THE Syracuse University journalism students fidgeted as they eyed their tennis shoestrings. Seven of the 10 students solemnly nodded. The other three pondered their Reeboks and boat shoes. They had just been asked, six days before the Massachusetts presidential primary, whether they were scared at the prospect of covering the Bay State contest.
``I'm not the most aggressive person in the world. I'll be forced to become more persistent in covering [the campaign of Sen. Albert] Gore,'' said David Fawcett. Almost as an afterthought he added, ``I'm looking forward to the challenge.''
Joan Charles said, ``Being in this class, I've already found myself becoming more politically oriented. We're non-students for a week. But I wonder what we're missing - what classes - back at SU.''
In less than one week they had gone from analyzing the primary process as students to covering the primary as journalists.
``It's no wonder that people are being disillusioned with the political process,'' said Maura Deming, who had declined to comment earlier. ``The campaigns are involved in reality manipulation. This puts a huge burden on the media to be able to distinguish what is propaganda and what is real.''
In six days, the students had become skeptical of both the political process and the news media.
``What gets published and used is determined by editors. So much news is thinking of an angle - not what is important,'' said another SU student, Karen Lange.
The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at SU first sent a political reporting class to presidential primaries in 1972. Beginning in 1980, the school has sent two classes every four years to the primaries - one to New Hampshire and one to Massachusetts. Each class has had 10 to 20 students, most of them seniors or graduate students.
Starting in January, students studied the primary, the candidates, and the issues. Then they traveled to either Concord, N.H., or Boston to spend about one week on site, going to campaign headquarters, interviewing candidates, and rubbing shoulders with regional and national reporters. While in New England, they congregate frequently in the ``media suite'' under the professor's supervision. The suite is usually strewn with half-eaten doughnuts, cups of cold coffee, various portable computers, and piles of newspapers.
Newhouse School administrators and professors generally give the course high marks for giving students a taste of what it's like to be a reporter.
According to newspaper department head Samuel V. Kennedy III, ``The opportunity to take students to a primary allows them to see professionals working in the field and to actively participate in the process.''
``We are learning each time how to do it better,'' says Cleve Mathews, who took a class to Concord, N.H., this year and in 1984. He continues, ``The class proves to them [students] that they can operate in the professional arena.'' James Crook, this year's Massachusetts primary professor, is on leave of absence from the University of Tennessee. He says Newhouse's political reporting classes ``may be the best sort of [journalism] education.''
Judging from former students of previous presidential primary classes, the course has been successful in bridging the student-to-reporter gap.
``I was studying political science at the same time and learning in class how the media turn campaigns into horse races,'' says Denise D'Ascenzo, who attended a presidential primary class in 1980. She now works at WFSB-TV in Hartford, Conn., as co-anchor on the 11 p.m. news. ``I went to Boston and saw what I had been studying happen. So I tried to cover the political issues, not the horse race. It [the class] solidified my hopes and dreams to be in the business.''
Andrew Smith attended the ``Massachusetts class'' in 1984. He says, ``I learned how to organize myself and how to prepare. It taught me how important it was to know in advance what you are going to be reporting and writing on.'' Today Mr. Smith is a reporter with the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
Each student in the political reporting classes must have at least one newspaper agree to consider publishing his stories. Thus students deal directly with newspaper editors from New York to California. In one class alone, about 100 of the student stories were published.
``It was the only class where we took all the steps of being a writer - from preparation, to figuring out the story, to the questions, then writing the story. I had had classes which focused on those elements separately, but not one that put them all together,'' said Pat Louise, political reporter for the Star-Gazette in Elmira, N.Y. ``It was the hardest class I took in four years,'' said Ms. Louise, a presidential-primaries class student in 1984.
Newhouse School dean Edward Stephens calls the primaries' classes ``the highest form of professional education. They go way beyond on-the-job training.''
What separates this class from professional reporting, though, is the supervision provided by the professor.
According to Mike Grogan, a city hall reporter at the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., and a member of the 1980 Massachusetts class, ``You take the teacher along with you. He knows your working conditions, can observe you working, gets a sense of how serious you are, how much passion you have for the job.''
William A. Babcock, a former journalism professor at SU, supervised primaries' classes in 1980 and 1984.