(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?