Journalism Education’s Broader, Deeper Mission

    by Dan Gillmor
    February 7, 2009

    Accepting an award from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School for Journalism & Mass Communication several months ago, former PBS NewsHour host Robert McNeil called journalism education probably “the best general education that an American citizen can get” today.

    Perhaps he was playing to his audience, at least to a degree. Many other kinds of undergraduate degree programs could lay claim to a similar bragging rights; a strong liberal arts degree, no matter what the major, has great value. Still, there’s no doubt that a journalism degree, done right, is an excellent foundation for a student’s future.


    Even if McNeil overstated the case, however, his words should inspire journalism educators to ponder their role in a world where these programs’ traditional reason for being is increasingly murky.

    Our raison d’etre is open to question largely because the employment pipeline of the past, a progression leading from school to jobs in media and related industries, is (at best) in jeopardy. Yet journalism education could and should have a long and even prosperous life ahead — if its practitioners make some fundamental shifts.


    Some of the shifts are already under way, especially in how journalism educators do their jobs. The Cronkite School, where I’m teaching, is one of many journalism programs aiming to be part of the 21st Century. The school understands at its core that digital technology has transformed the practice, though we hope not the principles, of the craft. This is welcome, if overdue; if newspapers have adapted fitfully to the collision of technology and media, journalism schools as a group may have been even slower.

    But that recognition, while valuable, isn’t nearly enough. Journalism educators should be in the vanguard of an absolutely essential shift for society at large: helping our students, and people in our larger communities, to navigate and manage the myriad information streams of a media-saturated world.

    We need to help them understand why they need to become activists as consumers — by taking more responsibility for the quality of what they consume, in large part by becoming more critical thinkers. And they need to understand their emerging role as creators of media.

    In both cases, as consumers and creators, we start with principles.

    For media consumers:

    • Be Skeptical

    • Exercise Judgement

    • Open Your Mind

    • Keep Asking Questions

    • Learn Media Techniques

    For media creators (after incorporating the above):

    • Be Thorough

    • Get it Right

    • Insist on Fairness

    • Think Independently

    • Be Transparent, Demand Transparency

    (See this recent paper, part of the Media Re:public project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where I’m a Fellow, for a fairly lengthy description of the principles and an explanation of why I believe they’re important.)

    The principles underpin everything I believe about modern media consumption in general — entertainment being the major exception — and journalism in particular. Especially for the creators of media, they add up to being honorable.

    If the principles are the foundation, the practices and tactics are an evolving superstructure. Journalism education needs to deal with both.

    This applies not just to students studying the practice of journalism. The same issues are roiling public relations and advertising, the teaching of which is often housed in schools of journalism and communications. Not surprisingly, because modern commerce has been so much about selling things, those industries have been considerably more innovative, in the professional ranks, than journalism in recent years. Key leaders in advertising and PR are surely making their needs clear to educators, and one suspects getting results.

    As noted above, journalism schools are starting to embrace digital technologies in their work with students who plan to enter traditional media. Too few are helping students understand that they may well have to invent their own jobs, however, much less helping them do so.

    Still, the experiments are growing in number, in scope and in potential. What’s more, they’re involving not just newcomers to the journalism education ranks, but faculty members who’ve been on the job for some time. The News21 Initiative, funded by two major foundations, is an example. We’re working on entrepreneurship as a core mission, and so is Jeff Jarvis at City University of New York, among others. Rich Gordon at Northwestern University’s Medill School is helping computer science students understand the value of journalism, and how they can help create tomorrow’s version. And so on.

    But I keep coming back to the issue(s) that should trouble anyone who cares about the future of self-governed societies. We’re not turning out the critical thinkers we need in a time when that skill has never been so important, particularly when the avalanche of data — some of it bogus and much of it irrelevant — has never been so difficult to handle.

    One experiment, at State University of New York’s Stony Book campus, is notable. Howard Schneider is leading another foundation-funded program (so many of these are, raising an interesting question that I won’t go into here) that aims to make better news consumers and critical thinkers of all students, not just those enrolled in journalism courses. This goes only part of the way to what I’d like to see in journalism education, but it’s a very useful start.

    Where would I take it, if I ran a journalism school? I’d start, again, with the principles listed above, and rework the how-to part of the curriculum to be more digital (that is, media-agnostic) and entrepreneurially focused.

    I’d also direct the alumni relations director to find out who attended the journalism program and then went onto great things in non-journalistic fields. To the extent that McNeil is correct about our offering such a useful program for students of all kinds, surely we’ll find plenty of accomplished graduates in other professions and crafts. Take a look at the Cronkite School’s “Alumni Hall of Fame“ — a listing, begun in 1993, largely comprised of former students who are now employed by traditional media organizations. They are all worthy honorees. Sixteen years from now, I hope, this list will offer a much broader cross-section of affiliations.

