Criticism about the distance between mass communication’s ivory tower and the newsroom is nothing new. Recent essays and blog posts have popped up on social media feeds decrying the lack of a connection between academia and the “real world.” The Washington Post described the issue as “valuable scholarship stays locked up, obscure and inaccessible” and David Callahan argued on Inside Philanthropy that “publishing for a broader audience can actually make you suspect, and that’s particularly true if you work in the social sciences and have a strong point of view. Amid the idolatry of objective scientific inquiry in fields that have a chips on their shoulders vis-a-vis the natural sciences, academics can sully themselves if they reveal ‘biases.’”
So when I started packing for the 2015 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference in San Francisco, it’s no surprise that my mind was on research – the research I was going to present, the research I was going to explore and the ever-popular research-that-might-have-possibly-cited-me (spoiler alert: that third category was non-existent. Oh well.)
Yet when I was challenged to go into those research sessions and look for assets they may offer the classroom, I was blown away. I found a multitude of small but highly valuable takeaways for my 2015-16 slate of courses. Even better, I experienced a pretty overpowering realization that journalism education has been doing – and continues to do – something very, very right.
The devil’s in the details
And the details make for better education. The more I paid attention to the details presenters shared as a part of their research, the more goodies I found for my classes.
For example, at “Big Data and Its Implications on Journalism and Mass Communication,” panelist Deen Freelon from American University offered his definition of “big data” as “Any data set that you or your discipline can’t handle with conventional tools.” A good definition goes a long way toward dispelling mystique and making something approachable – and when it comes to anything involving math, journalism students will take all the help they can get.
Big Data is important – students know that – but it’s also a word that represents a concept that many find intimidating and puts the word “big” in front of it. Freelon’s definition shows that “big data” isn’t supposed to be something that can be handled with an everyday tool like Excel. It is, by definition, data that needs special treatment. That can help reorient the discussion to the solutions rather than spinning wheels in the mud that is math hatred.
Definitions can also spark assignments. In the same panel, Jolie Martin, Quantitative User Experience Researcher for Pinterest, said, “We do not describe ourselves as a social media service.” Her differentiation between the sharing emphases of Facebook and Twitter and the curation emphasis of Pinterest made sense, but could students recognize that distinction? I foresee an assignment giving students that quote and asking them to explain why it is true.
Another great source of information is discussions of research methodology, as they revealed new tools that have applicability in the classroom as well. When one researcher talked about coordinating her team’s efforts with Slack, I was downloading as she spoke (yes, I’m two years late to the party. Don’t judge). RNA.org for resources on reporting on issues of faith? Welcome to my Delicious account. News stories from a content analysis of sports reporting on the Redskins name controversy? Hello, new case study examples.
You may think I’m missing the statistically significant elephant in the room – isn’t the real value of research in the results? From a classroom perspective, my takeaway is no. Results have their place: they stimulate discussion, get people wondering about causes and motivations and most importantly, spark new questions. But as an educator, I think the journey of research has great value in the classroom, as well. There’s gold in them thar research hills, just waiting to be pulled into a syllabus.
And now for something completely different
My aha moment came toward the end of the conference, as I was lazily flipping through my rapidly filling reporter’s notebook (no school like the old school) and reviewing my notes. A clear theme began to emerge as I looked over the range of sessions I had attended.
The liberal arts are essential to good journalism, and always will be.
Take, for example, the panel on Big Data. In order to adequately understand and interact with the value such data has for journalists (and by extension, their audiences), we need a network of knowledge that looks something like this:
Wondering why Native American team mascots are such a controversial and newsworthy topic? It takes this:
One presentation alone, looking at coverage of fossils suggesting that snakes at one time had legs, called for this:
Anyone in higher education is familiar with the debate about the liberal arts and the call by many politicians for more job-oriented approaches to university education. While the overall narrative is starting to sway the other way, there are still a lot of parents who are pressuring their young adults to major in something “that will get you a job.” That translates to journalism students who want to pile on the digital storytelling and social media courses instead of political science, literature or sociology.
What mass communication research is telling us en masse, however, is that great journalists need to understand the mechanics of the world around them in order to do their jobs well. No story occurs in a vacuum; quality media work helps audiences see the impact of the story in their lives. You can’t do that without the broad base of education and opportunity that walks hand-in-hand with the liberal arts.
I will use this piece of knowledge in the classroom, in advising, and in every interaction I have with my students. And I’ll go to #aejmc16 to refresh that aha moment and refill my bucket o’ inspiration with more ideas, more tools and more appreciation for the role of the liberal arts in journalism education.
Dr. Erica Salkin is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Whitworth University, where she teaches media writing, interactive journalism, PR and media law. Her research interests include educational speech law, student speech in the digital age and student press.