The expectation in the United States and most Western democracies is that journalists will provide information the public needs to carry out the duties of citizenship and that the media will provide a forum for the circulation of ideas and opinions.
Klaidman and Beauchamp
Th' newspaper ... comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable ...
Finley Peter Dunne
These quotations are gospels of journalism. From Klaidman and Beauchamp is drawn the theoretical ideal of the mission of the press as expressed in liberal democratic theory. From Dunne is drawn the ethic of what working journalists on deadline in a newsroom have traditionally believed they actually should be doing. But in a postmodern era of increasing media conglomeration, infotainment, ambush interviews, subservience to the need to produce ideal demographics to advertisers, the remaking of journalists as celebrities, sources as manipulators, "news" dictated by marketing surveys, private lives as public fodder, journalists as paratroopers invading the site of a story, and entertainment masquerading as news, journalism has witnessed an increase in thoughtlessness and a decline in thoughtfulness. Some might argue that journalism has lost its traditional moral compass, that it no longer afflicts the comfortable but rather afflicts those who need comfort. It is a journalism in which Hard Copy, the National Enquirer, and Inside Edition are becoming exemplars rather than aberrations. In this journalism, critical thinking and reflection are absent. How can they be restored?
This article offers criticism of journalism as a professional practice of doing rather than thinking, briefly surveys scholarship on infusing journalism curriculum with critical thinking instruction, and offers a higher standard through the notion of reflective judgment. It also makes specific recommendations for curriculum additions to increase undergraduates' performance as critical thinkers and creators of reflective judgments that help readers and viewers understand the social, cultural, economic, and political worlds they inhabit.
Criticisms from various quarters impugning the abilities of the press to fulfill both theoretical and traditional roles suggest correctives of some sort are needed in the professional practice of journalism. Several correctives could be considered: (a) Adjusting journalistic practices themselves within their current social, cultural, and professional contexts; (b) Taking no action at all; (c) Abandoning the practice of journalism as a principal conduit of information to the public; and (d) Redefining the nature of journalism itself.
Both reasonable and unreasonable critics of journalistic performance would undoubtedly argue that a no-action alternative is unacceptable. Yet from whatever point on the political, social, and cultural spectrum these critics flay journalistic practices and performance, the arguments would suggest that the press as currently constituted ill serves society.
Surgical removal of journalism from a commingling of social practices that constitute western society and culture would also be unthinkable. The role of the press is deeply imbedded in liberal democratic theory and praxis to the extent that any such attempt would require reconstitution of relationships among those same social practices.
That leaves two plausible and possible alternatives -- either adjusting journalistic practices or redefining the nature of journalism itself (The latter would require redefining the role that the press as an institution serves among other social, political, cultural, and economic institutions, to say nothing of redefining the presspublic relationship).
Curriculum reform cannot be ignored in attempts to regenerate journalism as a productive means of providing information necessary and sufficient to bring the public to that point at which it may take a well-considered action or reach a sound judgment on matters of public policy.
Curriculum reform here is offered in addressing this basic criticism of journalism: Journalists do more than they think. They operate in an institutional setting that privileges a few stylized narrative forms over others. A significant and diverse body of research from the sociology of media to political economy to cultural studies examines the institutional contexts within which journalists operate that lead to these occupational constraints. Journalists are driven by the need for efficiency, and as long as journalism is conducted within an atmosphere of deadlines, that key performance criterion is unlikely to change.
Although journalism educators have the intent of offering the intellectual means necessary for a journalism career, the result of journalism education is to imbue students with the means to achieve efficiency. That is what the industry demands and requires. Journalism educators necessarily teach keystrokes far more than they teach judgment and the renewed sense of critical thinking and reflective judgment discussed below. Further, continued journalistic experience as a professional stresses thinking about keystrokes for production purposes as much, if not more, than thinking about information in a critical, contemplative fashion. This is the journalism of "doing," not the journalism of "thinking." This is efficiency reducing journalism to a physical act.
