Academe and the Decline of News Media
Newspapers, newsmagazines, and broadcast-news outlets are drastically cutting staff members, bureaus, page counts, and news holes—that is, when they’re not simply going out of business. The Chronicle Review asked some prominent thinkers on issues of education, communications, and news and cultural literacy how the decline of those news media will affect higher education. Here are excerpts from their answers:
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director, Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania
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Newspapers, newsmagazines, and broadcast-news outlets are drastically cutting staff members, bureaus, page counts, and news holes—that is, when they’re not simply going out of business. The Chronicle Review asked some prominent thinkers on issues of education, communications, and news and cultural literacy how the decline of those news media will affect higher education. Here are excerpts from their answers:
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director, Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania
As partisan outlets proliferate, students raised on faux news will enter our classrooms cocooned in their own biases and conditioned to mistake ridicule for engaged contention. By creating an appetite for critical engagement, universities will challenge those insular tendencies. Drawing on their experiences in our classrooms, labs, and libraries, and mining the rich resources of the Web, our students will become citizen-journalists. In that role they will sort fact from fabulation and unmask abuses of power and the public trust.
Building on their talent for producing substance rather than sound bites, universities will host Web pages filled with accessible insight and argument about topics of national and international concern. Uncluttered by advertising and unbeholden to a commercial model, the nonprofit New York University Times and Wharton Journal will take their place alongside The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. At Berkeley and Princeton, political scientists will publicly parse politics and policy. At Swarthmore and Stanford, English majors and art historians will critique exhibits, films, novels, and television programming. And the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org, which debunks distortions in national political advertising and debate, will be joined by university-based sites monitoring state and local politics.
After noting that he would prefer newspapers without a government to government without newspapers, Thomas Jefferson added, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” One of our goals as educators is increasing the disposition of our students to read widely and think and communicate critically. What better credentials for the citizen-journalist? And what better home for their journalistic work and for our own than in an institution dedicated both to free and open inquiry and to the generation and communication of knowledge?
Harry R. Lewis, Professor of computer science, Harvard University, and co-author of Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion (Addison-Wesley, 2008)
Without journalists, how would the public learn what we do?
Universities cost more and more, and people understand them less and less. Academic research is easily ridiculed, insofar as it can be explained at all to people outside our professional guilds. Our curricular fragmentation raises legitimate doubts about whether even we have a clear picture of what we are doing.
Journalists tell the public about our research and show why it matters. They are the agents of our democracy’s confidence that ordinary people with good information can make rational choices that will benefit themselves and the rest of humankind. Journalists serve the public with their daily reports about our studies of flu vaccines and voting patterns and hominid fossils. But they also serve us. Every news story mentioning a professor’s research is a small strut supporting our mission.
Good journalism shows why even the apparently irrelevant is worth studying. The New York Times recently explained why a new style of military history both challenges received wisdom about 15th-century war and casts light on the Afghan counterinsurgency. Informed journalism explains how academics situate today’s human predicaments in the vastness of time and of space.
Of course, the Internet can disseminate the same information, and much more. But it won’t, not in its present condition anyway. Internet reporting is promiscuous, and Internet learning is individuated. The Web may be worldwide, but it encourages homophily—our tendency to seek more of what we already know and to associate with like-minded souls. I would never have sought out the Battle of Agincourt through my Internet connection. To think about its relevance to Afghanistan, I had to rely on a journalist’s reporting and an editor’s enlightened judgment. The recommendation systems of Amazon and Netflix ably steer us to more of what we like. But tempting us to xenophily, luring us to stuff we don’t know and wouldn’t think we’d enjoy, is as yet a purely human skill. It’s the bread and butter of the daily newspaper.
Universities can and will hire lobbyists and communications professionals to pitch our importance. But the world should believe such self-promotion no more than it should believe other corporate public-relations machines. The news media are our friends because, at the core, they share our interest in the truth. If we lose them, who will represent that interest to the public?
Mark C. Taylor, Chair, department of religion, Columbia University
The continuing decline of the professional news media will have a significant impact on higher education. While ivied walls have always separated colleges and universities from the broader world, during the past four decades this gap has grown considerably wider. Increasing specialization in research and teaching, as well as the professional preoccupations with traveling to conferences and presenting papers, has led to a narrowing of interest of many faculty members and, thus, the proliferation of courses that have little or nothing to do with what is going on in the world today. At the same time, the pressures of globalization are creating enormous problems that urgently need attention. It is no exaggeration to insist that our common future depends on bridging the gap between academe and the broader society.
