HARPER: Journalism education

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

After mucking through places like Jonestown, Guyana, and Beirut, Lebanon, for more than 20 years as a reporter, I decided my skills might be better used to train the next generation of journalists.

As I ponder retirement, I wonder who’s going to educate the next generation, particularly as journalism professors and communications scholars, including me, arrived last week in Washington, D.C., for the annual get-together of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Journalists face a number of important issues, but the plummeting lack of credibility with the public stands as No. 1 for me. Without trust, journalists don’t have much of a role to play.

In a recent book, “Millennials, News, and Social Media: Is News Engagement a Thing of the Past?,” AEJMC President Paula Poindexter, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, outlined the disconnect between the media and their audience. She underscored how young people gave the media poor grades and didn’t think being informed about the news was important.

“Improving millennial attitudes toward news is a complicated, long-term proposition that requires leadership and commitment from everyone,” she wrote to me in an email.

I think her proposals focused on a laudable goal: media literacy. But I don’t think it went far enough to address my concerns in training the next generation.

Only two AEJMC presidents in the past 10 years have had any significant experience in journalism. Moreover, many of the estimated 500 journalism programs exist in schools of communication alongside advertising, media studies, public relations and other fields not associated with reporting.

Nearly all the tenure-track jobs in journalism programs require a doctorate. That usually means successful job hunters must focus their time on writing for rather obscure academic journals.

Some places like Arizona State, Columbia, Syracuse and Temple, where I teach, emphasize a mixture of professors with a doctorate and those who hold a doctorate in worn shoe leather. I hold the latter.

Many journalism programs failed to adapt to changes in the media and have only started to launch entrepreneurial and multimedia courses in the past few years. That’s because many people studied the trends and failed to adapt to them in practical terms.

Some curricular problems exist. Journalism students must take roughly two-thirds of their classes in the arts and sciences, where they often must listen to leftist hokum.

My preference for journalism would be more stress on accuracy than objectivity, fairness and balance — buzzwords that mean far different things to different people.

Objectivity, for example, leads to the false equivalence of news organizations calling known terrorist groups as militants or insurgents and other travesties of alleged neutrality.

Fairness and balance often create debates that become shouting matches of extreme points of view rather than the subtleties in between. I would like to see more explanatory and interpretative journalism that doesn’t fall in the trap of being pedantic or pedestrian. I would like to see more education for journalists about how to run a successful business. I would like to keep politics out of the classroom. I get tired of educators trashing conservative media and so do some students.

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