This is what journalism schools teach in large measure -- journalism as a physical activity honed to an automatic response. In newswriting classes, for example, students learn that typing (a learned physical activity requiring the acquisition of a pattern and subsequent manual dexterity) at 80-words-a-minute is more productive and efficient than typing 40 words a minute. Students are taught that the inverted pyramid style of narrative writing is the most efficient form for representation of information. Likewise, the act of reporting is taught also as an exercise in physically recording (either in hand script or by electronic means) observations efficiently and concisely.
Much, if not most, of journalism is conducted in a computerized or otherwise technologically enhanced environment.
Thus efficient keyboarding becomes a required staple as a journalistic skill. Broadcast production has its own conventions of technological manipulation. In editing videotape, for example, various buttons for rewinding, forwarding, cueing, and dubbing must be manipulated physically in an efficient manner. As curricula increasingly include courses offering skills in the Internet-based acquisition of information through remote manipulation of databases, other keystrokes must be taught. The production of new media and on-line information products requires additional keyboarding knowledge. Also, as recent studies show, print newsrooms in which pagination is adopted find editors increasingly spending more time on the functions of page design and production and less time on the judgmental task of editing (Russial, 1994; Stamm et al., 1995; and Underwood et al., 1994). Similarly, the computer programs used in journalism - word processors for creating narratives, graphics programs for creating art, page-design programs for creating form, communication programs for remote data acquisition, video programs for the construction and manipulation of visual imagery -- require the teaching of rote, mechanical manipulation of technology at the expense, in terms of amount of exposure in a curriculum, of the teaching of sophisticated evaluative thinking.
In journalism, judgment is routinized and habituated within a physical activity. This is unlikely to change. As media institutions search for and develop new technologies for acquisition of information and for production and carriage of narratives, additional skills will be sought. The industry is likely to demand more skills-based instruction in the coming century, not less. Also, the keyboarding skills taught to today's students may become obsolete within a few years, requiring journalism educators to constantly monitor technological and computer program changes within the industry.
Again, this is the journalism of "doing," not the journalism of "thinking." Admittedly, this is an extreme view of journalistic practices and the atmospherics within which journalism is taught and experienced professionally. But it carries a measure of truth: It is undeniable that the acquisition of physical skills plays an important role in journalism education. Hence the problem: How can we teach, in this context, the ability to think and act prudently and ethically within a renewed moral compass and within a renewed sense of critical and reflective thinking?
The role of critical thinking
Scholarship in critical thinking spans several decades and is housed in hundreds of books and thousands of articles spanning the fields of philosophy, psychology, speech communication, sociology, engineering, the physical sciences, and medical education (Ruminski & Hanks,1995, p. 5). This journal has carried several articles over the past few years that seek to advance discussion of critical thinking in the journalism classroom. Parisi (1992) viewed critical studies and critical thinking as a necessary bridge linking "essential professional practice with the most important currents in contemporary thought and the spirit of the liberal arts" (Parisi,1992, p. 7). Ruminski and Hanks (1995) argued that journalism educators "believe they are teaching critical thinking, but most not to do so in a systematic or well-defined way" (Ruminski & Hanks, p. 8). Specific criteria are offered. Strohm and Baukus (1995) adopted the seminal thought of John Dewey to argue for the creation of specific strategies (identifying and structuring the problem, information gathering, diagnosing information content, and construction of strategic alternatives) that foster critical thinking among journalism students. Ehrlich (1996) suggested the classroom viewing of motion pictures about journalism as a curricular tool that fosters critical thinking about journalism and its practices.
Elsewhere, Shoemaker(1993) argued that journalism and mass communication departments "are less successful in developing the analytical skills students need to acquire, evaluate, and synthesize information in order to make decisions in familiar and unfamiliar situations" (p 99).
The phrase "critical thinking" is often touted in knee-jerk, lip-service fashion as the appropriate remedy for the failings of journalism, both as a profession and as an educative enterprise. Such admonitions for increasing critical thinking among practitioners offer their own polysemy of definition. In addition, as Ruminski and Hanks (1995) discuss, various difficulties exist in defining and operationalizing critical thinking.
