Will the Meaning of Journalism Survive? 'Journalism Educators Are in a State of Disquiet, If Not Distress, at Their Students' Lack of the Broad Background Essential for Independent Journalism.'

By Mencher, Melvin | Nieman Reports, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Will the Meaning of Journalism Survive? 'Journalism Educators Are in a State of Disquiet, If Not Distress, at Their Students' Lack of the Broad Background Essential for Independent Journalism.'


Mencher, Melvin, Nieman Reports


The question no longer is whether the newspaper will endure but whether the kind of news that is essential to a functioning democracy will survive. Studies of the reading habits of the young conclude that the drift from print to screen is steady and irreversible and that the interests of the 18-34 demographic may well generate a news budget heavily slanted to the popular culture and the quick read.

Whether this key demographic group will have an interest in "a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day's events in a context that gives them some meaning," as the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press described the obligation of journalism, is uncertain. Equally uncertain is whether the new generation of journalists, most of them graduates of journalism programs, will be able to supply the public with a meaningful news account. Sower and reaper are locked in a troubling embrace.

Journalism is "the quintessential knowledge profession," says Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which recently funded an effort to improve journalism education, and as such "deserves the best educated and trained practitioners." Less clear to Gregorian is "whether our graduate and undergraduate programs in journalism provide adequate intellectual and technical preparation to meet those challenges."

The technical preparation is more than adequate. I am not as certain of the intellectual preparation.

Journalism training, to which I have devoted the past 40 years, increasingly centers on the techniques and the technology, crucial to news delivery. in this electronic age. Students are being taught to prepare news for a variety of platforms. Writing is aimed at the two-line/sentence screen reader. For reporting, pad and pencil will be supplemented, possibly replaced, with a megapixel still and digital video camera, digital audio recorder, laptop computer, digital cell phone, and half a dozen other pieces of hardware. Given the cutbacks in staffing, the future reporter cannot count on being accompanied by a photographer or any other technician on assignment. He or she will have to go solo, which adds further emphasis to the need for wide technical training. Since the journalism curriculum is limited by its accrediting association, this additional technology, instruction squeezes out content, subject matter.

What's Missing?

The widening of instruction in technology, by many programs recalls Thoreau's warning about our becoming the tools of our tools, or T. S. Eliot's observation, "We had the experience but missed the meaning."

The reporting process centers on the knowledgeable reporter who is able to develop ideas that guide his or her questions and observations. Despite all the sophisticated equipment reporters might haul to an assignment, they are limited by the background knowledge that guides their reporting. The British scientist W.I.B. Beveridge said that developing ideas or hypotheses helps a person "see the significance of an object or event that otherwise would mean nothing." Or, as a former editor of Time magazine, Thomas Griffith, put it, reporting is "conjecture subject to verification." The political writer Irving Kristol said, "A person doesn't know what he has seen unless he knows what he is looking for."

Without wide-ranging knowledge, journalists are forced to rely on flacks or, at best, engage in "he said, she said" journalism.

Journalism educators are in a state of disquiet, if not distress, at their students' lack of the broad background essential for independent journalism. An instructor told me she listed Charles Darwin in a quiz in which students were asked to identify the subject and tell why he/she is in the news. "Out of 10 students, only two identified Darwin--both said he had something to do with 'survival of the fittest.' Nobody mentioned the theory of evolution. In a follow-up discussion, most knew nothing about the brouhaha over intelligent design.

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