Fair, accurate, and responsible in-depth journalism is essential for any democratic society, and never more so than today. Paradoxically, the rapid spread of new outlets for news and information has led to a decline in the quality of journalism. The 24/7 news cycle fosters confrontation rather than deliberation. Moreover, new media are completely parasitic on old media. Cable news networks, Web sites, and blogs do not have staffs that gather, analyze, and report news; rather, they recycle what more established sources distribute.
I teach philosophy and religion, and the writings of many of the thinkers we study are difficult and often abstract. What makes these historical figures worth studying is, in my judgment, the ways in which their insights help us to understand what is going on in our own lives and world. For many years, I have required students in all of my courses to read The New York Times. In class and online discussions, I press students to draw connections between thinkers like Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Baudrillard, and Derrida and what is reported in the newspaper. Some of our best discussions come out of those exchanges.
It is not enough, however, for individual professors to raise these issues in their classes. We also need to develop institutional structures that support dialogue between the academic world and the broader society. Toward that end, last year we established the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life at Columbia University (http://www.ircpl.org). This semester, I have organized a series of conversations with journalists on the topic “covering conflict.” The purpose of these conversations is to create a two-way exchange that is mutually beneficial for faculty members, students, and journalists.
During our most recent conversation, James Traub, a distinguished journalist who writes for The New York Times, noted that what most worries him about the current state of journalism is the dwindling support for lengthy investigations that lead to in-depth articles on complicated issues. The goal of higher education is, among other things, to prepare people to become responsible and productive citizens. Without serious journalists who are free to do their jobs thoroughly and carefully, democratic society as we have known it cannot survive.
Jill Lepore, Professor of American history, Harvard University
I talk to my students about the news every chance I get. They’re so smart; they’re so curious. I’m fascinated by how they get their news. What shocks me is that so many of them so rarely follow a story to its bottom. They can talk about anything, brilliantly, for five minutes. Guantánamo, those damned Yankees, health-care reform, Afghanistan. But they can’t talk about very much for a half-hour, unless it’s to bluster.
I realize that scanning the headlines, as a way of “reading” the newspaper, has a long history. I know I do it all the time. But, for lots of undergraduates, the headlines, the snippets of text they can read on their iPhones, are the news. They read headlines, and they read opinion; I don’t think they read reported stories. I have also got a pet theory, purely impressionistic and altogether cantankerous: Students who are dedicated opinion bloggers (rather than, say, students who write for the school newspaper or who write edited blogs that contain original reporting, and who work with editors) don’t take criticism well. They like to put their views out into the world, offhand, unedited, and unquestioned. They don’t like to be queried; they don’t like to get their papers back marked up; they don’t like to be asked to investigate further, or to revise. They want to stand on top of something, and say what they think about it, instead of digging down to its bottom, to find out what’s true. That, I worry, is what the death of the newspaper has cost them.
A lot of people seem to think or hope that when print newspapers and magazines are gone, the university will be long-form journalism’s new home. I guess the idea here has three parts: First, universities could support some of these dying publications out of their endowments; second, more academics could work like reporters, covering the deeper angles on news stories, as they relate to their own areas of expertise; and third, out-of-work reporters could find jobs teaching in universities, which would allow them to keep writing, if not for newspapers and magazines, at least writing, somehow, for the public. Each of those propositions strikes me as fanciful.
First, some universities, somewhere, might have flush endowments just now, but I don’t know of them and, more important, moving market-driven journalism into the academy is a dodgy proposition; it raises all sorts of issues relating to the freedom of the press and academic freedom, too. Second, the standards by which scholars achieve promotion are designed, quite frankly, to punish scholars who work or write like journalists; unless that changes, scholars who attempt it will be asked to pay a cost most are unwilling to bear. For junior faculty, that cost normally includes not getting tenure. Third, reporters holding teaching posts sounds good, but a professorship isn’t a day job, and, at least insofar as I’ve observed, it means that reporters who become teachers stop writing; it also leaves unanswered the question of what, in the age of new media, old-media reporters will be teaching, and who their students would be. The university, I fear, is not journalism’s Valhalla.
Neil Henry, Dean, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
The digital age is witnessing an evisceration of American newsrooms, and with it erosions in content and traditional journalistic standards. But this crisis also presents challenges and opportunities for universities. For one thing, the university has long been a significant source of news and information for the press. With the collapse of our traditional systems of news, how will that information reach the public in the future, and in what form and quality?
In the absence of professional journalists specializing in health, for example, who will report news of the latest medical research to the broader public, and its implications for society? With ever fewer highly trained education and science reporters gainfully employed, who will cover the important policy and fiscal issues connected with those critical fields, and their intersections with government and society?