Yet critics' accusation that journalism lacks critical thinking must be addressed. As a habit of thought, is it truly the mark of superior logic and education? Is critical thinking simply the acquisition and application of skills in logic? Surely, critical thinking is more than the ability to know when and why to ask the classic questions of journalism - who, what, when, where, why, and how. Critical thinking is not an ideological stance: It does not - and should not - require the journalist to superimpose on all events and phenomena a "critical" reading, in the sense of imposing a "Marxist" or "structuralist" or "postmodernist" reading on information acquired and presented in journalistic narratives.
Preferred here is the defining thought of Dewey (1933). He argued that critical thinking, or what he called reflective thought, is "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends" (p. 9).
Jones (1967) advances that notion, citing critical thinking within a liberal arts education. an education that: preserves truth by perpetually subjecting conventional assumptions to critical analysis, discarding fallacies, and retaining as valid only the information or the general statements that pass several, impersonal, and professional testing, and it extends truth by pushing forward, into the unknown, task forces of professionally trained persons who are skilled in distinguishing fact from assumption (p. 15).
Traditional critical thinking encourages determination of the existence of patterns not readily apparent to the casual observer. It sifts those patterns for parallels and connections. Journalism educators would argue that basic coursework in the craft does indeed teach that sense of searching for patterns. But the depth of thinking required in journalism should be more than identifying patterns: It should also be the recognition of subtle rather than overt conflict, of implicit rather than explicit contradiction, and of uncertainty masquerading as certainty.
The thinking that should be taught to young journalists is a process of sifting acquired knowledge produced by others for epistemic assumptions: Journalists should be able to recognize the worldview, especially if it is not their own, in which others produce knowledge. This renewed sense of critical thinking also would prevent, perhaps, journalists from overvaluing one particular way of knowing-their own. Sadly, much of the "critical" thinking of journalism is thought of as only a sophisticated ability to learn, identify, and represent "facts." Such thinking, while worthwhile in such a profession, is not always sufficiently contemplative. Undergraduate journalism students routinely are unable to develop coherent questions that extend beyond the traditional questions of journalism. They are unable to formulate questions that cut to the assumptions underlying an issue, once its inconsistencies or connections are drawn.
Such thinking - a blend of critical, contemplative, and reflective thought can and should be taught and learned within the context of both skills courses and conceptual courses. It involves a tension between self-reflexivity and distancing: There must always be a self-referential pattern of thinking between one's own assumptions about how the world works (and why it works that way) and the assumptions of others. This process requires the finesse of "distancing" oneself from one's worldview, but without losing sight of it completely. It requires constant challenges and counterchallenges of one's own beliefs and assumptions and those of others. King and Kitchener (1994) called such mental operations reflective thinking, processes that lead to reflective judgments.
King and Kitchener, in their studies of critical thinking, found that "the way people justify their beliefs is related to their assumptions about knowledge" (p. 1). Critical thinking, they suggest, thus may fail to allow people to see beyond their own assumptions about knowledge and how it is produced. They argue that a "reflective" model of thinking, a model of reflective judgment first offered by Dewey in 1933, is better suited to bringing closure to situations that are contingent or uncertain. Reflective thinking, they argue, is a different and more effective form of reasoning than those modes of thinking referred to as "critical" thinking. As presented by King and Kitchener, reflective thinking is:
[Al process guided by the need for a solution to a problem and is characterized by an interaction between the basis of the proposed solution and the reasoning of the problem solver... Reflective thinking requires the continual evaluation of beliefs, assumptions, and hypotheses against existing data and against other plausible interpretations of the data. The resulting judgments are offered as reasonable integrations of syntheses of opposing points of view. Because they involve ongoing verification and evaluation, judgments based on reflective thinking are more likely to be valid than are beliefs derived from authority, emotional commitment, or narrow reasoning (p. 7, emphasis added).
