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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, January 11, 2008

Ethics and Journalism

That's the title of the course I began teaching last night at Georgetown University. The class is full, over-subscribed, even. It's a graduate class and the students are a mixture of professionals and academics. They seem eager and hungry to discuss the idea of ethics in journalism.

Georgetown doesn't have a journalism school, as such. Journalism courses are offered as part of the School of Continuing Studies. It seems like a good fit in a university that prides itself on its history of engagement and public service. There is hope that if enough students enroll, the administration will feel obligated to set up another j-school.

A debate (not a new one) has been going on for the past few days on the 'net about the utility of j-schools. How are they valuable? Do they do a good job in creating the next generation of journalists? Interestingly, as news organizations strip out editorial resources (known as layoffs), p.r. firms are booming and hiring many of the people who are leaving journalism. At the same time, journalism schools are also finding their enrollment is up.

Journalism is often part of schools of "Communications." This is a catch-all which combines journalism, public relations and mass communications theorists. Often this creates an internal competition for money, students and grants between the practioners and the academics. And that, as the lefties in the 60's used to say, creates internal contradictions within the school.

Some of that tension can be quite creative as professors and students argue for the right proprotions of theory vs. practice. But universities are often a reflection of the values of the societies and the industries they serve and depend on. In fact, they should be. But too often the competition for grants and awards in journalism is replicated in the academy.

What gets lost in that competition is the hunger that the students have for a reference point...a set of values that will help them once they leave the campus and strike out in the equally competitive world of news. Are j-schools giving them the ethical muscles they'll need to look after themselves and the profession they value? Can j-schools provide guidance to the news industry to help them find a better business model that might sustain journalism? There are some interesting ideas that are being explored in the academy. But newspapers and broadcasters are oblivious to them and seem more eager to please shareholders than citizens.

Is there a concerted effort to find a solution to our problems and still give our students a sense of why journalism is important? Not enough, I fear.


  1. well said, and in describing what's happening in journalism schools, you've captured our zeitgeist: the growing chasm between the quantifiable and the ineffable. good that professors like you are still teaching their students (by example, no less) how to speak from the heart, how to write compellingly, how to report fairly, how to excite readers to think. here's hoping that your students will heed the call and help to bridge the gap between art and commerce by maintaining their journalistic integrity.