Consider too the many news events occurring at universities each day, the policy debates, the speeches by leading thinkers from academe, government, and business, the expert panel discussions about important issues of the day so critical to wider civic discourse. Who will provide this news to the people, and through what vehicles?
Universities can help meet that growing public need, and indeed should.
Not long ago a major report on the decline of the press conducted by two experts for Columbia University (please see the essay by the report’s authors, Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie: University-Based Reporting Could Keep Journalism Alive) put forth a host of recommendations for reinvigorating journalism. Among those was a call for greater support for nonprofit journalism, including efforts to harness the potential of universities and graduate schools of journalism to provide public-service reporting.
Supported by the Carnegie-Knight initiative and other foundations, many journalism schools like ours at Berkeley are already doing just that, producing news content in digital media to serve the nation and neglected local communities. In a sense, journalism schools have become vital keepers of a flame for professional values and high-quality journalism in an age of tremendous industry struggle and transformation.
But in a larger sense, I believe university leaders must also approach this crisis in bolder and more creative ways. Journalists have long served important functions as translators of complex issues for general audiences. With the traditional media’s decline, there is growing opportunity and public-interest need today for researchers and other academics to communicate their work themselves more clearly and effectively to the general public. Bigger university support for writing, broadcast, and multimedia training for scientists and others would be wise.
Public-affairs offices in universities around America are filled with former journalists with immense talent. That’s truth-telling power in seed form that could be harnessed to create truly journalistic digital wire services around the country to provide news and features not just about universities, but also their localities. At a time when trusted news is ever harder to find, I’ll bet the public would welcome it.
W. Russell Neuman, Professor of media technology, University of Michigan
No newspaper? No problem.
The traditional newspaper is going the way of the town crier and the newsreel, a victim of changing technology, economics, and the behavior of would-be readers. Should academe be concerned? Certainly. We should be concerned about sustaining the tradition of independent, serious-minded journalism, especially investigative journalism. But we need not be particularly concerned about the institutionalized printing of ink on crushed wood pulp. So the question becomes how to leverage the transition to all-electronic news in a way that may even improve journalistic practice and engage a better informed public. Is there a role for higher education in such an undertaking?
- First, there is a critically important role for social-scientific research on the impact of news media on public opinion. Commercial media research tends to focus on who might be motivated to read or watch but not on what they might learn or their engagement in the public sphere. Although journalists and academics alike frequently lament the public obsession with the concrete narratives of celebrity gossip rather than the difficult abstractions of politics and public policy, political psychologists are only beginning to understand why the dynamics of evolved human curiosity work this way. Furthermore, there is important work to do on the filtering and aggregation of information from the public itself as a vibrant source of news. (Don’t dismiss this “crowd sourcing” out of hand—it is widely noted that Wikipedia is as factually accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, even on technical issues.)
- Second, because our students are entering an increasingly complex and ideologically differentiated media environment, we have our work cut out for us as educators. Research indicates that most citizens who have strong views on a public-policy issue do not avoid news about what the “other side” thinks; they actively engage. They are seldom seeking to be dissuaded of their views, but they are naturally curious about the views of others. That is a healthy instinct, and it deserves to be nurtured in the classroom and demonstrated at the lectern.
- Third, it was famously noted that journalists write the first draft of history. As academics, we’re responsible for the second draft and those that follow. Given the fluid digital-information environment, with online journals and a rich variety of blogs, commentaries, and discussion sites, I would posit that the distinction between the first and later drafts is being blurred. I’m convinced that that is a positive development. One of the most important functions of professional journalism is alerting the public to those events, issues, and problems of which they ought to be aware. That is a role academics could and should include as an important component of what we do.
Ted Gup, Chair, journalism department, Emerson College
It was Mark Twain who said, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” It’s an observation that sometimes reflects academe’s view of journalism today, as if it were a force beyond human control. Too many institutions these days see themselves as simply dressing for the weather, that is, trying to predict what will be and preparing their students for it, a kind of “Qué será, será" mind-set. We in the classroom need to remind ourselves that technology is but a tool and all too often a tool that wields the person rather than the other way around.
Our classrooms should help define what it is communities need from journalists and reverse-engineer students, rather than second guess the dictates of technology.
Students today are not hostile to the traditional values and role of journalism, they are simply unfamiliar with them. They are exposed to a world defined by bogus punditry, on-air food fights, demagoguery, and ratings-driven ideology. The distinctions between press and media, fact and bloviation, have been blurred.
In the classroom, when students are exposed to journalism that is in-depth, that fulfills the mandate of public service, they respond with wide-eyed amazement as if it were the first time they had seen such a thing—and often it is. They come from homes where families ceased to subscribe to newspapers years ago. They know how to go fast—just hit the “send” button. Now they must learn to go slow.
