(Note: This is updated from a column I wrote for PR Week magazine last winter.)
This week is the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, better known in the field as AEJMC, where journalism and communications educators gather to ponder their profession. This will be my fourth such event, and in just a few years citizen journalism has moved from heresy — a topic to be considered, if at all, only in side conferences and hallways — to something that, while still not widely accepted, is at least of interest.
The shift reflects, as far as I can tell, the state of journalism education itself. Newspapers are slow to adapt to the collision of technology and media, but journalism schools may be even slower.
This isn’t all bad. Institutions of higher education should be somewhat conservative in key ways. They should be ardent to preserve things that work even as they look hard at what is new and disruptive. Most importantly for journalism, educators in the field should hold hard and fast, in the best sense of conservatism, to the principles that undergird the honorable craft that, at its best, itself is a foundation for democratic self-rule and a well-informed people.
But 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 — actually none that I’m aware of — have fully adapted to it.
The same issues apply to public relations and advertising education, which are often housed in schools of journalism and communications. 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, and for the most part getting results.
Journalism education, while evolving, has not kept pace. It needs to expand its reach inside journalism schools, for starters. Then it should move to become a linchpin in the broader but even more essential mission of media literacy in the wider society.
Now there’s plenty of interesting new work at the edges, such as new-media classroom experiments that are helping people see what’s possible. This summer’s News21 Initiative projects, funded by two major foundations, are examples; many of the faculty advisors come from traditional media.
But lots of journalism programs still teach courses with names 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. Make Journalism 101 — call it Media Literacy 101 — a requirement for graduation at least from high school, because without understanding the principles of journalism students are going to be ill-equipped in the wider world.
If I led a journalism school, I’d see an opening here: to make Media Literacy 101 a requirement for all students in all parts of the university. It would be good for the faculty. And the university would have something even better to sell to prospective students.
The basics of media literacy should start earlier, far earlier, than college or even high school. What do they 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.)
It also means understanding that we shouldn’t be equally skeptical of everything; that we need to do more reporting ourselves when we are making decisions; and that we need to fully grasp media techniques.
Teenagers and young adults are already enormously skeptical, but too broadly so. They also understand media techniques — at least in creating media — better than their elders. But they have no clue, for the most part, how media are used to manipulate. They need to understand this deeply.
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?
We’re collectively reinventing journalism over the next decade or two. Journalism schools can lead, or follow. Leading strikes me as a better idea.