By CHERIAN GEORGE, Associate Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological University.
Journalism education, more than most fields, needs to be grounded in a sense of social responsibility and public accountability. Journalists have immense power to do good or harm: the media have taken over from more traditional social institutions much of the role of providers of information, tradition and moral orientation, becoming “society’s most important storyteller about society itself”. Of course, as university educators, we will have neither the first nor last word in our students’ development. Nor do our graduates have a dominant influence on media performance, since even the biggest employers of our students are (not unwisely) diverse in their hiring: at Singapore Press Holdings, fewer than 10% of journalists are from our School. Nevertheless, we should start with the assumption that what we are able to do matters to society at large.
THREE LIMBS OF JOURNALISM EDUCATION
Journalism can be defined as the use of investigation, interpretation and analysis, to report and comment on current affairs, for the purpose of serving the public’s need to manage complexity and change.
This definition rests on three limbs:
- How journalists work. Journalists investigate, interpret and analyse information, presenting claims in a manner that is, in principle, independently verifiable.
- What journalists produce: news reports and commentary on current affairs.
- Why journalists do journalism. Journalism is committed to public service. Modern journalism is based on the democratic premise of collective self-determination: citizens need reliable and independent sources of information in order to make decisions that affect themselves and their community.
REAL-WORLD VS NORMATIVE APPROACHES
Although this definition seems straightforward, each aspect can be interpreted in different ways. One approach would be to determine the how, what and why of journalism by examining existing industry practices. Teaching journalism then becomes a matter of hot-housing students in the ways of “real world” journalism. This approach has the benefit of socialising students to plug in quickly with their future employers.
From another perspective, however, a university has the social responsibility to educate for the world as it should be, and not just for the world as it is. Not all current practices of the news media should be perpetuated – or deserve taxpayer support in the form of subsidised university education. For example, reporters and photographers everywhere sometimes violate internationally recognised codes of ethics (concerning privacy, for example) because these codes have no regulatory teeth. Training in the “how” of journalism should include a strong dose of media ethics even if – or especially if – these ethical codes are regularly violated in the “real world”.
Similarly, although the “what” of real-world journalism content comprises an increasing proportion of “lifestyle” fluff to satisfy advertisers, and talking heads to fill airtime cheaply, this hardly justifies lifestyle, chat or punditry becoming a dominant part of a journalism curriculum. As for the “why” question, most professional journalists work for companies whose focus is on profit making. From a real-world perspective, the journalist’s role is to provide customers and shareholders with what they are willing to pay for. Again, a normative approach demands a different answer: journalists should think beyond what sells and cater to what society needs.
The different possible foci are summarised in this table:
One of the key challenges of journalism education is to strike the right balance between empirical (real-world) and normative (values-based) approaches. Tilt too much to the former, and we fail our society; swing too much the latter, and we risk producing unemployable students.
The target should be to produce graduates who are positive change agents, able to succeed within newsrooms as they exist today and, over time, effect positive change from within.