It is for us to introduce them to the virtues of reflection, context, confirmation, and balance. Theirs is too often a technology that threatens to connect an intimate circle of texting pals and “friends” (in a technical sense), but in the proc-ess to disconnect the wider world. Too many walk through life, heads down, absorbed in pressing tiny keys or glued to miniature screens waiting for incoming transmissions. All around them the world buzzes and pops and hisses. Too often they are oblivious to it all. It is our job to interrupt their technological reveries and point out the wider world.
The future of journalism, of news literacy, has yet to be written. We in the academy have some say in shaping that landscape, and by extension the meaning of citizenship, community, and global awareness. One is not a Luddite to demand that technology be in service to human needs.
Dean Miller, Director, Center for News Literacy, State University of New York at Stony Brook
If you listen to the students who flock to journalism programs even as American newsrooms shed 1,000 staff members a month, the “decline” of the traditional news media is a gift of clarity. What the eager see in this period of sweeping change is a “journalistic renaissance,” one graduating senior told us recently. He knows all bets are off, and he still wants in. I have no doubt he’ll be a welcome partner in newsrooms where adversity has sharpened focus on what matters: local, then national, then world news, always framed in a way that helps people look after their personal and civic interests.
Northwestern University’s “Impact” and “New Readers” studies amply demonstrated that good journalism is rewarded with eyeballs if you don’t put your ego ahead of readers’ schedules.
This particular student first worked on one of the established campus publications and then launched a new campus magazine that will survive his graduation. He has had a professional internship and is confident he’ll find work. That work won’t look anything like the old guard’s definition of professional journalism.
In their day, even the regional papers had overseas bureaus, and hometown coverage got short shrift. Our eager student will have missed by two decades the days of newsroom softball teams traveling to China or editors wooing columnists with the promise of, say, a Mustang coupe. (Both really happened.)
That kind of star system told journalists they mattered to someone. But rote rejection of reader surveys told journalists their editors mattered more than their readers. Readers smelled that and drifted away. Advertisers grew willing to experiment and drifted away, too.
This is an opportunity to remake journalism curricula with a heavy emphasis on mission and a patient willingness to adapt as platforms evolve. Our student who described these days as “renaissance” started his journalism education with a course in news literacy, which revives the lost art of civics education by teaching young adults how to surf the information tsunami instead of being drowned by it. With skills and energy, they know they can tell independent, verified, accountable journalism from trash.
Sanford J. Ungar, President, Goucher College
As a career journalist who has intermittently inhabited—or am I still visiting?—the academic world for a total of about two decades now, I am more than passingly familiar with the uncomfortable old standoff between the intellectual world of the university and the nitty-gritty milieu of journalism. Or should I say the inevitably stark, if overdrawn, contrast between the wise professor and the vulgar reporter?
Back when I was running a large school of communication, my colleagues from more “traditional” disciplines and I used to joke about it: They got where they were by engaging in lofty research and careful thinking, while I seemed to them to have spent a good part of my life trying to distill wisdom from anecdotes. I knew that they secretly envied my willingness to draw conclusions on the basis of observations, documents, and interviews, but I didn’t dare tell them that I worried sometimes that my journalistic colleagues and I, for all our seeming cocksureness, were on frighteningly thin ice. What I did remember—and still recite routinely today—was the old-fashioned mantra of the wire service where I had my first real job: “You’re only as good as your last story.”
Those were the days. At a time when so much on television is schlock, many so-called news organizations go public with trial-balloon stories they cannot be sure are true, and even the finest remaining newspapers are replete with copy-editing errors and worse, it has become a bit more difficult to hold up my end of the argument.
It’s not just that the staffing of American newsrooms has declined by a third since 1992, as a recent study out of the Columbia Journalism School reminds us (and there is worse to come). Ask any of us old-timers, and we’ll offer up another diagnosis: The young people going into journalism today don’t have the “fire in the belly” that we did. They are yuppies. They don’t want to work long hours. They want to go straight to the talk shows, where they can offer their opinions on issues they barely know. The more outrageous, the better. That’s what seems to be remembered and honored.
Obviously, I generalize more than any good editor should ever let me get away with. But the fact is that, with a few exceptions, the American news media are in a steep decline, and the academic world, rather than feeling superior and somehow victorious, should be sharing the pain. It is time to worry.
