Commentary

Now is the time for all good journalism teachers and students to come to the aid of their field

Students in the Bay Area Multicultural Media Academy
Journalism workshop stand with instructor Miki Turner
(second row, left in red shirt) at San Francisco State University.
(Photo courtesy Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Inc.)
By John McManus
Posted August 27, 2004

It's that time of year when most journalism teachers are hunched over flashing photocopiers making handouts for the fall term. Their students are collecting the last care-free rays of summer or already standing in lines at the bookstore.

Time out! Your brothers and sisters practicing journalism need your help.

Many are demoralized, steamrollered by executives pushing for higher margins and marginalizing the most valuable kinds of reporting – stories that require time and talent to transform the complex or hidden into compelling journalism.

How are ivory tower egg heads and students who haven’t met their first real deadline going to redirect the corporate juggernaut?

By doing what they are uniquely qualified to do. And acting as if their futures depend on it.

Unprecedented pessimism

News people are not confident about the future of journalism.

-- Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell

Since 1995 the Pew Research Center has been asking a representative sample of American journalists whether profit pressure interferes with news quality. This May, for the first time, a majority said yes. Two-thirds of American journalists working at national media, and 57 percent of those working in local newspapers and stations, agreed that "increased bottom-line pressure is seriously hurting the quality of news coverage."

Half think journalism is headed downhill. They say the news is avoiding complex issues, too timid and increasingly sloppy.

"News people are not confident about the future of journalism," wrote Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell in a commentary included with the Pew survey. Mr. Kovach chairs the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Mr. Rosenstiel and Ms. Mitchell lead the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The Pew survey paints a picture of a disillusioned journalism workforce, pessimistic both about corporate and public support for quality reporting.

Journalists need outside help

"What they are left with," the authors conclude, "are issues they cannot contend with alone. And they believe the companies they work for in the last five years have moved in ways that have only made things worse."

Journalism educators and students might seem an unlikely rescue team.

Journalism programs have generally avoided public criticism of news organizations, especially those nearby. You don't bite the hand you hope will donate to your building fund, or hire your graduates, or whose staff might teach skill classes as inexpensive adjunct professors.

A careful critique of today's journalism might also discourage would-be majors. That could lead to loss of resources on campus, such as faculty slots.

John McManus

Of course, all the journalism teachers and majors in the country won't be able to persuade news executives to put the needs of Main Street before the wants of Wall Street. That's why faculty and students must capture the public's imagination with a critique that activates consumers. That's where the power lies when journalism is market-driven.

Four reasons for faculty-student activism

Here are four reasons why prospective journalists and their teachers should publicly critique the most popular news media in their region:

• American journalism is increasingly driven by short-term economic logic. It seeks nothing less than to redefine news in ways that generate greater profit for owners, but may undermine the ability of citizens to participate in their governance.

That logic depends on selling the eyeballs of readers and viewers with good customer potential to advertisers. Which leaves an opening for consumer education. Were consumers better informed of what they should expect of news, and more demanding, then schlock might become less profitable and substance more.

That's a big "were." But consumers have learned to reduce tobacco and junk food consumption with help from medical researchers who widely publicized their results. Why, with help from news researchers, couldn't people learn to recognize and reduce consumption of junk journalism -- emotional, visual, simple but informationally barren fare.

• All of society will be affected by the prevalence of junk journalism. Those who aren't distracted from voting altogether are likely to cast uninformed or even misinformed votes. While everyone will eventually face the consequences, journalists and journalism educators will be among the first and most severely impacted if current trends continue.

As journalism loses its claims to professionalism and its reputation as a necessary condition for democracy, its justification as an academic discipline or field may be no stronger than that for insurance agents or Realtors.

• Journalism professors and students occupy a better position than most to evaluate news quality and help the citizens of a region do so as well. They understand, or should understand, the requirements of ethical practice as well as how to make information attractive to everyday people.

Many public broadcasting stations are located on campuses, providing a means of reaching the public without passing through the filter of corporate media -- which may resist efforts to increase public demand for more expensive, independent journalism.

• Systematic assessment of news can be an engaging learning experience for students -- whether journalism majors or not. Students seem to both enjoy and learn more when they discover the quality of news for themselves rather than reading some professor's critique.

The academic support system for the news industry can continue to mutter in the dark about the economic rationalization of news into an entertaining but irrelevant commercial product. Or it can heed the cries of its graduates and use its never-claimed authority to help the public recognize that just as junk food makes a body ill, junk journalism sickens a body politic.

Grade the News offers some tools to get students and faculty started. This fall we will be working with students at San Francisco State University and other Bay Area universities to refine just a few of the means by which students and faculty might help the public see through or more deeply into the news.