operation as being equal and on the same mission, because they’re not. Some are pushing an ideal, some are funded by right wing, left wing groups and really don’t have an interest in informing but really do have an interest in changing one’s mind,” Willis said.
Willis councils individuals to conduct research on whichever news source they are utilizing. He recommends doing so by identifying big stories the news source has broken, the Pulitzer Prizes they have earned and the Peabody Awards it has obtained. If there is an absence of those elements, Willis recommends going to another news source.
Throughout the years, Willis has also identified the existence of this problem within journalists. He describes the pertinence of staying factual and not opinionated and the practice of examining oneself. He admits it is not always easy to do so, because all journalists have worldviews and personal biases. According to Willis, journalists are not robots; they are people too.
Willis got to experience this firsthand on a trip he took to his hometown in Oklahoma to visit his parents in 1995. What started as a typical Thursday morning morphed into the tragedy of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Willis jumped to the scene by providing Walmart first-aid supplies and donating blood. But when he discovered that the newspaper he had once worked for lost 21 people when the bombs dropped, Willis knew he needed to do more. He printed out a homemade press pass from Kinkos, walked past the police tape and volunteered for his prior newspaper.
In that moment, Willis was trying to fight back all of the emotions he was feeling and not let them interfere with his reporting. Yet in this juxtaposed reality, he understood that being objective does not mean omitting emotion.
“I was mostly trying to shut those feelings down for a while to do the job, but allowing myself to feel them opened up new ways of telling the story… Sometimes you come on a story and even before you start interviewing, you know this story has to be told in a different way because your objective, my objective was to bring people to the scene so they can see what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing,” said Willis.
For Willis, ignoring everything he felt in response to his hometown falling victim to a domestic terrorist attack would have been equivalent to him missing the who, what, when and where of a story.
Aside from the events he’s encountered, the stories he’s written and the lessons he’s learned, Willis understands the importance of giving everything he has confronted back to his students. By doing this, he can successfully pass the baton to the next generation of journalists.
“I’ve been able to take those experiences back into the classroom. And it’s also kept me…still in the business and keeps it fresh for me versus reading it out of a book,” Willis said. “If that was the case, I probably would’ve retired ten years ago –– for good.”