Education for the next generation of journalism: a Scholars & Rogues special report

It doesn’t seem controversial to suggest that journalism in America (and beyond) is in trouble, and there are any number of factors contributing to the malaise.

A particular concern of mine has been the decline in the efficacy of what we’ll call “objective journalism” – that is, the institutionalized press that dominated newsgathering and production throughout the better part of the 20th Century. These institutions and brands are still quite viable economically (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, NBC, Reuters, AP, etc.), but the sad fact is that consolidation, layoffs and ratings frenzies have dramatically eroded the value these agencies provide to a society in need of top-quality information and insightful analysis. You can’t make good decisions on bad information, and increasingly you can’t get good information from the legacy press.

At the same moment when the institutions are faltering we’re experiencing an explosion in “non-traditional journalism.” Blogging, “citizen journalism,” “Pro-Am journalism,” “crowdsourcing” – these are practices and terms that refer to the increasing role of non-professional sources in the development of the news. Much of what transpires under these banners is predictably crap, although there’s no arguing the power and potential of emerging social media. We have reached the point where “who is a journalist?” is a lot more problematic a question than it was a few short years ago.

As a former professor teaching mass media in a journalism school, I’m keenly interested not only in the press generally, but in the process by which we train future journalists. While on the faculty at my former institution I became convinced that journalism as we have known it is dying, if not dead already. Even in places where they’re trying to adhere to the principles of reporting as set forth in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, staff reductions and poor training have undercut the integrity of reportage to the point where the informed reader has to expect mistakes on a daily basis.

It seemed to me that not only was legacy journalism doomed, but that it was going to be replaced by whatever we choose to call the world of blogging, citizen J, advocacy reporting, etc. (I still haven’t come up with what I think is a perfect term – it’s like New Journalism in its best moments, but that term doesn’t quite capture the full field of practices. More on terminology later.) And since this brave world of new reporters come to the table with lots of attitude, tremendous technological capacity, and precious little grounding in the fundamentals of good journalism, our information landscape seems fated to be more noise and less signal.

The stakes are too high to let this happen. The truth is that while reporting might become less “objective,” there’s no reason at all why more “subjective” approaches can’t do a good job serving our culture’s need for dependable information and analysis. A blogger who has studied the principles of newsgathering, who has taken the time to understand how to vet the claims of scientific and social research, and who has cultivated a clearly stated code of ethics is bound to be of greater value to his or her readers than one who hasn’t.

To this end, I proposed to my colleagues in the J school that we launch a new graduate program in what I informally termed “Interpretive Journalism” (the official tag we eventually applied to it was “New and Literary Journalism”). We devoted considerable time to building a strong rationale for the program and to detailing its curriculum.

I left the school and the project appears to have died at that point, but I continue to believe it was and is a good idea. So, over the next few days I’ll be publishing a multi-part series on Interpretive Journalism, and will conclude with a curricular blueprint that a J school could use to drive its own conversations about how to address the dramatic shifts in the news industry. Certainly this program doesn’t solve all of journalism’s problem, but at the least I think it’s an interesting and important discussion.

I hope you’ll engage this series and offer your own thoughts.

Next: The end of Objectivity

21 replies »

  1. I like the citizen journalism sites like Korean-based OhMyNews and Cafe Babel. Most of these tend to be opinion-based though, which isn’t as solid as investigative reporting but it does shine light on areas that would otherwise go un-noticed.

    I chuckle when Arianna Huffington calls her site “citizen journalism”; it’s really more like “celebrity opinion”.

    Still around the big names like the NYT, you’ll find David Cay Johnston, who can provide an expert objective analysis of the tax in the US.

    But the real reporting like George Seldes did won’t come from MSM; it didn’t back then either.

  2. Yes, much is predictably crap but I for one value having it all and filtering fact from fiction through my own experiences and values. There are, and will be more of, sites dedicated to distilling the myriad opinions and quantifying the numbers of people who hold such opinions. I find overlaying various demographic and geographic data of particular interest.
    I think this is the future of the blogoshere. All the information will be out there. The best news sources will be the ones who interpret the data correctly most often. Track records will be impossible to hide.

  3. True enough. But if America’s universities can work toward boosting skills across the board and driving increased professionalism, then it’s all to the better.

    I don’t see much way around how it’s going to be. So I guess I’m looking for ways to make how it’s going to be better.

  4. I forgot to include that I like the way the UK papers like the Independent and the Guardian are set up and run via trusts.

    I think that journalism has always been under attack. Even Seldes left the Chicago Tribune back in the 1920s when he and the paper clashed on what it would publish. Even back then, it was a fight for the journalist’s independence to report objectively.

    These days, we notice it more when media companies can own an almost unlimited number of tv, radio, and newspapers in a single metro area.

    And in the internet age, it’s not only media, but telcos that have combined and provide a form of censorship, which is why there’s a battle for keeping the internet free. Add into that, the power the corporations like the finance industry have accumulated and you can see how pervasive this has become.

  5. let me provide the punk rock objection, just for conversation’s sake:

    Is it possible that the network airwaves became “objective” because they were never truly free in the first place? Isn’t this what we learned in the 70s, in fact I think HST wrote this himself, that “objectivity” was just a form of rationality that Nixon used to hide deeds?

  6. The networks certainly had their moments, esp. with people like Cronkite and Murrow. Real objectivity never existed, of course, in either print or broadcast, and I’ll talk more about that in part two.

  7. Sure – how could Bernstein and Woodward have busted Nixon if they were totally objective? They weren’t – they were subjective and subversive.

