Michael Tracey, a writer whose reports on Occupy Wall Street I’ve been following via Twitter, recently tweeted:
The “journalism major” / j-school = best examples of hyper-commoditization culture in higher education. Bubble’s got to burst soon.
Interested — mostly because this statement seemed to echo an idea that was vaguely familiar to me — I tweeted back at him, asking him to explain. He responded with a link to this article he wrote last summer:
Where Is Journalism School Going?
I read it, and as well as finding the suggestions that marketing and journalism could be moving closer together as alarming, found myself in agreement with the point that an academic curriculum focused on ‘preparation’ for journalism might not only be unnecessary, but also excluding of others from entering the field who may have been a benefit to it.
I replied to him once again, stating:
Thanks for the article – i agree. the hands-on experience has been more valuable to me than the academic aspect of my j-major
When I think of my past two years as a journalism major, everything I have learned about reporting has come from doing it. I’ve been fortunate to have unlimited opportunities to have hands-on experience through student media, internships, and most recently, through blogging.
This line in the article was among those that stood out to me:
…if you take a full major’s worth of journalism classes, that’s about twelve (or however many) less classes in the humanities that could’ve equipped you with an intellectual framework from which to approach your work.
The most helpful journalism classes I’ve had were those that either consisted of less class time and more reporting (sometimes even forgoing class periods to allow time for reporting), or just that dealt less with trying to fit journalism training into an academic curriculum and instead dealt more with specific issues or topics related to the field, such as ethics, or (class I am currently taking) independent media. That being said, I think I’ve been lucky with some of my classes associated with my major. But I have wondered several times how things might have been had I been in a different major while pursuing the same amount of participation in student media. That way, like it suggests in Tracey’s article, I might have had more of an understanding of some of the topics I am reporting on, as well as any knowledge I have about the act of reporting itself.
This whole section touched on another idea that was familiar to me:
To get a job in the “traditional” industry, one former journalism major told me, students are urged to maintain an image of unsullied impartiality, both personally and professionally. This means never taking part in public political events, never affiliating with any partisan organizations, never posting Facebook status updates that might indicate your opinions on matters of substance. Studiously avoid any demonstration of being invested in how the world works, lest you fail to meet the requirements for journalistic seriousness.
Of course, not all journalism students adhere to these dehumanizing rules. But among those who do, you have to assume that if they’ve managed to develop any kind of coherent world-view, it’s likely to be terribly stunted. Not a big surprise, then, that their aspiration is to carry out the disengaged, consensus-affirming, status quo-reinforcing kind of journalism that critics like Glenn Greenwald have so mercilessly dissected. “The conventions of modern establishment journalism are designed to suppress any genuine adversarial challenges to political power,” Greenwald told me recently. “In 2005, David Halberstam said: ‘By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are.’ I’d add: by and large, the more you cling to the orthodoxies of modern journalism, the less of a journalist you are.”
While I think the idea of traditional journalism falling into “consensus affirming” reporting can be applied to many examples, I found myself relating it examples where, in order to do ground-breaking reporting, someone first had to question the situation. I think in these instances, reporters may already be an advocate for a particular cause, or may just be consulting his or her own conscience about a situation, but either way may not be certifiably ‘detattached’ from all political or social aspects of it.
An example that comes to mind for me is the Iraq war coverage. I read independent journalist Dahr Jamail’s interview on Democracy Now!, and also spoke to him via e-mail for an article I did for Buzzsaw Magazine on the topic of independent vs. embedded war coverage. I learned from the Democracy Now! interview that Jamail had not been formally trained as a journalist, but had traveled to Iraq to report independently after becoming frustrated with the current coverage. He reported on how the Iraqis were affected by the war in their country, a subject that hadn’t been covered in as much detail by established media outlets.
I also thought of how Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! (where I have interned) has faced criticisms of “advocacy,” and her response to these criticisms in an interview with The Progressive:
I don’t really know what that means. I care deeply about what I cover. And I think we have a tremendous responsibility as journalists to expose what’s going on in the world. When you see suffering, you care. We never want to take that out of our work.
Advocating for more voices to be heard? I plead guilty. Opening up the airwaves, joining people around the world in a global discussion about what should happen? I plead guilty.
I think that objectivity, or as much needed to be informative, can always be maintained as long as journalists report what they see and hear where they are. But in order break ground or challenge the status-quo, they would first have to ask questions or be skeptical about the situation, which might mean consulting their own world-view.
Similarly, having the levels of understanding that could lead to the formation of novel questions might be more encouraged if, as Tracey suggested in the last paragraph of his article, journalism teaching was incorporated into the teaching of other subjects, instead of being isolated into its own academic field.