Critical thinking, according to King and Kitchener citing Lippman (1988), "is skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it (a) relies on criteria. (b) is self-correcting, and (c) is sensitive to context" (p. 8). However, reflective thinking differs from critical thinking in one important aspect. Inasmuch as critical thinking is often identified with logic or scientistic, hypothetico-deductive modes of knowing (in which objectivity and neutrality are prized), it often neglects or overlooks epistemic assumptions that may contain other frames of reference specifically encompassing moral and ethical virtues. This is a subtle distinction. Such thinking should expose assumptions, but reflective thinking assumes deeper probing that exposes far more subtle. implicit, and root epistemic assumptions. It is important to stress the identification of assumptions. both in and out of journalism, so that the social and cultural consequences of those assumptions can be unpacked, assessed, and placed in journalistic narratives.
Higgins et al. (1992) called such thought processes "critical reflection," in which it is assumed that "such reflection requires some level of awareness of a task and of one's own approach to it; however, reflection goes beyond self-awareness: when individuals engage in reflection they use their awareness to evaluate their own thinking in order to achieve some goal" (p. 53). This additional nuance should find itself renewed in classrooms, where thinking about thinking is continually discussed. Students should review their stories to learn from reflection how and why they reached critical decisions about their constructions of narratives.
Reflective thinking could allow journalists to give additional weight to competing value systems. For example, media narratives about western environmental issues such as overgrazing, timber allocations, species diversity, fisheries depletion, and resource extraction do reflect critical thinking on the part of journalists. However, the bulk of such narratives is couched in the standards of evidence inherent in economics and scientistic approaches and disavows competing ethical and moral values - such as the preservationist instincts of John Muir. The wise use of resources is given more credence than a moral compass that advocates not using resources. Thus, public discourse is denied another frame of reference in which to consider such issues.
Suggesting that reflective thinking should be adopted or renewed in curricula is easier said than done. First, a crucial difference between critical thinking as practiced in journalism (under tight deadline constraints and often with minimal or incomplete information) and reflective thinking is the time required. Journalists in greater or lesser measure are capable of using the traditional skills of critical thinking but, because of time constraints, may be unable to practice reflective thinking. However, inasmuch as young journalists are taught efficiency in all things, it could be argued that systemic inclusion of reflective thinking practices in a journalism curriculum may be able to cope with the constraints of time.
Second, the ability to think reflectively requires more than minimal writing skills on the part of students. It requires a command of language. It is hardly news to suggest that lower-division undergraduate students have large gaps in their language skills. Their abilities to write clearly, accurately, and with a certain degree of charm may be marred by imprecision and ambiguities brought on by errors in grammar, punctuation, word choice, spelling, sentence construction, and narrative organization. It is difficult to expect students to achieve mastery in reflective thinking - a process that requires sophisticated reasoning and a knowledge of nuances of meaning - if they continually err in the fundamental task of creating discourse itself. Journalism produces written discourse, a form of discourse to which many undergraduates appear insensitive. Thus, part of the task of journalism education is remedial: It must awaken in students a sensitivity to the rich and expressive power of language. It must help students develop the capability of using language with greater sophistication and insight for the goal of reflective thinking as an efficiently conducted journalistic practice to be realized. Until students can write well, they can't think well, either critically or reflectively.
Shoemaker (1993) offered several goals for a course in critical thinking:
1. Asking questions.
2. Supporting arguments with evidence.
3. Identifying assumptions.
4. Examining problems from multiple perspectives.
The goals are appropriate and laudable. But why limit such goals to a specific course in critical thinking? Given the preceding discussion, and mindful of a host of constraints on journalism and journalism curricula. these recommendations are offered as required overall additions to current traditional journalism curricula, both in and out of the journalism school, rather than create a single course in critical thinking and reflective judgment.
Writing in other forms. Journalism schools presume minimum competency in writing in the students they admit. However, the minimum is too low in this sense: Students are fundamentally ill-trained in the basic forms of written discourse, and these styles are ignored because of the need to teach the forms of journalistic writing such as the inverted pyramid, the feature, and the commentary. Instruction in expository, descriptive, interrogatory, narrative, poetic and hortatory forms provides a foundation of discursive practices that can improve the construction of journalistic discourse.
