One of the cornerstones of journalism, and therefore of journalism education, is the principle of the Fourth Estate, or even what journalist and educator Douglass Cater called “the fourth branch of government.” Namely, that effective democratic governance relies on effective journalism.
That may be true in theory. However, in practice, the Fourth Estate model has some shortcomings, as a quick look around the landscape today easily confirms.
An observation made by journalist and press critic James Fallows nearly 20 years ago is probably truer today when he wrote it. “Far from making it easier to cope with public challenges,” Fallows wrote in his 1996 book Breaking the News, “the media often make it harder.” Too much news coverage presents public life as the “depressing spectacle” Fallows described.
Taking steps to fix the disconnect
A desire to do something about this disconnect between journalism and democracy has animated the work of a small group of journalism educators over the past year working together with the Kettering Foundation. The group’s most recent gathering was at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in San Francisco in early August.
No one in the group is under any misconception that we can repair democracy or completely reform journalism education with some master stroke. But that’s not stopping us from trying to make some headway on this important topic, with Kettering’s principles helping to define parameters for our work.
Kettering’s mission is to foster research about “making democracy work as it should.” According to the foundation, that process begins with people working together on recognizing and solving shared problems. “We strive to learn more about what can increase the capacity of communities to act on the problems they face,” the foundation says on a portion of its website describing its work.
Figuring out ways to accomplish that is a far different task than revising or reforming a “broken” democracy at the mega-level, and it makes the work of the educators’ group both interesting and — we believe — feasible.
Key ideas so far
A few key things we have focused on so far are:
- Helping define what “engagement” looks like in the sense of supporting communities and democratic practices, noting that it’s something different from metrics and other things that often are part of the conversation about audience engagement.
- Figuring out ways that journalism can address problems of democracy by helping foster the process of citizens working together to solve shared public problems.
- Bringing this back to our students with a focus on teaching a mindset over a skill set, to help students understand and practice this “journalism of engagement.”
In short, what we are seeking to do is figure out ways of instructing students in a form of journalism that helps communities recognize their shared problems and act on them. Our goal is to develop innovative ideas in pedagogy, curriculum and other means that bring about meaningful changes in journalism education.
Research project seeks ideas
We hope to move this process forward with a special invitation co-presented by Kettering and AEJMC for researchers to create and present projects around that topic, especially projects that (1) develop and test a new curriculum, or (2) experiment with a practice innovation in the newsroom or in other media.
Interested scholars are invited to submit abstracts that clearly state:
- The objective of the work and its relevance to the topic of how can journalism address problems of democracy by helping foster the process of citizens working together to solve shared public problems.
- The methods that will be used to examine the question or topic.
- What the project is expected to discover.
- The expected significance of the work.
Abstracts should be limited to no more than 1,500 words and the deadline for submitting them is Oct. 12. Submitted abstracts will undergo peer review and up to 20 proposals will be selected for researchers to turn into full papers by April 2016.
Top papers as selected by further peer review will be presented at the 2016 AEJMC conference in Minneapolis and also appear in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. The very top papers will earn cash awards. Full details of the research call can be found at http://www.aejmc.org/home/2015/07/citizenship-democracy/
We recognize that the experiments and innovations we are able to develop, implement and evaluate through this process most likely will be small ones — as are the first steps of even the longest journey, according to a popular proverb.
But so be it. Program by program, course by course and maybe even student by student if what we come up with makes small differences in journalism education. If we are able to spread the word about the successful innovations (with the help of organizations such as Kettering, AEJMC and MediaShift), then over time we will find ourselves further along the road to teaching the next generation of journalists how to practice the craft in ways that support democracy via community engagement.
Jack Rosenberry is a professor in the Department of Media and Communication at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. He also is the research chair for the Special Presidential Initiative Research Call by AEJMC and a member of the Kettering Journalism Educators Learning Exchange.
This post has been updated with a new deadline for proposal submissions after an extension by the organizers.