With institutions of higher education already almost as unpopular today as Congress and the media themselves, it will be quite embarrassing for colleges to turn out poorly informed graduates who are less well prepared than ever to take on the growing burdens of citizenship—and much harder to justify the costs of the exercise and the almost irrational privileges that result. Equally worrisome, however, is the prospect of an uninformed professoriate that risks seeming ever more isolated from the events and the political, economic, and social realities of the day. Just as students, whatever their field, need to understand that few things are happening for the first time and that America may not be the center of the universe after all, their teachers must also be acutely aware of the world around us. Enlightenment, if that is what we are seeking, has many mundane components, including a subtle understanding and analysis of daily events.
That doesn’t just happen through intuition. And having media that are arguably the freest in the world is not enough. They have to be able to perform their constitutional function of providing reliable, mediated information—imperfectly, no doubt, but with as much public support and appreciation as can be mustered.
The alternative toward which we are headed at an alarming pace—in which most people use the media only to reinforce their already strongly held opinions—is too horrible to contemplate, for the world of higher education every bit as much as for the society at large.
Rick Davis and Peter N. Stearns, Associate provost and provost, respectively, for undergraduate education, George Mason University
The current transformation of American journalism is indeed an educational challenge. It’s important to note that higher education has never consistently figured out what to do about the news: Students mostly didn’t read newspapers before, and episodic programs to provide them with freebies have had lukewarm results. But the new challenge goes beyond a couple of newsless years in college.
The replacement of serious news by sensationalist nonsense, and even more the growing dominance of brief tidbits delivered with great excitement and no context, suggest a real need to use some class time to help students learn how to probe more deeply, obtain additional information, reduce the sensationalism, and sort through partisan perspectives.
Already, better programs in journalism and communication are doing some of that in their courses, and one hopes that political science will contribute as well. Granting a bit of bias, we think there’s real opportunity as well for more history courses to interweave past and present as part of serious news analysis. But we also need to reach out to students across all majors, reconsidering aspects of general education and working hard on co-curricular activities that will extend the discussion to junior and senior years. And maybe higher education can help the media as well by insisting on the importance of taking time with interpretation and analyzing problems rather than merely flipping something on a screen and then collecting superficial reactions. If customers learn to demand better, perhaps the media will respond by supplying a more thoughtful product. The challenge is real, but it’s one we really should be able to meet with some innovations in curriculum and expectations.
Laura Kipnis, Professor in the department of radio, television, and film, Northwestern University
On my campus, you can’t even buy a copy of The New York Times. At least I haven’t been able to locate any. They don’t sell them in the student union, and you have to trek a half mile or so off campus to acquire one. If students are reading it, I presume they’re reading it online, though it’s not my impression that undergrads in my department—radio-TV-film majors—are incredibly interested in newspapers anymore. As we keep hearing, they get their news—what news they get—from Jon Stewart and company. But I don’t get the impression that national politics fascinates them much in the first place unless it’s personality-centered: The election was interesting because of the big characters involved, not the policy or political issues (though as I said, I’m in a film department, which may come into play).
The form of current events my students are extremely well informed about, however, is celebrity gossip, particularly when it comes to reality TV; on this subject they have encyclopedic knowledge. They follow every twist and turn, they can trace the lineage of characters and spin-offs. That is their daily news.
Twice recently, I’ve taught a class on reality TV, a subject I frankly knew little about beforehand, don’t watch, and was never particularly interested in. But because it now occupies such a large chunk of popular entertainment, there’s a growing body of media scholarship on the subject, the most interesting of which is precisely about the political implications of the genre.
Consider, for instance, the surveillance motif of so many reality shows (hidden cameras, the attenuation of privacy) in relation to the vast increase of citizen surveillance by both government and corporate entities in the post-9/11 landscape; consider the class signifiers on the various spouse-trading shows; consider the way identification with law-enforcement agencies gets constructed on the various catch-a-criminal shows.
Those were the kind of discussions we were able to have, and because reality TV is where so many students live, because it’s such a big part of their leisure hours, these weren’t abstract issues. The discussions were some of the most lively I’ve had in a classroom. Students also knew far more about the content of these shows than I did, which let them be co-experts; my role was to introduce social theory and a critical approach, theirs was to put it all together. These students were really thinking, changing their minds, developing a critical intelligence about contemporary social life, even though they weren’t getting their social information from newspapers.
Sure, I bemoan the decline of newsprint, to which I’m personally addicted, and I fear the effects that waning journalistic independence and vigor will have (and already have had) on the balance of power and the national conversation. I’m just saying that teachers can meet students halfway, making news and civic life part of the classroom without being puristic about what constitutes “news"—training future social critics and skeptics, even if it means paying attention to forms of culture that come in different packaging.