Public speaking. That an enterprise in which many of its practitioners make oral presentations does not always require a course in public speaking is remarkable for its shortsightedness. That the same enterprise in which many, if not most, of its practitioners gather information through oral discourse does not require a course that emphasizes the use of the voice in establishing credibility and developing source rapport is even more remarkable.
Public speaking emphasizes various components of the discursive act - organization, logic, transitions, and vocabulary, as well as various vocal and nonvocal aspects of discourse. Public speaking also introduces students to the principles of invention of arguments, a knowledge necessary in higher-ordered reflective thinking. Study of argumentation has been shown to help students recognize weak arguments, a skill needed by journalists (Sanders et al., 1994).
Skills in public speaking are as necessary as writing skills in fostering in students the ability to create effective discourse. Without both sets of skills, the goal of attaining reflective thinking is lost.
Epistemology and social theory. If journalism students are to be encouraged to engage in higher-order reasoning that stresses the identification of deeply rooted epistemic assumptions. it follows that they must be exposed to a broad recipe of epistemologies, especially as those epistemologies are resident in social theory. Readings in the sociologies of science and knowledge would be particularly pertinent here.
Students should understand that ontological questions exist, questions concerning "the nature of the world: what sort of things exist and what are the different forms of existence - for example, do human beings exist in the same way as inanimate objects, and if not, what are the differences" (Craib, 1992, p. 17). Similarly, students should understand epistemology as "the nature of an explanation: what methods must be employed to arrive at an explanation, what logical structure must it have, what proofs are required" (Craib, p. 18). They should understand epistemology as the study of the origins, limits, and methods of knowledge. If journalists are presented with explanations, such as a scientific explanation of issue, they should understand the assumptions with which such knowledge is created.
Such a course would help them understand the different standards of evidence different epistemologies promote and certify. They would learn, for example, that evidentiary reasoning in science differs from that in journalism. In science, evidence stems from ongoing verification; in journalism, evidence consists of information from sources whose reliability often is dependent solely on their availability. That information may be verified, but only in the sense of obtaining independent verification that what the first source said is correct, not necessarily that it is true or valid.
Students should have a basic understanding of what theory is and is not, as well as knowledge of the basic social theories that purport to explain how the world works and why it works that way. They should know that some forms of theory, such as the scientistic, seek closure and control, and that other forms of theory have different epistemological bases. For example, the feminist critique of science offers theory as asking whether "science [is] substantively different from other social structures or `interest groups'; i.e., are scientific claims to knowledge any better than other (non-scientific) claims to knowledge" (Keller, 1987, p. 36). In this course, as should be obvious, the various problematics posed by theories employing the social construction of reality would be addressed: Is knowledge solely constructed by human nature? Is knowledge solely dependent on Nature? Is there a middle ground between realism and relativism, between agency and structure? And how do these questions impinge on the journalistic mission of observing, recording, and presenting information?
The goal of this course is to imbue students with an understanding of the extremes of epistemology as well as the continuum between those poles.
Journalism students traditionally take courses considered conceptual: media law, media history, public opinion, economics of media, and contemporary mass media. Whether these courses are sufficient to induce reflective thinking about journalism itself is continual fodder for debate in curriculum committees. Journalism contains its own epistemology, and socialization within the profession reinforces that epistemology to the extent, critics may argue, that it supersedes all others in evaluative potential.
The traditional image of journalism, as articulated in both the standards and the practices of news professionals, is closely tied to liberal democratic theory. Journalism students need close inspection of their profession's epistemological ties to the society and culture the profession inhabits.
The philosophy inherent in such theory sets the political and social framework within which the institutions of news media should operate. This framework consists of an "insistence on the importance of the individual, the reliance on the powers of reasoning, and the concept of natural rights" (Siebert et al., 1963, p. 44). The following implicit assumptions about the relationship between news media and their audiences can be derived: (a) Knowledge is good in and of itself; (b) Knowledge allows people to make more informed policy decisions and consumer choices; and (c) An informed citizenry is essential to the structure and operation of democracy.
