Journalism Professor Mary Ann Owens demands ‘legit journalism’
Mar 23, 2021
Posted in: News
At the age of 17, professor Mary Ann Owens was called to be a journalist. This revelation came in a journalism class at Prospect High School in Mr. Prospect, Illinois, taught by Brenda Miller, a teacher who changed Owens’ life.
“This was the ‘60s when all social mores were in an upheaval, and we were questioning everything. Suddenly life made sense to me,” Owens said. “This is what I want to do.”
Owens started her professional career as a journalist at the Thompson Group and Morel Media as a beat reporter, feature writer and editor of a monthly regional magazine. She worked for USAT and Gannett News Service, and taught at Northern Illinois University for almost eight years while her kids were young.
This passion has continued to carry her through her career at VCU, where she celebrates 15 years as an instructor teaching print and digital journalism, copy editing and media ethics in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
“I did one class one semester, and then all of a sudden, I was doing three classes,” Owens said. “And I never left.”
Over the years, Owens said the advent of new technologies and social media platforms significantly impacted journalism and the way it is now.
“I used to type stories on manual typewriters, and we would use these old-fashioned cameras,” Owens said. “So the technology, of course, has moved along everything so nicely.”
Owens says she believes the greatest change to the field came in 1987, when the Fairness Doctrine was rescinded, a policy meant to ensure broadcasters presented controversial issues in a balanced manner.
Despite the policy’s abandonment, Owens said she is proud of her ability to teach beginning journalism students the fundamentals of reporting.
“I demand legit journalism,” Owens said. “You have to be objective. No matter how repellent something is, you cannot let whatever you feel inside surface on your editorial product.”
CNN digital writer Amir Vera, a former Owens’ student, said he learned of these expectations while attending VCU’s Urban Journalism Workshop, which Owens led at the time.
At the summer workshop, Owens taught students how to structure news articles, develop story ideas, find sources and conduct interviews, according to Vera.
“She was very tough at the journalism workshop that I was at in 2009,” Vera said. “I specifically remember her being a very tough editor, and her showing me essentially how the real world of journalism operated.”
Vera said he continued to work closely with Owens by volunteering at the summer workshops in the following years.
Since graduating from the Robertson School in 2014, Vera has provided coverage for millions of readers on breaking news stories such as U.S. tensions with Iran after the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guard general Qasem Soleimani, the death of NBA icon Kobe Bryant and the killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.
Vera said one of his greatest takeaways during his formative years as a journalist was taught by Owens.
“You’ve got to have tough skin when you're in journalism because people aren't going to take it easy on you,” Vera said. “So you’ve got to be able to take one to the chin and be able to adapt from that.”
Owens’ tough skin was perhaps developed when she first got her start in the field.
As a student, she was one of only two women inducted into the journalism honor society Kappa Tau Alpha, to which she serves as co-director for VCU’s chapter.
At the time, however, Owens said women were not allowed to join other organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists. Instead, women were relegated to being “Little Sisters” who served coffee and cake after the meetings.
“Being raised in the ‘50s, women were told they could be a teacher, or a secretary, or a nurse — those were your options,” Owens said. “It took a while before I could really get on to breaking news, or do some investigative reporting.”
Despite experiencing female discrimination early on in her career, Owens made her mark through her coverage for USA Today of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as she sat in gridlocked traffic about 100 yards from the Pentagon.
She took photos from her car, which have been considered the only close-up shots of the destruction before the building’s roof collapsed.
“I'm lucky to be alive,” Owens said. “There was really no thinking involved. I don't know how to explain it. I just reacted, and I knew I had to get that shot.”
On the first anniversary of the attacks, Owens was asked to write a personalized piece recounting her experience, and she said that story is the work she is most proud of.
“I’m so glad I wrote it,” Owens said. “It’s the thing my grandchildren will remember me for.”
Owens also is fondly remembered by former colleague and close friend Suzanne Lysak.
Lysak, a two-time Emmy winning news producer, who now teaches at Chapman University in California, worked alongside Owens in a MASC 203 Journalism Writing course. Along with another professor, Owens and Lysak taught the course together to give students a varied perspective of the journalism industry.
Lysak said she learned a lot about traditional print journalism from working with Owens, such as AP Style, and that they continue to collaborate on teaching materials.
“She's a very strong voice in the classroom and outside of the classroom for truth telling,” Lysak said.
Lysak said Owens always stands up for the work of journalists, and that is reflected in how she interacts with others in the classroom.
“She is fiery. And she is blunt,” Lysak said. “But she has a great capacity for caring particularly for her students.”