Stephanie Coontz, Professor of history, Evergreen State College, and director of public education, the Council on Contemporary Families
As a family historian, I have spent much of my career warning against the dangers of nostalgia and the tendency to emphasize only the losses associated with social change. But contemplating the present crisis of the print news media, I do feel pessimistic about the future prospects for an informed citizenry. While the proliferation of information gathering on the Internet has some benefits, it also creates an overload of competing factoids and claims whose reliability is hard for the average person to check.
Universities have a responsibility to help the public get access to solid information and new research. We should follow the example of those institutions that are joining forces with beleaguered news organizations and having students and faculty members work alongside professional journalists. Whenever possible, we should consider establishing our own centers for investigative journalism, as Boston and Columbia Universities have done. And this collaboration should not be confined to journalism and writing departments. We should involve people from the whole range of academic disciplines in finding ways to communicate the most solid research and best-practice findings of their fields.
This collaboration must be a two-way street. Academics have much to teach journalists about critical evaluation of claims supposedly based on the social and natural sciences. But journalists have much to teach academics about how to translate our findings into accessible prose and frame research in ways that connect with people’s everyday concerns and emotions.
I recently completed a manuscript that explores the impact of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Despite the weaknesses of that book and the many myths that have grown up around it, Friedan’s work was first and foremost an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism, and one that had a tremendous influence on the academic curriculum, spurring a new generation of scholars to tackle fields that many academics had originally dismissed as frivolous.
The women’s movement would certainly have taken off without The Feminine Mystique. But the field of women’s studies might have been long delayed. The primary audience for Friedan’s book was one particular layer of women—the sidelined wives of “the Greatest Generation,” who had given up their dreams of education and professional fulfillment to conform to the pressures of postwar cultural prescriptions. Many of the original classes in women’s and gender studies were taught by women who were inspired by Friedan’s work of journalism to go back to school, and they transformed the culture and concerns of academe.
Books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Michael Harrington’s The Other America also sprang from the traditions of investigative journalism rather than directly from academe, and like The Feminine Mystique, they forced academics to consider new topics and new methods. My hope is that universities will see the current crisis of the news media as presenting us with new opportunities as well as new responsibilities to inform and educate the population as a whole.
Paul Levinson, Professor of communication and media studies, Fordham University, and author of New New Media (Penguin Academics, 2009)
The decline of traditional news media is real, and likely to increase, as people opt for getting their news online rather than in newspapers. This sea change was brought home, once again, in mid-October, when The New York Times announced another round of layoffs.
But the change may be good news for budding journalists in colleges. One of the signature characteristics of what I call “new new” media is that all consumers can become producers, which in written journalism means all readers can become writers. A student interested in journalism may well already be reporting, analyzing, and commenting upon public events in a blog.
Of course there still is and will always be much to be taught to new reporters. The ethics of journalism, the confirmation of sources, the anathema of plagiarism—those are as crucial in the digital as in the print age. Indeed, the ease of acquiring quotes and apparent facts online makes the ethical dimension of journalism education even more important than it was.
Some observers decry and bemoan the decline of traditional news venues. I do not. What does it matter to the public, to our democracy, if we get our news online, rather than on our doorstep every morning? As much as I admire Marshall McLuhan, sometimes the medium is not the message. In fact, the advent of citizen-journalism and new new media in which everyone can contribute means that more news is being brought to us than ever before. Hieroglyphics, written and read by just a precious few in the ancient world, gave way to the alphabet and the ease of writing and reading it provided. Printed newspapers, controlled by corporations and editors, are giving way to blogs that can be written—and corrected, if need be—by everyone.
Susan Bordo, Professor of gender and women’s studies, University of Kentucky
Remember the 1987 film Broadcast News? The big moral crisis in that film was whether slick anchorman Tom (William Hurt) had violated journalistic standards when he generated tears for the camera filming his interview with a date-rape victim. Old-school journalist Jane (Holly Hunter) actually broke up with him over the fact that he had “crossed the line.” Tom replied, making what was probably the most trenchant point in the movie: “The line? They keep moving the little sucker!”
Yes they do. But we hardly notice it anymore. In my television-culture course, I show my students a segment from an Anderson Cooper show, in which he wanders through the debris of Hurricane Katrina, picking through people’s scattered belongings, his anguish mounting. Finally, he starts to choke up, and gestures to the camera to stop shooting. My students are puzzled at first as to what’s wrong with that. Then I point out to them that the segment is taped, not live. If Cooper really wanted the eye of the camera to back off, why didn’t he just edit the moment out?
