Jane Briggs-Bunting, professor who taught students 'responsibility we carried as journalists'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Throughout her career working in and teaching journalism, Jane Briggs-Bunting championed freedom of the press, relentless reporting and holding officials accountable.

Equally important was imparting that love to the many professionals she helped influence over more than 40 years.

"She was just a wonderful friend — a fervent advocate for journalists everywhere," said Tom Stanton, a former student and associate journalism professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. "She just impacted hundreds of journalists." 

Mrs. Briggs-Bunting, an award-winning professor, lecturer and author, died Tuesday, March 23, 2021, after a battle with cancer. She was 70.

Jane Briggs-Bunting

Since the 1970s, the attorney and former reporter had spent much of her professional life in the classroom.

From 1978 to 2003, Mrs. Briggs-Bunting directed Oakland University’s journalism program.

She also taught courses in media law, ethics and public affairs reporting, said Garry Gilbert, a former journalist who now leads the program at the school. "The people she cared about most in the world were her students. She could teach anything."

Long after leaving her class, students recall the involving assignments and dedication she demanded to prepare them for the future.

"There was no room for errors in her class," said Gail DeGeorge, who once led the school's student newspaper before graduating in the 1980s and now edits the Global Sisters Report, a website covering Catholic issues. "She championed First Amendment causes to make sure that we, even as students, knew the responsibility that we carried as journalists."

While many remembered her as a tough professor, she also earned renown, said Mark Clausen, a former student who went on to become an attorney in Seattle. "She was just really good at communicating how to look at a situation and figure out what people’s motives were and how to do your job as a reporter or an editor."

While advising the student newspaper, now known as the Oakland Post, Mrs. Briggs-Bunting pushed the staff to report on violations of the Open Meetings Act.

In the 1990s, she also encouraged the Oakland Press to file a county lawsuit over the university's selection process for a new president, said Gilbert, who was an editor at the time.

The newspaper won $50,000 in legal fees, which it returned to OU to create a journalism scholarship that aims to push students "to challenge authority and question all assumptions," he said.

Mrs. Briggs-Buntings later became director of the journalism program at Michigan State University and conducted seminars for high school students, Gilbert said.

Jane Briggs-Bunting later became director of the MSU School of Journalism.

In 2003, she was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, which described her as a "tenacious teacher of media law principle."

She also authored a legal handbook for reporters, said her husband of 46 years, Robert Bunting. "She was very active."

Born June 19, 1950, Mrs. Briggs-Buntings grew up in Ohio and attended what was then the University of Detroit, her husband said.

After reporting for the school publication, the Varsity News, she eventually landed a job at the Detroit Free Press, where she wrote investigative pieces on scam artists, he said. "She really liked to bring them down and get them exposed in the public eye."

Like her husband, Mrs. Briggs-Bunting studied law while working full-time and earned a degree before joining the faculty at Oakland University.

She also went on to report for Life magazine and People, relatives said.

Mrs. Briggs-Bunting also founded the Great Lakes Student Law Press Clinic in 2004 and served eight years as a board member for the State News, Michigan State University’s independent student newspaper.

In 2012, she helped found the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.

“Jane was a fierce advocate for accountable and open government and inspired many with her life’s work," coalition president Michael Reitz said. "We at MiCOG are grateful for her vision in founding an organization that could champion government transparency. Readers around the state knew her from her op-eds and frequent comments defending open government."

The Society of Professional Journalists' Detroit chapter honored her as its first Journalist of the Year in 1991 and gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

Other honors included the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association's John Field Award.

When not involved in journalism, Mrs. Briggs-Bunting loved kayaking and rescuing animals, which she tended to at her home in northern Oakland County.

Another love was meeting up with the scores of journalists she mentored over the years.

"She had such a huge influence on so many, but not just in our careers but our lives," DeGeorge said. "She was remarkable as a professional, as a mentor, as a friend."

Other survivors include a sister Sally; and several nieces,  nephews, grandnieces and a grandnephew.

A memorial is planned.

Donations may be made to "your own favorite charities." Mrs. Briggs-Buntings' favorites were the Alcona Humane Society in Lincoln; the Farm at Oatland North on St. Simons Island, Georgia; and the Michigan Animal Rescue League in Pontiac.