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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Do Journalism Profs Have The Right Stuff?

The other night a student in my class on "Ethics and Journalism" at Georgetown University approached me after a particularly lively discussion about conflicts-of-interest. We had been discussing how personal opinions overlap onto reporting and how to manage bias.

"I'm still really interested in being a journalist," she said. "But it sounds like the whole business is corrupt and dishonest."

I insisted it isn't. But her comment caught me up sharply.

It got me thinking about how journalism is taught - or not taught in Journalism Schools around the country. Most instructors come from the business of journalism. A few are theoreticians and teach what has come to be called "Mass Communications Theory." This is a more epistemological approach about the nature of information, how it is processed, transmitted and received and how information is changed at each of those moments.

Much of journalism is taught by practioners (as opposed to theoreticians), or former practioners (like me). If I may generalize, most practioners (like me) come to academia after a career in one or more newsrooms. Many who I have met are still believers in the power and the value of journalism. Others (and I have met a few) have been disillusioned by the way in which journalism is practiced and the university is a refuge from that particular storm.

Perhaps academic journalists are a combination of all of those factors - practioners and theoreticians who seek a calmer environment to think and talk about the challenges of journalism.

I think we all share to a degree, a certain nostalgia for newsrooms and that gives us in the professoriat, a certain whistfulness to go along with the war stories.

But my student's remark was still troubling: What if I am teaching ethics and journalism as a pathologist would examine diseased tissue? Shouldn't I be emphasizing what's healthy and right with journalism and not just what's wrong?

These days it's hard to be completely optimistic about the future of journalism. The economics of newspapers and broadcasters work against that. The rush to online journalism may be a solution but it's still not clear.

Still I must remind my students (and myself) why I got into this business in the first place. I sense it's for the same reasons that the students talk about: a "vigilant curiosity about the world," to quote John Landsman and a desire to make a difference. My students are - so far - deeply concerned about the human condition and think that journalism may be a way to make sense of it all - and in the process - point the way to something better.

And after all, isn't that what the university experience should be all about?

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