Cooper, of course, not only wanted the camera to record his tears, but his modesty and “integrity” as well. And unlike Tom, Cooper has no one at the station arguing with him about the sleaziness of exploiting his emotional reaction to concoct what Daniel Boorstin —with great prescience, in 1961—called the “pseudo event": reality configured and packaged for the viewer. Neither “true nor false in the old familiar senses,” the pseudo-event is reality transformed into a contrived image which is “more vivid, more attractive, more impressive, and more persuasive than reality itself.”
In 1961, Boorstin’s book The Image seemed alarmist; in 2009, the “pseudo event” is the coin of the realm.
But it isn’t just the news media. In the realm of visual imagery, the digital fabrication of pseudobodies is an accepted norm. And it isn’t just celebrity bodies that are “pseudo.” With Adobe Photoshop, pseudoreality has leapt off the glossy pages and into the family album.
So should we be surprised at the increase in plagiarism, or—even more telling—the fact that students don’t really “get it” when they are accused? The fact is that few of them understand the difference quotation marks make, or why a pastiche of unattributed statements from other people doesn’t qualify as original work. They are neither frighteningly unethical nor hopelessly “dumb” (as critics such as Susan Jacoby and Mark Bauerlein have claimed). They live in a nip-and-tuck, cut-and-paste culture in which only the product counts, and the process is —whatever.
T. Mills Kelly, Associate director of the Center for History and New Media, and associate professor of history and art history, George Mason University
If the printed newspaper disappears from American life, historians like me will have to spend time in class explaining to our students just what a “newspaper” was. As sad as it would make me personally—I think I will be the last person subscribing to my local paper—speaking as a historian it won’t be any more difficult than explaining what a typewriter was, or a telegraph, or a scroll. All were technologies for transmitting information in a fixed medium and all have disappeared, although I suspect there are still a few typewriters out there somewhere. Libraries and archives will need to find ways to preserve a few physical examples of these very fragile printed materials other than as images on a screen so that our students will be able to experience the feel of the thing, not just the look. But as much as I hate to admit it, an image of a newspaper is just as valuable to a researcher, whether she is a student or a professor, and digital images don’t get ink on your fingers.
It is fashionable to argue that the same can be said for a decline in professional broadcast news media. The heyday of the nightly network news in America is long past, but it seems to me to be an American, or perhaps Euro-American-Canadian, conceit to believe that broadcast news is on the same slippery slope as the newspaper. Recent research on global television viewing indicates that television is still a medium in expansion mode. Instead of predicting the decline of broadcast news, we should instead be focused on how news is being transmitted in societies where television has only recently become ubiquitous.
But one day in the not-too-distant future, television news may indeed go the way of the newspaper, and, when it does, historians will have to explain to slightly puzzled students what that box was that looked like a computer without a keyboard. When we do, I hope we will have preserved at least a few of the old boxes so that we can bring them into the room, warm them up, and show our students what it must have been like back in the day when people watched the news instead of extracting it from a database.
Johanna Drucker, Professor, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
Journalism looks poised to acquire the same anachronistic status as rhetoric. The analogy is not accidental. Never was rhetoric a more essential skill to undo the persuasive force of what feels increasingly like vigilante journalism. This monstrous form, a combination of libertarian self-interest and swarm mentality coupled with celebrity-pressured pay scales, is rising from the ashes of the profession along with a more subtly pernicious, much-touted model of the independent citizen-journalist.
The first is easy to detect and disdain, if difficult to undo. But the so-called “indy” models of freelance entrepreneurialism require equal reflection. Stripped of the infrastructure that both protected and regulated their work, independent journalists are caught in the nightmare of a collapse in other infrastructure: schools, roads, health care, regulation of the environment for the public good—in short, the full ideology of profits over people that makes independent survival perilous.
The journalism schools founded in America in the 1920s and 30s were an outgrowth of the boom in social-science methodology meant as a rational contrast to the rising tides of European fascism and earlier effects of the Great War. The shock of watching populations persuaded (in part by propaganda and mass media) to align with forces counter to their own self-interests (not to mention those of a larger world) brought an urgency to the commitment of Harold Lasswell, Walter Lippmann, and others. They established standards of research, ethical and intellectual responsibility, drawing on John Dewey and other progressive philosophers.
The role of the university in changing that is to educate the public about the need for education, and for a world in which individual interest is balanced against the public good. The essential intellectual tools are the ability to analyze social and cultural systems, to understand all cultural activities within life-cycle studies, to promote wholistic approaches that expose the relation of so-called lifestyle choices and actual (collective, shared) consequences.
Here are a few basic principles for pedagogy. Practice enfranchisement and accountability. Teach the basic skills of rhetoric, the humanistic analysis of argument and interpretation. Show that the more something appears as natural, the more it is culturally constructed. Demonstrate that all cultural forms are made by someone for some purpose. Use rhetoric to reveal that all discourse is an argument serving someone’s interests. Always ask, “Whose?”
