Journalism Education is Cultural Too

I had thought to start this blog with BIG pronouncements and DEEP thoughts, but then I realized that the point of a blog–any blog–is not solely, or even predominantly, to express oneself.  It is to participate in a conversation. So let me begin there.

Recently, Eric Newton, a senior adviser to the President of the Knight Foundation, ignited a flurry of conversation around the future of journalism education.  In a speech delivered at a conference of journalism educators, Newton accused his audience of participating in a “symphony of slowness.”  He implored them to “blow up” their curricula, to meet the frenetic pace of change in the world around them with a frenzy to match.

Howard Finberg dittoes Newton’s call to action.  Noting that universities as a whole are being disrupted, Finberg encourages journalism educators to look to new delivery models, like massive open online courses (MOOCS).  And he really likes Newton’s idea of different kinds of rewards (degrees, certificates, badges, etc.) for different levels of training.

Doug Fisher, an instructor in South Carolina’s Journalism School, injects a “dose of reality.”  J-schools, he argues, aren’t set up well mimic the teaching hospital concept that Newton proposes.  They don’t attract enough money, they don’t have enough high quality students, and they bestow few of the benefits medical schools provide to their students [e.g., high incomes, social status, the ability to pass required licensing exams].

Jeff Jarvis takes Newton’s speech as an opportunity to sketch in rough form an alternative j-school curriculum revolving around “study” classes, “practice” classes, and “tools” classes.  J-schools have always provided students with an opportunity to “study” and “practice” journalism.  What they need more of, Jarvis argues, is opportunities to explore and master the new tools of digital journalism.

I have many nitpicks with Newton’s speech, and with the responses to it, but mostly I think they have all missed a crucial point.  Since its inception in the late 19th century, journalism education has been less about teaching skills or tools than about socializing young people into a culture…the culture of journalism.  By culture I mean the values, practices and identities that mark journalists AS journalists. Above all else, in the 12 classes that typically constitutes a J-school curriculum, this is what J-school professors impart to their students.

They do this in any number of ways:

  • In trials by fire.  Every journalism school has a basic reporting class in which students are thrown out in to the world (stand on a street corner; attend a city council meeting;  interview a public official) and required to get a story.  By trial and error, students are walked through (and towards) the practices and mindsets that allow them to become competent in this basic journalistic task.
  • In “core” classes like ethics and law during which professionals walk students through the profession’s values [here is what a journalist does and does not do; here is how a journalist thinks and doesn’t think, etc.].
  • And finally, simply by reminding students at every moment that this is what journalism IS [and by extension ought to be], this is what journalists DO [and ought to do], and this is who journalists are [and ought to be].  In my own J-School, the First Amendment hangs everywhere, much like the crucifix hangs in churches.

It is these practices, so laden with background assumptions, that lend meaning to the information conveyed by instructors.  It is not just teaching (and learning) a tool or a practice, it is learning a tool or a practice for a particular purpose.

In my experience, most journalists talk about innovation and in the next breath justify the innovation, as Finberg does, by saying that it is a  “means of instilling the values of good journalism regardless of platform or medium…” By advocating that J-schools hire more professional journalists, Newton is saying much the same thing:  let’s blow up what we teach and how we teach it, but let’s retain the core values, identities and purposes of the profession.  When Jarvis says, in passing, that he would retain most of the study and practice classes that have always appeared in J-school curricula, and focus more on tool development, he is admitting as much as well.

To put it bluntly, this won’t work.  If you teach students new tools without changing the underlying culture, they will, quite naturally, turn the tools to old purposes.  I have seen this happen in newsrooms, where reporters are taught to blog and then turn their blogs into a place to write the 25 inch stories they can no longer get in the newspaper.

My point is that real change is cultural.  It consists not in learning new tools or practices, but in inventing new purposes, values, and identities.

The profession of journalism is unraveling.  It is losing a shared sense of the purposes, values, practices and identities that once lent it coherence.  J-schools will not fundamentally change their curricula unless and until these basic presuppositions are rethought, given new meaning and force, and stitched back together into a coherent answer to Jay Rosen’s question, What is Journalism For?

2 thoughts on “Journalism Education is Cultural Too

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