Democracy cannot long survive without a vibrant and independent press. Therefore, the journalism and communications programs that teach many of tomorrow’s journalists have a moral obligation to rethink their work.
They must educate journalists to thrive in today’s chaotic environment while preparing them to pave the way to a new and more sustainable journalism in the future.
In over 30 years as a reporter, editor, teacher and administrator of a journalism school, I have watched as the business model of journalism and its relationship of trust with Americans have been weakened to the breaking point. When I arrived in Washington in 1998, I was one of the few Latino reporters working for English-language news outlets in the nation’s capital. Today our field is more diverse, but it is still far from representative of the communities we cover. These industry challenges are reflected in low enrollment in some journalism and communications programs, the ongoing problem of diversity in higher education, and the attacks journalism students and their teachers face in high schools and colleges across the country.
Threats to democracy, press freedom and journalism education are inextricably linked:
- Lack of diversity in the industry and academy.
- The low salaries of young professionals and the high training costs.
- A broken business model that has led to the collapse of local news outlets.
- A curriculum struggling to keep up with changes in the field.
- Dwindling political education and civic participation and the corresponding explosion of misinformation and disinformation.
Journalism educators have just as little power to solve society’s problems as a free press alone can save democracy. But we have a duty to build a journalism education model that will ground us on core values as we look to a future we cannot predict.
I have subsequently learned to work collaboratively with colleagues and students to improve and rethink how and what we teach. It is a fundamental claim, the start of a dialogue about how journalism education can improve in the service of democracy. I look forward to exploring other ideas that will help us create thriving environments for our students, for our field, and for our shared democratic values.
Here are seven ideas that can serve as a guide.
We must examine what we teach and why, to separate the comforting routines we’ve repeated for decades from the core principles we wish to pass on. For example, we should proudly defend our belief in facts, fairness, and the search for truth. Getting things right, from the big disputes to getting the spelling of eyewitnesses’ names right, will always be important. It is necessary to talk to and listen to people with vile views if we are to understand what is troubling us.
But a journalist’s job is to seek the most accurate version of the truth available at any given point in time. This requires an honest and rigorous investigation. It requires that we recognize where the power lies and who is being excluded. Are there better places than universities where the scientific method reigns supreme to support the idea that if our methods are rigorous and transparent, we can stop the misleading “they said/they said” debates? As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue in The Elements of Journalism, we should teach our students to be methodologically objective—curious, rigorous, and transparent.
If newsrooms and their leadership do not reflect the communities they cover, they cannot understand them and serve them adequately. Journalism and communications programs suffer from the same problem. We must strive to diversify our faculty, staff, and student body to help improve the problem. But that’s not enough. We need to broaden the way we think about who and how we teach, what we report on and our perspective on what journalism is all about. The Accreditation Council for Journalism and Mass Communications requires programs to demonstrate that they have “a diverse and inclusive program that embodies national and global diversity and that empowers those who are traditionally disenfranchised in society, particularly on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender.” , ability, and sexual orientation.” Our credibility and purpose in a self-governing society are at stake if we fail.
Not everything we do has to be part of a three-credit course, an eight-semester degree, or a degree so inflexible that it becomes obsolete the moment it completes the university’s approval process. I am not suggesting that we water down the approval process for courses and programs. This process serves a purpose by focusing on high standards. But at a time of rapid change in our field, we need to rethink how we teach and how our students learn. We need to create programs with built-in flexibility that allow us to adapt quickly, even if only marginally, to keep what we teach more relevant and up-to-date. We need to incorporate research and experimentation driven by curiosity. That should be a matter of course at universities. Perhaps most importantly, we need not be afraid of failing easily and teach our students the same. And if we fail, let’s be open about how and why and how we’re going to try to be better next time. Transparency creates trust.
It starts within your own four walls, where journalism and communication researchers and practitioners work and teach with each other and with our students. We can learn a lot from our students who see the problems ahead and are not yet afraid of change. Professional journalists must continue to build news partnerships that improve local reporting and national and international investigations. Our students can learn this while they are in school as we reach beyond our campus and collaborate with other journalism programs, local and national news agencies, and others. We can also learn a lot about technologies, methods and approaches from engineers, social scientists and others on our campus. And we can teach them a lot too. For example, we need to teach non-journalists why we believe in saying out loud the uncomfortable things that those in power would rather not repeat. The non-journalists might not like it. Most people don’t. But they’re smart enough to understand why it’s important for democracy and for the kind of independent thinking that is valued in universities. After all, autocrats don’t believe in academic freedom.
Our students need to learn and understand the theories and history that underlie our craft and society. They also need better education about how their government and other institutions are supposed to work and where they are falling short. But they must learn as they gain real-world experience. Journalism and communications programs across the country cover local communities, state legislatures and more. They work with news organizations at all levels. let’s do more It helps our students and fulfills an important public function.
Journalism must not be the domain of the elite. But rising tuition and low salaries often make it just that. We need to find ways to support more students who want to enter the field, whether through fundraising or new structures. And we must help them graduate without overwhelming the burden of student loans, which is compounding the already high level of burnout in our profession. Large schools should work with smaller ones to spread cutting-edge teaching in data analytics, augmented reality, and other fields. Four-year programs should partner with community colleges to provide a smoother entry into our field. And let’s make it easier for computer science students and others in STEM subjects to earn a minor, double major, or master’s degree in our disciplines. You make us better.
There is no greater challenge today than the threat to democracy. There should be no shame in serving the only profession besides religion listed in the First Amendment. What journalists and communicators do voluntarily in our country often results in imprisonment or worse at the hands of despots of the left, the right, and the power-hungry around the world. Let’s make sure our students know that fighting for a free press and fighting for democracy go hand in hand.
The thoughts above are less a recipe and more a way to rethink the journalism of the future. Let’s teach our students how to lead so they can invent the journalism of the future – the journalism that helps save democracy.