    I don’t mean to ask for “purity” in the pursuit of objectivity, because this doesn’t exist, but there are guidelines to it. However, it’s possible that there was a notion of purity-that-can-exist driving the construction of objective journalism in the first place, and that maybe this notion is religious more than it is professional.

  8. — Hiding behind the curtain of “objectivity,” the New York Times and Washington Post, with their voices of authority, helped lead us by the nose to war.

    — I never heard the term “interpretive journalism” before. I googled it and saw that it’s been around. I find it helpful.

    — “A blogger who has studied the principles of newsgathering, who has taken the time to understand how to vet the claims of scientific and social research, and who has cultivated a clearly stated code of ethics is bound to be of greater value to his or her readers than one who hasn

  9. “I have seen the future and it is us.”

    I sure hope so. The fact we cracked the Technorati 10,000 rank after 4 months and 14 days, and are at 222,592 views (as of 9:52.24 AM MDT, August 31, 2007) speaks well for that idea. Each of us here has our own interests, but where our interests are strong enough that we’re willing to take the time to dive into the guts of a story, we can produce some amazing work. And this is true of the best bloggers out there – the best bloggers take the time to really understand what they’re going to write about.

  10. I do not believe the solution to the problem with the 4th Estate is the way we formally educate journalists. The problem is the system in which journalists/journalism is allowed to prosper. Once “news” became a money maker, in of itself, then news becomes a commodity to be made, packaged and marketed. Objectivity is lost where the bottomline is born.

    Newspapers had local business advertising to support good objective research and reporting in times past. But, we live in a smaller world now, and inernational reporting of world events cannot be financed by Smith’s Lumber Yard (so to speak). So, “news” is now marketed and homogenized (AP, Rueters, CNN, etc.) for the general public.

    We trust the monied mediums for our news; cable news, corporate news/media companies. News must make money, so we hear a lot of stuff that gets viewers; i.e., Anna Nicole Smith is a “big” story, Darfur is not. I never read a thing (or very little) about the contested Ohio election results in the New York Times or Washington Post. It was reported a lot in the blogs. The monied media decides what is important, not the reader. The blogs turn this reality upside-down.

    Blogs differ in their refinement and sophistication, as they are more organic and democratic in nature. They can only exist in an instantaneous media like the internet. No longer do newspapers have to come-up with the money to bankroll a reporter and entourage to venture to where the next headline is. No. Now, someone already in Darfur, for instance, or Iraq, can write that story and have it online in near real-time. Real news then is more in the dominion of the blog than the monied corporate media. And that is a problem for the monied corporate media. Bloggers are low budget, and can get the “truth” out more quickly.

    Journalism needs to get out of the money business, it is that simple. And blogs are where the transition begins.

  11. Journalism has always been in the money business. But in the not-so- far distant past, objective reporting was what brought in the loot–that plus a credible opinion and editorial dept. Of course, there is no such thing as perfect objectivity. But journalists were expected to do their best to report an event factually, a discussion fairly and to present both or all sides to a issue. Bias and opinion belonged in columns and on the editorial page. I do not see why this is a failed model. It works fine. But not when you have a media owned by those intent on partisan, biased, inflammatory and completely non-objective “news.” Government in the defense of democracy needs to limit monopoly of media ownership and to hold owners to a model of responsible journalism. Nothing of the sort has been occurring. the blogosphere is great. It will not replace the older model of journalism in educating the public. Take the Huffington Post, a so-called liberal or progressive website with a cast of millions for bloggers. The owner Huffington has political biases and she slants the news articles, distorts events and pushes her own agenda ala Fox. I have been so disappointed with this creation. It is Fox on the left. We still are not getting an unbiased roundup of the news with commentary thown in.

    We need to demand a fair and impartial media in the name of democracy and we need to do it now.


  12. Having work for more than 25 years as a “journalist” in the print and television media, I witnessed first hand the morphing of news into infotainment.
    It seems to me the newer journalists are less interested in reporting and more interested in becoming a T.V. personality. “Give the people what they want,” say the executives and accountants, “the hell with what they need.” If that were truly the case, newscasts would be filled with 25 minutes of sports and weather.
    I’ve always believed in “advocacy journalism” as long as both sides are given their say.

  13. The MSM has been dead for 30+ years. They have been nothing more that paid off propagandists for whatever government or corporate entity cared to line their pockets. Now the bloggers have broken their cartel and they’re not happy about it. Tough. Newspaper readership is in decline because of rotten

  14. I’ve been a journalist for over 4 years now; graduated from northern Arizona University halfway between that time.
    Here are my brief thoughts on the state of journalism today:
    If you want informative investigative journalism then go out and start your own multimedia news source. Even the Alternative Weekly Network would rather promote sex and alcohol next to incessant movie reviews than to give the public regular tools for better living.
    Most ( 99.8% ) media would rather see one of their reporters end up poor and eventually in jail than have them out disrupting the status quo by educating the public about who, what, when, WHY and where politicians, institutions and companies are doing the public wrong. It is not so much about the internal politics of the newspaper ( as far as I know ) business. Most in this biz, have good intentions, but it all comes down to the lowest common denominator in the business. If the car dealership, land owners and power company, do not like the message a reporter puts on them or the society that supports them, then it does not mean a damn what the people want but what these owners of capital think the people want.
    There are cool business owners though. I suggest starting a local/regional media coverage. To train the interested student in journalism would probably take about 30 minutes to explain the basics and ethics.