During the chaotic early days of the French Revolution, a man of some presumed authority was reported to have said, "Where are my people? I must find them, for I am their leader."
I'm reminded of this story as I ponder the present role of journalism and mass communication education in America. Especially as I assess the poor value judgments being exhibited daily in the mass media and other mass communication enterprises, I'm wondering how educators can better exercise the word "leadership" that appears on the new journal letterhead.
More than anything else, I'm wondering about journalism and mass communication education's potential for greater leadership in helping solve some of society's most critical problems.
This analogy might not be perfect, but let's acknowledge that a manufacturing firm tends to be judged according to the quality of its products and its service to the consumer. A good product providing excellent service identifies the manufacturer as a leader.
If I were to judge the quality of journalism and mass communication education with the same line of reasoning, I would find myself passing out some very high grades but also some very low ones. Right now, I'm most concerned with the latter grades, for they in part reflect the apparent failure of professional education to impress the importance of leadership on some of its students. I'm especially distressed that our graduates are undoubtedly among that horde of mass communicators out there whose end products are exacerbating society's problems instead of serving real needs. For its part in training these practitioners, journalism and mass communication education deserves a string of "F's" in leadership and in promotion of leadership.
I taught journalism at four universities for 28 years after 10 years of professional experience in mass communication, and as a former educator I must include myself as warranting some of those failing marks.
In my present grading system, I'm limiting my criteria of leadership to what I believe are the most essential of all: human values, moral responsibility, and just plain idealism.
For brevity's sake I'll lump these criteria under one heading, morality.
Few will argue that the broad subject of morality has become a major yardstick of leadership in today's world. It's become a popular theme word in almost all sectors of public life. And few will argue that the directions that morality takes are heavily influenced by how the mass communication industry treats the subject. The industry can lead its audiences upward morally, and it can lead them downward.
The relevant question here is: In the context of how the public regards the mass communications industry as a moral leader, how would professional journalism and mass communication education be rated today as a moral leader?
When I was editor of Journalism Educator in 1976-83, the chief concerns of schools and departments seemed far afield from the topic of moral leadership. Enrollments were booming year after year, and administrators appeared more intent on accommodating student numbers rather than on examining student value systems and leadership potentials. Administrators were struggling with limited financial resources, and some found themselves forced to argue the cause of professional education while they were trying to justify their budget requests to their superiors. Many schools were searching desperately for qualified faculty, with the doctorate vs. professional experience debate complicating the hunt.
Advertising, broadcasting, and public relations were passing up the more traditional news-editorial programs in student preferences, necessitating numerous adjustments in curricula design and faculty proportioning. The "New Technology" had become a rage, intensifying the budget problems of schools who felt compelled to keep up with it. Almost everyone was decrying the poor writing skills of incoming students. …