JERAA condemns jailing of Al -Jazeera jouralists
Journalism schools: swaddled in theory, industry providers or loyal critics? *
By Matthew Ricketson.
What is the best preparation for journalistic work? It is a question thousands of school leavers and their parents ask.
If you read any of the articles published recently in this newspaper (The Australian) your answer might be: anywhere but a journalism school.
“Uni degrees in indoctrination” ran the headline and the precede read “Uni media students are getting an anti-Murdoch message” (13 October). You didn’t need a degree of any kind to work out that the media editor, News Corporation Australia’s group editorial director, Campbell Reid, and an unnamed student thought that what was being taught at Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney, was not enough practical skills, too much theory and way too much emphasis on the failings of News Corporation, owner of this newspaper, especially when News is one of the biggest employers of journalists in the country.
Taking these issues one by one, first, there remains a misunderstanding abroad about the respective strengths and weaknesses of universities and newsrooms.
Editors may lament journalism schools as impractical, saying core skills can only be learnt on the job, but isn’t that self-evident? No university course can prepare students for every eventuality or require them to be mature beyond their tender years.
Doctors learn bedside manner with patients and lawyers learn the nuances of jury selection in courtrooms. Universities can only partially replicate skills learnt over time in situ.
Journalism courses can – and should – provide a grounding in core professional skills and methods. They do. Most Australian journalism degrees contain as many practice-based subjects as theoretical ones. And most offer industry internships.
It is smarter, though, for universities and newsrooms to play to their strengths. Universities are great places to study and debate the history, literature, politics, sociology and culture of journalism; to think about the news media’s role now and into the future as new communication technologies continue to disrupt the media’s longstanding business models.
The unceasing crush of deadlines, which now happen by the minute rather than daily, make newsrooms a poor environment for this kind of reflective, contextualising work, as even the The Australian’s editorial acknowledged on 14 October: “We expect that journalism academics will….identify issues that those of us in the trenches every day cannot see”.
Second, many misunderstand the difference between journalism degrees and communication degrees. Overwhelmingly, the former aim to prepare students to work in the news media industry, whether in big companies or in start-ups.
Some communications degrees include journalism subjects but some do not; some include public relations or advertising or media production but many are mainly and openly teaching students to critique the media.
Communications graduates may want to work in the news media and may come to it with a well-developed view of its flaws but little idea how to actually do journalism but really so what? If they are actually offered a cadetship, these graduates will either learn quickly on the job or they won’t.
Third, implicit in The Australian lamenting a perceived anti-Murdoch message while reminding everyone that News Corporation is a major employer of journalists is the suggestion that either the company only wants to hire people who believe in it unreservedly or that those teaching journalism should think twice before criticising News.
This is a weird and disturbing idea. Imagine what would happen if a government told a news organisation that because it spent thousands of dollars advertising in its pages the newspaper should report its policies favourably.
Actually, you don’t need to imagine it; the prospect of government intervention in the freedom of the press was what this newspaper and others vigorously campaigned against when the Labor government introduced its media reform bills in 2013.
It is true any journalism school should maintain a good working relationship with industry; it is equally true they will sometimes challenge the industry they serve. This is especially important in a field as central to democracy as journalism.
Employers are understandably irritated when graduates are either ill-prepared or unwilling to adapt to the workforce. If all universities did, however, was provide workforce fodder they call into question their own existence.
What about educating reflective practitioners who are not only ready to work but geared to becoming innovators? That has never been more necessary than now.
What about universities doing research that questions received wisdom and challenges industry to improve? Largely unknown in newsrooms and infrequently reported in their outlets is the amount of good research done by journalism and communications scholars.
Without this growing body of research, the coming Companion to the Australian Media – a 415,000 word work with nearly 500 entries – would not have been possible.
Journalism schools can and should be what Columbia University president Lee Bollinger has called “loyal critics” of their industry.
It is difficult for news organisation to report its critics fairly. I am not the first to say this newspaper tends to either attack its critics, often at great length and in personal terms, or ignore them.
One ignored critic is Rodney Tiffen, whose Rupert Murdoch: a reassessment has not been mentioned in this newspaper to the best of my knowledge until the 13 October article.
An eminent political scientist, Tiffen concludes his lengthy study by saying the phone hacking and bribery scandal that engulfed News in 2011 has been “the biggest media-related scandal in the history of English-speaking democracies”.
The scandal shows us, he writes, “that media power corrupts as much as any other power. It is an ingrained habit of mind for us to think of the press as a protector of democracy rather than a threat to it. It is just as much a part of making democracy work better to make media power accountable as it is to make government power accountable”.
Students should be exposed to many perspectives on journalism. They should read The Australian, they should read Tiffen and they should make up their own minds.
* This is the full version of the article that appears in today's Australian newspaper: Media students gain critical skills at unis such as Sydney and UTS