Michael Tracey, a former Secular Student Alliance group leader, has a controversial piece in The Nation about journalism schools in general, whether they’re necessary, and whether they’re even teaching the right things.
Allow me to rant for a bit:
Obviously, there are exceptions, but too many journalists are just good for gathering basic information and spitting it back out. I can recall several instances where groups I work with have sent out press releases to newspapers, only to receive coverage that’s basically a copy/pasting of the entire release, quotations and all. It’s fantastic for us, since they’re getting our message out for us, but it’s poor journalism… and I wonder how I’d feel if a religious right group sent them a release of their own and the same thing happened.
When it comes to religion, journalists are notoriously bad. There’s this unstated, blanket rule that everyone’s beliefs must be respected and reported on as if the beliefs were true. If a mainstream journalist reports on, say, someone who holds a belief in reincarnation, how often do you see a statement in the article about how there’s no evidence that reincarnation is true? When you read a story involving the Catholic practice of communion, journalists never point out that it’s just a wafer and not actually the body of Christ. Why? That’s not injecting opinion into the story — that’s just a basic fact.
But it’s someone’s belief and therefore it must be respected, right…? That’s why, when it comes to stories involving religion, I rely on blogs more than I do newspapers. I want to read what people who actually know what they’re talking about have to say about the matter. It’s entirely possible to be objective without letting theists get away with stating bullshit.
It’s the same problem with politics. I can’t watch the nightly news anymore because they treat both parties as if they have something relevant to say on every topic. They don’t, at least not on every issue.
I understand the desire for being impartial when covering a story, but good journalists should be able to make a point, and you can’t do that when you’re focused on being “fair and balanced” instead of really informing the audience about an issue. There’s a reason people trust Jon Stewart more than they do network news anchors. There’s a benefit to being aware of a person’s views and then hearing what they have to say. That’s why I love watching Rachel Maddow and reading Matt Taibbi.
I’ll admit that I never ask myself where any of the journalists went to school. It just doesn’t matter.
“Formal training in journalism isn’t necessary,” [NYU journalism professor Jay] Rosen told me last fall. “It never has been. The percentage of professional journalists who attended J-school has never been more than 60. Compare that to law, medicine or accounting and it’s clear that there are other ways to join this field than getting a degree in it. And that’s the way it should be. Requiring a J-degree would be a regulation and we have an unregulated press in this country.”
Clearly, the journalism major is unnecessary for entry into the industry. But I’d go a step further — on a whole, it’s actually bad for the craft. Think about the social function of the journalism major. Overtly or not, it creates an implicit regulatory structure, endowing journalism students with the right to manage the university’s newspaper by virtue of their participation in important seminars on media ethics and interview techniques. Conversely, non-journalism students are left with the impression that reporting is best reserved for those who’ve been formally trained to do it.
I think he’s right. Some bloggers do a far better job of reporting a story, getting the facts in proper context, and even getting interviews than mainstream reporters.
The other thing that Tracey’s article made me think about was how important it was to go through formal training for one’s job. Naturally, I began to think about schools of education.
I went through a year’s worth of classes in order to get certified to teach high school math. What was it good for? I’m not sure.
I learned how to write a lesson plan — something I’ve never done in four years of teaching. I learned about the state standards in Math — which tell you nothing about how to teach any of the topics. I learned the basics about some issues in the education world — but I don’t recall discussing the effects of unions or tenure or charter schools, things I’ve paid far more attention to on my own over the past couple years.
I never learned how to be a more effective speaker/educator. Or how to talk to parents about their kids’ grades (especially when they’re failing). Or how to get kids to really learn how to do math instead of just memorizing a formula. There was no class called, “How to get kids to shut the hell up when you’re trying to teach them.” Or how to negotiate a contract.
Most of what I needed to know in order to teach, I picked up during student teaching. That was a useful experience, far more than anything I learned in a classroom. I learned a lot more during my first year on the job.
When it comes to being a more effective teacher now, I learn more by reading the blogs of fellow math teachers than I ever did in a classroom.
Did I need to go through the certification classes? The state requires it, but I would probably have been better served working directly with an experienced math teacher or two over the course of a year.
(Do you know where your teachers got certified? Does it matter?)
Tracey has a similar solution for journalists:
So what’s the solution? My sense is that the aspect of journalism education most worth preserving is the hands-on experience with seasoned writers and editors. Instead of sequestering journalism into its own academic program, then, why not incorporate it into the teaching of other subjects? Bring in professional journalists who’ll emphasize to students in the humanities and the sciences that they are just as entitled to “do journalism” as anyone else. And it’s not nearly as complicated as they might think.
I love that suggestion, too. Not everyone wants to be a teacher, but we could at least Incorporate the idea of communicating one’s area of expertise across the board. If you’re studying economics, you ought to learn how to effectively communicate economic issues and theories. Same in political science classes. Most of the people I had my math classes with had no intention of going to grad school in the subject, but we would have been served well if we learned how to express mathematical ideas in a clear way. (FSM knows we could use those skills in the science world.)
Rant over. Your thoughts?