An Interdisciplinary Approach to a Critical Incident Course

By Carter, Sue; Kang, Myung-Hyun et al. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

An Interdisciplinary Approach to a Critical Incident Course


Carter, Sue, Kang, Myung-Hyun, Taggart, Ralph, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Today's rapid social change, explosion of new technologies, and overwhelming amount of multidisciplinary knowledge have required journalism education to be more flexible and interdisciplinary (Atwater, 1993; Iorio & Williamson, 1995: Rakow, 1993). In an era when disciplinary boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred and knowledge is widely considered to be interdisciplinary, researchers and educators must place greater emphasis on the interconnection of the external world and the need for cooperation among disciplines. Journalism educators should be no exception to this trend. They have to borrow frequently from other disciplines and understand the interconnectedness to achieve integrated solutions. They should also have contributions they can offer to students in other disciplines who need a fuller understanding of the role journalism plays in the post-modern era.

Over the past decade several journalism programs have stressed the necessity of mutual understanding and cooperation with other disciplines. According to the report of the AEJMC Vision 2000 Task Force, for example, the Roy Park School of Communications at Ithaca College (N.Y.) tried to achieve its mission "through a program that is both integrative and holistic one which introduces students to the inteLlectual traditions and disciplines of communications and links these traditions and disciplines the rest of higher education" (AEJMC, 1994, p.8.). In addition, Northwestern University's master's program offered several interdisciplinary courses that require students to cut across disciplines (Blanchard & Christ, 1993). In the master's program, three schools and two departments such as speech/telecommunication, journalism, management, and even engineering were joined. Moreover, the University of Iowa has formalized the interdisciplinary approach to a communication department (Blanchard & Christ, 1993). In coauthoring studies with other faculty on campus in varied disciplines, faculty of the department have identified many such linkages that "can and should be made at the undergraduate level"(Blanchard & Christ,1993, p.112).

The community of journalism and mass communication, even if part of the liberal arts tradition, has nonetheless lacked an interdisciplinary understanding of the human world with holistic perspective (Beniger, 1993; Shoemaker 1993). Shoemaker (1993) said that, so far, journalism studies have not built linkages with other intellectual disciplines. She argues that the intellectual connections with other disciplines on campuses were necessary for journalism researchers and educators to enrich broad contextual knowledge. That knowledge can be developed through exposure to the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.

Demonstrating a rethinking of the status quo in journalism teaching and research, Atwater (1993) commented in his AEJMC presidential address: "We should be more involved in interdisciplinary pursuits, trans-collegiate programs, and inter-departmental curricular offerings that build bridges between our programs and others and create a stronger academic image for our units as academic citizens" (p. 75).

Fortunately, in our field there are some recent attempts to turn journalism's intellectual attention toward a variety of disciplines to produce more flexible and holistic thinking. These efforts are actually perceived as beneficial for students' intellectual growth. The "Critical Incidents Analysis" course, offered at Michigan State University, is just such an example. The course, which received support from the Critical Incidents Analysis Group (CIAG)' and the Dart Foundation2, takes an interdisciplinary approach as a way to analyze major critical incidents3 (e.g., the California earthquakes, the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City, and terrorism in the Middle East).

The purpose of this article is to introduce the course as a part of a series of approaches to the interdisciplinary road, and ultimately to argue why journalism educators' participation in such a course in the larger university, as well as one centered in the J-school, is indispensable for the future of journalism. …

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