Liberal democratic theory tasks news media to perform within these assumptions. Students need to understand these assumptions and give more than passing thought to their validity. For example, is an "informed" citizenry one that operates within a rational paradigm of scientistic thinking? Or is an "informed" citizenry that which has been exposed to a broad range of moral and ethical values framed by epistemologies other than the scientistic?
Additional functions and caveats are assigned to the news media within the epistemic assumptions of this doctrine:
Under the libertarian concept, the functions of the mass media of communication are to inform and entertain ... Basically, the underlying purpose of the mass media was to help discover truth, to assist in the process of solving social problems by presenting all manner of evidence and opinion as the basis for decisions.... [The media] should not have the additional advantage of exclusive access to the public which ultimately made the decisions. ... [The media were also] charged with the duty of keeping government from overstepping its bounds. In the words of Jefferson, it was to provide that check on government which no other institution could provide (Siebert et al., p. 51).
The newsgathering and dissemination functions of the modern news media, thus, are designed to inform, entertain, and watch over government - and to do so in an even-handed manner utilizing the principle of objectivity. However, the press also performs other implicit functions that often are contradictory. The press is expected to educate the ignorant, to soothe the nation in time of turmoil while reporting the roots of that turmoil, to protect those unable to protect themselves (either from themselves or from government) while promoting economic enterprise, to mediate economic and political conflict in which it may be a participant, to encourage and to stifle dissent, and to promote the premises of capitalism as well as protect against its consequences.
The principal complaints about the performance of the modern news media lie in assessments of such roles. Journalists must understand criticisms of their craft, and they can only do so with a sound understanding of the epistemology of the critics and the epistemology within which journalism is practiced.
Political economy of media. An inescapable facet of professional practice as a journalist are the institutional constraints imposed by patterns of media ownership and the conflict posed by the dual functions of the press in a capitalist system to make profits for ownership and to inform the public. A lengthy discussion of the political economy involved is beyond the scope of this discussion. However, as part of understanding the epistemology of journalism, students should, indeed must, understand how political economy serves as a significant constraint on the form and content of journalistic narratives.
These are the curriculum additions recommended to foster the ability of undergraduate journalists-in-training to think reflectively. However, larger questions attend here. Is an increase in the ability of journalists to think reflectively a necessary and sufficient goal in a journalism curriculum to blunt what critics would call the routinization of thoughtlessness in journalistic practice? Would the increased practice of such reflective thinking produce journalism that offers information to the public sphere more likely, after discussion and debate, to provide for an equally reflective judgment on the part of the public that results in public policy and social cohesion that improves the human condition?
Coursework that instills in journalists-to-be a sense of membership in a social process that leads to such reflective public judgment is a necessary element in journalism education, indeed in all undergraduate education. King and Kitchener offer this coda:
In the final analysis, the real challenge of college, for students and faculty members alike, is empowering individuals to know that the world is far more complex than it first appears, and that they must make interpretive arguments and decisionjudgments for which they must take responsibility and from which they may not flee by disclaiming expertise (p. 16-7).
It should not be overlooked that a basic tenet of the democratic system assumes the notion of the "rational citizen," that person who attains the information necessary to understand a public issue and make informed policy judgments about that issue. To that end, journalism attempts to increase the flow of knowledge necessary for such deliberations. Journalism, in a sense, seeks to increase literacy. This curriculum would lead to an expansion of the mission of journalism - to increase epistemological literacy. In the case of environmental degradation, for example, a current goal of journalism is to increase knowledge about environmental science in the public sphere. But does increased scientific literacy necessarily produce a critically thinking citizen? Should the journalistic goal instead be to provide information that demonstrates how the knowledge reported is developed rather than only increase the amount of knowledge? How can journalists understand for themselves so that they can convey to readers and viewers the standards of evidence by which knowledge was created and thus should be judged? Presentation of how knowledge comes to be, in addition to simply passing on information, should be encouraged, and a renewed sense of critical thinking and reflective judgment is necessary for its inclusion in journalistic practice. Such curriculum additions could lead to the training of journalists who may "do," but who will also "think" critically and reflectively about what they "do."
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Wilkins (DWilkins@SBU.EDV) is an assistant professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University.…