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Journalism education: There is no spoon

At a journalism education conference in Canada recently, it appears media economics scholar Robert Picard gave a stirring keynote address. Stirring as in “stir things up!”

He began by reminding the audience that journalism and the media environment today are vastly different from what they were in the previous century. I’d say the decline began in 1995 and became undeniably apparent around 2008, when job losses in the newspaper industry first spiked.

Of course, you know this. But probably you take it for granted. Probably, like most journalism educators, you have not really stared into the eyes of a reality where children under the age of 10 have a powerful tiny computer in their pocket that is connected to a global 24/7 cornucopia of news, information and entertainment.

It changes everything.

The concept of speaking truth to power presumes that journalists know what is true, that power listens, and that journalists don’t have power and aren’t part of the power system. Those are highly debatable assumptions. (Picard)

Journalists aren’t going to like what Picard said in Toronto, and neither are most journalism educators. But not liking it doesn’t make it any less true.

Today, other functional forms of communication have emerged and these are every bit as important to speaking truth and holding power to account as journalism. While journalists continue to cling to the old conceptualization, society is moving past it. (Picard)

No newspaper or radio station or TV network has a monopoly anymore. No one with Internet access is held captive by a media corporation that tells people what to think about. This alone means that the power of the media is not what it was. There’s still power. But it’s shifted.

Today many journalistic functions have been stripped from the news media. Social media are the primary carriers of breaking news. Online news sites, blogs, and social media are far more often willing to publicly shame elites than legacy media. The locations of opinion and debate have moved to digital media. All of these reduce the necessity for and influence of news organizations. (Picard)

When Picard turned his attention to journalism education, he pointed out that other faculties in the university sometimes snub their noses at the journalism schools. “They are not completely wrong in doing so,” he added.

In the 150 years since journalism education entered universities, it has not developed a fundamental knowledge base, widely agreed upon journalistic practices, or unambiguous professional standards. Large numbers of journalism educators have failed to make even rudimentary contributions toward understanding the impact of journalism and media on society. Some of the reasons for these failures are philosophical. Some are because we have tended to separate journalism education from media studies. Many of the deficiencies exist because journalism is closer to craft than a profession. (Picard)

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! But … is Picard completely wrong?

Before you angrily close this window, know that Picard then confronts a vital question about the future of journalism education: Are we training students for jobs that no longer exist — or jobs that soon will cease to exist?

Higher education isn’t about ensuring employment. It is about shaping and sharpening students’ abilities to think and about giving them skills to can use in a variety of types of activity in future years. It is about helping them understand the past, how people and societies work, what forces affect the human condition, how to deal with the inevitable changes they will encounter in their lives, and how to find their own paths to success. (Picard)

Professional programs in other fields, including business, engineering, and the biomedical sciences, “help students learn how to discover, interpret, and navigate their ways through” the future, however uncertain it might be, Picard said.

I love that: discover, interpret, navigate.

And I agree with Picard: we’re not doing a great job of that in our j-schools. Somewhere in our efforts to cope with students’ abysmal lack of skill in punctuation and to teach them how to use cameras and code, many journalism educators and institutions have lost sight of the big picture.

Picard said those other professional programs focus on:

And journalism programs … don’t. They:

… teach students to communicate well, but without having anything to communicate and with little rationale for communicating. Minimal effort is expended on teaching students how to think and critically analyze social developments. Journalists who can’t think effectively will be even more worthless in the future than they are now.  (Picard)

Journalism programs focus on training students to do jobs that already exist in media companies.

Are we doing it wrong?

Journalism programmes need to teach students how to become more self-sufficient journalists, provide much more training is specialized forms of journalism, and teach how to cover local communities and topics such as climate, energy, defence, and social policy. These are where value is truly created, and they all require interdisciplinary programs with tight relations with other disciplines in the university — something few journalism programmes have developed.  …

We need to be teaching about how to write and produce content for multiple digital platforms for which audiences have different requirements. We need to teach how to understand audiences and use the avalanche of user data that is overwhelming news organisations. We need to help them prepare their work and lives for new types of journalistic employment. We need to teach them to be digital developers and how to be problem solvers. (Picard)

Picard skewered a few popular ideas that have been floating in the journalism education waters for a while — like the “teaching hospital” notion, and courses about “entrepreneurial journalism” taught by people who have never been entrepreneurs.

Few are teaching [students] what is necessary to establish and operate successful small news enterprises in the 21st century. (Picard)

Picard concluded his talk with recommendations where journalism education needs to go in the next decade. Since I’ve quoted so much of his address already, I’ll invite you to go to his site to read his conclusion.

Of course he says we need to break down the silos. Everybody at every journalism school I’ve ever visited agrees on that — but how many j-schools actually do it? Most take timid, tiny measures that result in essentially no difference at all.

It is not a matter of thinking outside the box, because the box no longer exists. (Picard)

You can read the full text of Picard’s address at his website.

Other points about improving journalism education were noted as well. (The conference apparently has no homepage.)

If you need a reference: “There is no spoon.


Categories: ideas, teaching


One Comment

  1. Louis Maxson says:

    What do you think I should do if I want to build an online magazine? Do I need to provide much money to pay for journalists, contributors, guest authors? I ever worked as a journalist at a printed magazine before.

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