August 10, 2006

A new syllabus for journalism

Doug McGill argues–as I do–that journalists need to understand language better. I’ve put a few callouses on the tips of my fingers writing about this on Rhetorica. I like where McGill is going with this:

What journalists need to think about seriously right now is language itself — its essential nature, its cultural meanings, and most importantly, its social uses and modes of action.

He makes this claim in the context of discussing the emergence of effective and successful citizen-journalism projects within a particular moral framework. I’m going to set aside definitions of those adjectives for now to deal with an interesting intersection between the discipline of rhetoric and the practice of journalism by citizen journalists. I want to understand McGill’s claim in terms of the concept of “discourse community.”

A discourse community is “a group of people who share certain language-using practices” (Bizzell, Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness, 1993, p. 222). Why that’s important: Language-using practices include and exclude. Journalism’s epistemology leads it to gather and present information in a certain way to inform a mythical general audience. In a very important sense, journalistic discourse is largely exclusive, but journalists consider it largely inclusive.

Citizen journalism makes sense because of the potential for a discourse community to cover those situations it understands as news using language the discourse community understands as defining of reality.

Citizens may profit from the professional’s information gathering skills. Professionals may profit from the epistemologies and news perspectives of the discourse communities that make up something like a general public.

McGill offers a new syllabus for journalism to help that day arrive: [click continued]



1. The study of journalism as rhetoric. It would surprise most journalists to know that even as they impart to readers the informational content of their articles they are also, usually unconsciously, trying to persuade their readers of several key points. These include persuading readers of their own credibility as journalists, and of the authority of the people they quote; and to persuade readers also of the essential correctness of their moral premises, world view, and authorial points-of-view. These specific points are important to grasp, but equally important in studying journalism as rhetoric is simply to demonstrate to journalists the multi-layered intentions embedded in all speech.

Would “Right on!” be an appropriate response? 🙂

2. Examining “free speech” versus “right speech.” This step in the syllabus sensitizes journalists to the wide range of public speech which, although allowed by law, is inadvisable from the standpoint of individual or societal good. Since it has historically been threatened by government censorship, journalism has tended to refrain from lengthy consideration of instances where free speech is best curtailed for the overall good. Yet absolutely unchecked public speech engenders its own set of public health threats, and is now doing just that across the globe. It thus behooves journalism to ask whether the media’s abuse of free-speech protections is one reason why journalism itself, instead of helping solve society’s problems, so often simply fuels them.

This makes me (intellectually) nervous because, on the one hand, I consider myself a free-speech absolutist (yes, I understand it’s impossible to maintain such a position) and, on the other hand, I applaud, and agree with, the moral position from which this springs.

3. The perfect correlation of local and global causes and effects. This is a universal fact, ignorance of which is the root of much human suffering. Ironically, the opportunity to embrace this truth arises precisely at dire historical moments such as the present one, when the effects of ignorance of the perfect local-global correlation becomes apparent as local and global disease. The illumination of these stress points in the natural environment, the economy, local cultures, and in the human person is journalism’s paramount responsibility at such an epochal moment.

Journalism deserves to be practiced by journalists (citizen or professional) who care enough to look deeply into the inter-connectedness of global life. That’s easy to claim but difficult to implement given the realities of professional practice. Here is an opportunity for citizen journalism to compliment and enhance the professional product. The idea that citizen journalism, blogging, and open-source reporting will/should replace the professional product is/was dead on arrival. Adjunct or addendum are better concepts, and we may see these roles emerging even now.

4. The problems of the individual and of society, which are journalism’s natural subjects, connect in the experience of human suffering. As a result, human suffering is journalism’s central and essential subject. Journalism is much like medicine, the law, or the helping professions in this respect. Yet what do journalists really know about human suffering? How much have they studied it, and equally important, how thoroughly have they considered the role of journalistic practice in the overall scheme of human suffering — its possible role in causing and continuing human suffering, and as well in contributing to individual and social healing? What guidelines has journalism established for ethical practice in this particular regard?

Journalism ain’t rocket science. Its proper practice is more difficult than that. The ancient Greek rhetoricians (Lordy how I love those ol’ guys) understood that the practice of engaging the public–of being present in the public through verbal participation–required the abilities of the whole person as a citizen of a community. It’s that spirit I see moving in McGill’s syllabus. I’ve been teaching something like it, but McGill has now shined a light farther down the path.

2 Responses

  1. Lex 

    Bravo, Prof. Cline. I just sent this link to my whole news department.

  2. Thanks, Lex. But the Bravo! properly belongs to Doug McGill.