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Rethinking Media Education

(This posting first appeared as a guest column in PR Week.)

The university where I’m co-teaching a course this semester is one of several in the nation currently engaged in a ritual that comes around to all such institutions from time to time: finding and hiring a new journalism dean. These searches will, I hope, engender some even broader discussions.

The Digital Era has upended business models for traditional media and has created vast new opportunities for creating better journalism. But it hasn’t, so far, sparked enough of something we also need: a broad rethinking of journalism education itself.

I’m not attacking traditional methods. They served reasonably well in a time when professional journalists delivered “the news” via a somewhat limited number of outlets in any given place or about a given topic.

In an age of media saturation – when we are all becoming creators of media, using technologies that, in turn, help us become digital collaborators on work of various kinds – the traditional methods no longer suffice. Many J-schools fully recognize this; few have fully adapted to it.

The same issues apply to PR and advertising education, which are often housed in schools of journalism and communications. But those industries have been considerably more innovative, as pros, than journalism in recent years. I have little doubt those fields’ leaders are making their needs clear to educators.

Lots of journalism programs still teach courses like “Beginning Newswriting” or some such thing as part of the core curriculum. How vital is that, especially when personal audio and video are becoming at least as much a part of the storyteller’s toolkit as text? I’m not certain.

In some online educational mini-courses for would-be citizen journalists that I’m helping prepare for a journalism-oriented foundation, we’re not focusing on the how-to. We’re looking at core principles: accuracy, thoroughness, fairness, independence, and transparency. Exploring those, it seemed to me, was the most important first step.

Those principles and related skills are among the ones people will need to be media literate in a media-saturated world. I’d like to see every student take a basic media course at every level of education – not just college, but also grade, middle, and high school.

What would it include? Skepticism, for starters: Children need to learn to be independent thinkers and not take for granted that what they see, hear, or read is necessarily true or real. (Of course, in today’s timid and authoritarian society, teachers who try to help students think for themselves may be pilloried as radicals; this doesn’t help.)

J-schools will need especially to incorporate the conversational-media shift into their work. I hope they’ll become leaders in training would-be professionals on how to engage the audience in journalism, to help communities (of geography and interest) have broad and deep conversations about their futures.

New journalists will have to be entrepreneurs in coming decades. Can the J-schools teach product development in a Web world – and not lose sight of the journalistic principles and practices so vital to a self-governing society? Is there an alternative?

5 Comments on “Rethinking Media Education”

  1. #1 Michelle
    on Feb 22nd, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    USC’s Annenberg School is going through the same moment of transition and it will be very interesting to see how the two institutions handle similar challenges.

  2. #2 Jason
    on Feb 22nd, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Henry Jenkins’ Project New Media Literacies at out of MIT is developing some interesting curricula along the lines of what you’re talking about vis-a-vis media literacy education K-12.

  3. #3 Vox Publica » links for 2007-02-25
    on Feb 25th, 2007 at 12:34 am

    […] Rethinking Media Education Dan Gillmor om behovet for nytenkning om journalistutdanning. (tags: journalistikk utdanning) […]

  4. #4 Dan Kennedy
    on Mar 5th, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    Dan, as someone who teaches both a beginning newswriting course and an advanced seminar on how the Web is changing journalism, I’ve got to disagree with you when you write: “Lots of journalism programs still teach courses like ‘Beginning Newswriting’ or some such thing as part of the core curriculum. How vital is that, especially when personal audio and video are becoming at least as much a part of the storyteller’s toolkit as text? I’m not certain.”

    The “personal audio and video” isn’t going to be much good unless the students learn the basics of reporting and writing. One of the dilemmas we all face is that students who have never had to read are nevertheless going to have to learn to write in order to put together the multimedia journalism toward which we’re now rapidly moving.

  5. #5 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 6th, 2007 at 10:01 am

    Dan, I’m not sure how much we disagree.

    Certainly basic writing ability is essential. But is basic newswriting? I’m more interested in the principles that are journalism’s foundation — principles that map to a variety of media forms — than the how-to of writing a story, which I believe can be taught fairly quickly.

    Literacy in tomorrow’s culture does mean at least a partial mastery or at least deep understanding of other media forms, meanwhile.