Yesterday, I put the finishing touches (almost) on my syllabi. Jay Rosen’s discussion of journalism education sends me back for another look at them this morning. He asks (and answers): What did I used to teach that I now no longer believe.
I wrote about this, sort of, last June:
I know journalism. What I am unwilling to do is teach it uncritically. So my syllabus reflects all of the skills of the craft–all of the religion as handed down from on high. And my students learn these skills. I have some evidence already that I’m doing a pretty good job of it. But I present everything critically in the way of my academic discipline. No student leaves my classroom thinking, for example, that the inverted pyramid structure is just an innocent little writing convention they have to master to get a job. They master it fully by understanding its historical, social, and technological context. They master it fully by understanding that it represents choices that have real consequences for civic communication. They master it fully by understanding that as a convention it is a human construct and can be reconstructed based on a re-examination of (professional, social) values. They master it fully by understanding there is just no way in hell to represent a news situation in an artificial hierarchy of “facts” without pissing someone off.
I wrote that partly in response to Rosen’s essay on the religion of journalism. Part of that religion has been the idea, discussed in Rosen’s recent essay, that professors have been teaching a concept of journalism as a profession that “makes a difference” to students that we assume want to (ought to want to) “make a difference.”
One connotation of that phrase is that journalism professors encourage young journalists to go forth into the polis and be political (in the sense of partisan). Here’s Rosen’s take:
Similarly, “making a difference” was never a good enough standard for teaching or doing journalism. It was a lazy idea, the press putting one over on itself. For the liberal journalists and professors who were the believers in make-a-difference journalism were babied by their profession, and their J-school training, which allowed them to believe in agenda-less journalism at the same time.
And in fact, they wanted the innocence (we do just the facts journalism) and the power (we do make a difference journalism) but this could never be. We in the J-schools failed to catch that. The people on a mission never got around to justifying their mission in the language of democratic politics. They talked about it as a neutral public service instead, but speaking truth to power isn’t neutral, and making a difference isn’t just a service to others. We in the J-schools didn’t do well with that, either.
I don’t disagree with Rosen. But I (choose to) interpret that phrase differently. I think it means I should do the ancient Greek thing (that my rhetoric training teaches me to do) and send students into the world to be participatory. What I mean by that: Journalism is not an innocent endeavor. Its practice has very real effects on the polis. Students should be aware of these and aware of how to enhance what ought to be enhanced and mitigate what ought to be mitigated–and they should know the difference.
The ancient Greeks would not have understood the concept of “neutral public service.” They understood instead that public service is always interested and should be interested, and that interest should be grounded in shared values. (Wow, I can hardly believe I just typed that last sentence. Not that I don’t believe it, but the term “shared values” will almost certainly be misunderstood given our current political context. For some background on my context, go read this.) Those shared values are the clues to the oughts I mentioned. J-schools should be teaching students where their professional practices fit in the context of the American democratic republic and American culture(s). This is not to say that they must slavishly reproduce that culture. Part of the role of journalism should be critical examination, i.e. journalists should be doing professionally what all citizens should be doing as citizens. Critical examination, by the way, is a shared value. (Just in case you don’t believe that, go read any blog.)
I’m lucky. I did not bring much of the baggage of the journalism religion with me to this job. What does that mean? I’ll end with the skit I wrote last June:
SCENE: A bar in mid-town Kansas City circa spring 2004. Two boomer academics drinking beer.
CAST: Andy (new prof. preparing to start his first job); Steve (English prof. who worked with Andy)
Andy: This is going to be weird.
Steve: No no no…it’s right up your alley. I mean, it’s really perfect in a way.
Andy: But I don’t believe that stuff anymore.
Steve: [chuckles] You could call it critical journalism.
Andy: [smiling] Oh, it’ll be critical alright.
Steve: No, but really…you could do a lot of good.
Andy: The whole professional attitude about language would have to change. I’d have to attack nearly every foundational principle. Talk about cognitive dissonance.
Steve: You do that now.
Andy: Yeah, but this is different. Teaching the conflicts isn’t just broadening the curriculum. As far as journalism is concerned there are no conflicts. There’s one way–one way to know, one way to tell, one way to understand. Geez.
Steve: (chuckles] No…this is perfect.