    Then, tackling the media activism challenge, my colleagues and I would:

    • Persuade the president of the university that every student on the campus should learn them before graduating, preferably during freshman year.
    • Create a program for people in the community, starting with teachers. We should be seeing every student take a basic media activist course at every level of education — not just college, but also grade, middle, and high school.
    • Offer that program to concerned parents who feel overwhelmed by the media deluge themselves. Children especially need to learn to be independent thinkers and not take for granted that what they see, hear, or read is necessarily true or real.
    • Provide for-fee training to communicators who work in major local institutions, such as PR and marketing folks from private companies, governmental organizations and others. If they could be persuaded that the principles matter, they might offer the public less BS and more reality, and they’d be better off for the exercise.
    • Try to enlist another vital player in this effort: local media. The traditional journalism organizations should be making this a core part of their missions, but haven’t yet realized why, namely that their own trust in the community would almost certainly rise if they helped people understand these principles — not to mention the enormous value of truly engaging the audience in the journalism itself. New media entrants would benefit, too, if they embraced the principles of media activism to produce higher quality work and deepen their own conversations with their communities of geography and interest.

    Community efforts would, of course, include training of citizen journalists to understand and apply the principles and best practices, and helping new entrants in local media find business models. Sometimes the business models will be for-profit; others will be not-for-profit.

    That will likely mean partnering with other parts of campuses — business schools, engineering/computer science, design and more — to be an essential community-wide resource for the future of local media. Ambitious? Sure, but imagine what we could all accomplish.

    All this suggests a considerably broader mission for journalism schools and programs than the one they’ve had in the past. We’re not the only ones who can do this, but we may be among the best equipped. If we don’t, someone else will.

    (Many of the projects cited are funded, wholly or in part, by the Knight Foundation, funder of this blog and the work of people who are making these postings.)

    Tagged: digital media experiments journalism education news21
    • Acharn

      Well, all very interesting, I suppose. But with the major media stars holding the belief that their role is merely to report what their government sponsors have said, without commenting on whether there is any truth to it, and often not identifying their source, I would say that attempts at “media activism” have a hard row to hoe.

    • At the risk of getting some feathers ruffled. My take is that the best approach would be for great newspapers to go directly into the education business and either network with or displace Journalism Schools.

      Imagine the power of the NY Times Graduate Institute for Journalism.

      It would bring the social capital of the University together with the real life problems of public discourse to the benefit of both.

      And it would redirect some of the education debt taken on by students to support the business ecology of the great newspapers.

      The smaller and regional newspapers could do the same with CTE and Commmunity College programs. Adjuncts in those programs are under paid and over stressed with relatively little direction to focus their talent.

      Again, social capital created in one setting can be linked to the social capital created in the newspaper world.

      My bet is that it’s a 1+1 = 3 situation.

    • John Hopkins

      Actually, Michael, one of the great regional newspapers IS in the education business. It’s the St. Petersburg Times, with the Poynter Institute offering a wide range of research and mid-career education for journalists and other communicators.

    • It proves again that the future is here, just unevenly distributed.

      Any info about how the St Petersburg TImes is doing? Did they assume a lot of debt? Is the education part a revenue stream?

      I think I read that the Washington Post is mostly supported these days by the Kaplan division which makes it’s money from the education space.

    • Dan,

      Great post. I’d highly recommend that all journalism schools ask students to read The Elements of Journalism by Kovach and Rosenstiel, which are closely aligned with the principles you describe above. My favorite phrase is “new media and enduring values.” We have MORE opportunities not less to do great journalism these days, but as you say, the key is being able to think critically and to widen the circle of those actively engaged in the process of both creating and consuming media.

      I worked for Kovach and Rosenstiel at the Committee for Concerned Journalists, and our traveling curriculum program was/is basically fundamentally based on helping folks to develop critical thinking skills, especially re: how to make these values come to life in their daily work. It was a highly discussion oriented program, very Socratic, and gave people various scenarios to discuss as well as help coming up with specific actions they or their organization could take. I”m biased, but I’d recommend them to any news organization and it would be ideal to bring some citizen journalists and others in as well.

      Now I’m a journalism professor at the University of Memphis and we are working hard to update our curriculum along these lines as well.

    • You missed the most critical imperative: KNOW SOMETHING. Media is in decline today because its product is so often shoddy, in the manner of Deteroit’s cars during the 1970s. It’s shoddy because its practitioners so often have a shallow grasp of what they’re covering. Which people catch when they’re versed in that area. Far too many people are versed in at least one area, and have had this experience. Then, too, there’s “agenda journalism,” which is great if you’d like to restrict your readership to people who share that agenda and want it fed back to them.

      You receive awards because you’re an exception.

      The best thing that journalism schools could do is close themselves down, and send their graduates into fields of study, or better still life experiences, that will teach them about the things they wish to cover.

    • @Joe,
      I think you got it right, as long as you either some or most in front of “Journalism is in decline….” and some in front of “Journalism schools should ….”

      What would think of newspapers getting into the journalism education business. It’s what used to be called apprenticeship.

      Given the money people pay for college, and given the low salaries most faculty are paid, I think it would be a good business plus they get the kids to, as you say, KNOW SOMETHING.

      Besides, my bet is that the kids, becuase they don’t have to do 100 things at once, could bring a different perspective to the pros.

    • wendy Beck

      Thank you, Mr. Gillmore. I am a high school teacher and getting more students involved in the search for truth for journalistic purposes or otherwise will reinvigorate education. Teens are naturally truth seekers and their sensitivity to unfairness is often lost by adults. This can’t happen soon enough.

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