These principles are not a prescription for didactic moralism, but the foundation of informed democracy.
Garrick Utley, President, Neil D. Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce, State University of New York
The “decline” of journalism, as it evolved in the 20th century, is the inevitable result of digital technology, the dynamics of the marketplace, and the people’s desire to have greater choice of, and control over, their sources of news and information. The impact of this epochal shift will be as strong on universities and their students as on society as a whole.
As one who has spent most of his life in international journalism and witnessed these changes close up, I believe we as individuals, and as society, will be much better informed in the future. The singular, overriding reason for this is that in the age of the Internet it is no longer possible for anyone to keep a “lid” on the freer flow of news and information.
True, the decline of traditional journalism means there will be fewer reporters, foreign correspondents, and editors to select, report, and communicate news. This also means there will be fewer gatekeepers. Even the most open and broad-minded of journalistic gatekeepers in journalism are limited by budgets, available space in newspapers or magazines, or time on a TV newscast. Moreover, reporters and editors often share a common cultural, educational background, which can mold their views of what is news and what is not. The Internet is rapidly eroding this closed journalistic shop. But enough of that “shop” will survive to serve the needs of an informed and attentive public that will continue to look for established, structured, and trusted sources of news.
There is another dimension to the new digital news/information world, one that will challenge higher education as it already is threatening journalism. I call this the “past-tense, present-tense tension.” Journalism is by definition and practice past tense. Stories in print or on television newscasts have been reported, facts checked, scripts and articles written, edited, and vetted, and only then presented to the public; the journalistic version of peer review.
Today, news is increasingly present tense. Cable news channels have become primarily live talk and live coverage of breaking-news events. There are ever fewer traditional newscasts or edited news reports. Television news is becoming real-time reality television. And Internet news, with ever more (and more narrowly focused) Web sites, blogs, and live streams of events, is also becoming real time, or present tense. Social-network sites are nearly real time and some, such as Twitter, are present tense.
Academic life, like journalism (at its best), is largely built on past tense, through the accumulation of knowledge and the importance of context, not to mention tradition. Academe and journalism share certain traits. Whether they face a similar future remains to be seen. Journalists don’t have tenure.
The new, evolving relationship between traditional journalism and the fact that anyone with a cellphone camera or an Internet connection can now be a “reporter,” if not a journalist, means that the public can no longer be the passive consumers of news. We must increasingly become our own editors, our own gatekeepers. Some of us will be more willing to do this than others. Some will be more successful than others. University students should be particularly adept at mastering this; it is the information world in which they have grown up. But that also places an added responsibility on faculty members to help guide their students through the Internet’s infinite digital wilderness.
Henry Jenkins, Professor of communication, journalism, and cinematic arts, University of Southern California
A recent report issued by the Knight Foundation about the quality of the information resources available to American communities stressed the important role that universities might play in picking up some of the pieces being dropped as newspapers and other professional news organizations are failing in cities around the country. In some ways, journalism programs are ideally situated to experiment with alternative forms of journalism, ranging from new models of reporting that exploit the resources of virtual worlds and social networks to new business models that support news at the hyperlocal or global level.
Professional journalists are locked into fatal old models, while emerging journalists have a vested interest in mapping out new directions for their careers, and they can take risks while still in school that have lowered costs and consequences because of the security that academic organizations provide. Having recently arrived at the University of Southern California, where I have an affiliation with the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, I have been impressed by the ways that faculty members and students here are already rising to the challenge, using class assignments and research projects to map how we might better respond to the public’s need for information and insight.
I have never loved the term “citizen journalism,” which is a bit like “horseless carriage” in that it reads what is emerging in relation to what has gone before. The term limits us to imagining future civic media through the models of what has been done in the past rather than in what will fully take advantage of the affordances of an emerging media environment. So, let’s not call these experiments “citizen journalism.” Rather, let’s think of them as “civic media"—that is, media that support a more actively engaged citizenship. The MIT-based Center for Future Civic Media, which involves collaboration between the Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies Program, is exploring what these new information appliances and practices might look like.
University involvement in civic media should extend beyond experiments in journalism schools, with each discipline taking greater responsibility for its own communication with the public, ensuring that it has access to key insights and crucial information needed to make sense of the world. I am a big enthusiast of blogs and Twitter as ways that academics can expand the readership for their research and engage as public intellectuals with the key conversations of their era. In media studies, a good example would be the In Media Res project, which involves academics responding to contemporary media practices, through sharing clips and commentary.
None of these will replace professional journalism, but they may each make important contributions to mapping the future informational ecology.