A Journalism Student’s Last Gasp

Posted on July 30, 2011

I tweeted earlier this week — “Ever notice how journalists most despondent about the future are always strong proponents of the “inverted pyramid”?

It was in reference to a comment I came across on Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog. Hemant read my article in The Nation arguing that journalism education suffers from a few insurmountable conceptual problems. He shared some thoughts of his own, which are worth reading.

This is the comment, though, by one “PsiCop,” that particularly struck me. He writes:

It’s true that J-school is not strictly necessary in order to become a good reporter or editor. But there’s value — or there should be — in learning about journalism, in honing one’s writing, in learning how to conduct research, learning how to confirm one’s findings, learning how to write objectively, etc.

A very particular kind of journalism has been granted academic legitimacy by these institutions, and it’s exactly the one that sees its future fortunes dwindling. The Internet is progressively destroying the idea — if it ever really even existed — that formalized journalism education is a tenable project. If your idea of becoming a professional journalist was to trudge through the traditional routes described on college promotional material, then yes, you’re fairly likely to feel a sense of despondence right now. But doesn’t that say it all?

Further, note PsiCop’s assumption that if one rejects formal journalism education, one must also be rejecting that there is any value “in learning about journalism, in honing one’s writing, [or] in learning how to conduct research.” A really absurd assumption if you think about it! Of course, these abilities are vital to successfully carrying out journalism. The point is that there’s no good reason to believe that formal journalism education is the best vehicle by which to acquire them.

I am a strong proponent of people learning as much as they can, including about journalism, and including about how to become a better journalist. What I object to is the notion that this information is best conferred by journalism education as we currently understand it. In fact, I think the humanities are far likelier to produce better journalists — by facilitating students’ development of a coherent epistemological framework for viewing the world, and by extension, what they write about in newspapers or magazines.

Yeah, these things can be learned on-the-job or in other ways outside of J-school, but that doesn’t make J-school irrelevant. It just means it’s one of several paths one can take.

So if we could demonstrate that j-school is the worst of the available paths, would it count for anything?

But that has nothing to do with the state of journalism as a whole, which is abysmal and growing worse … Second, it suffers from the devaluing of the objectivity ideal. Many journalists now believe it’s acceptable for them to be propagandists for their own views, rather than impartial reporters of the facts. (If one needs evidence of this, I need only point one in the direction of Fox News and MSNBC — among many others.)

Note his insinuation that rejecting the “objectivity ideal” must mean one would rather just be a propagandist. That in order to present facts and views accurately, you must affirm the primacy of “objectivity,” as if anyone who doesn’t will invariably skew facts and smear opponents. Ironically, it is the objectivity ideal itself which breeds distortion of facts, albeit a subtler distortion, not because writers think of themselves as trying to shape the news, but because their commitment to such a detached and strange method of absorbing and disseminating the news doesn’t allow for a full contextualisation and interpretation of what they’re covering. Providing such contextualisation and interpretation is often shunned, a product of the mentality inculcated by journalism educators who subscribe to a very particular and ahistorical brand of the craft — one which prizes objectivity over all else.

Remember that “objectivity” and “accurate presentation of facts” are very different things. Advocates of journalism education routinely conflate them.

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