Friday, December 10, 2010

'Just put your feet in the stirrups, baby. It's OK. I'm a journalist.'

As a habitue of college-employment sites like AEJMC and UniversityJobs.com, I find that I'm seeing more and more journalism programs giving at least a token nod to so-called "new media" like Facebook, Blogger, etc. In some cases it's more than just a nod, but rather a full body-slam's worth of credibility. I quote from one current ad from Northwestern's Medill Schoolthis is a world-class institution we're talking aboutthat seeks an individual who offers "expertise in emerging social media technologies."

Folks, just because bloggers regard themselves as "citizen-journalists" doesn't make it so. (
As much as I admire Markos Moulitsas, I may never forgive him for popularizing and promoting that particular hyphenate.) Furthermore, it is not breaking news every time someone updates his Facebook status; nor has he "published," in the professional sense, and certainly not in the journalistic sense.

A journalist is a person with specific skills, competencies and, perhaps above all, responsibilities. (That's the part that tends to get forgotten in today's brave new world of wall-to-wall, real-time coverage of everything by everybody. "Oh, we got it wrong? We libeled someone? Big deal, we'll fix it next time ... What's that you say? Masson v. The New Yorker? Huh?") We don't have citizen-gynecologists, after all. Then again, maybe we do, but they operate outside the law, and will be arrested and almost surely prosecuted if, in the course of their activities, they harm someone.

And before you accuse me of an obvious and hypocritical contradiction
"Ah-ha! Just a few weeks ago you said you were in favor of free speech, but now..."let me emphasize that I still have no problem with anyone exercising free speech. Or at least I don't have any problems I didn't have last time around. The only problem I have in this case is that not all speech = journalism. Just like, again, not all contact with a woman's genitals = gynecology.

I admit that colleges are up against it. They're in a hyper-competitive environment in the middle of a recession and straining to remain relevant at a time when standards and orthodoxies are dropping like Barack Obama's Q rating, a time when the knowledge base is expanding exponentially on a daily basis and in unforeseen ways (e.g. WikiLeaks.) But just as editors used to decide what readers should read
and readers accepted their part in that bargaincolleges used to decide what a well-rounded collegian ought to know. (They did not, as a rule, design courses or hiring criteria around "what's hot right now!?") Beyond that, we as a society had a reasonable expectation that the holder of a college degree boasted at least a working familiarity with math and the sciences. That is increasingly less the case, as colleges flex their curricula to accommodate student interests, mandating fewer and fewer core courses and permitting larger and larger amounts of electives. Seems to me that within a decade or so you may be able to graduate with a degree in journalism from certain colleges without having taken any actual courses that involve journalism in the traditional sense.

It is not a good thing to allow students to decide what they're willing to learn in order to graduate from college with a degree in something. It is not a good thing for colleges to scrap time-honored standards of what constitutes a given profession in order to adapt their coursework to latter-day pop culture. If you think about it, that's just another form of SHAM.

7 comments:

ebohlman said...

I think what happened was that in the Baby Boom years, colleges and universities expanded themselves to the point where they now need a heavy enrollment just to meet their costs. As a result, they're now intensely competing with each other for students, who are thought of primarily as revenue sources.

Cal said...

Steve, I just want to correct your statement about colleges having to compete "in the middle of a recession". The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the organization that economists consider the official arbiter of dating recessions, indicated in September of this year that the last recession dated from December 2007 to June 2009. I believe most polls of Americans believe we are still in a recession and I hear people from all walks of life still say we are in a recession all the time, but that is not technically correct.

I would say we are in a slow growing economic environment in which unemployment will remain appreciably high from what we are used to over the past 20 years. And that's due to many factors not relevant to your post.

I listen to Tony Kornheiser's radio show and he indicates all the time that aspiring sports journalists ask what's the best way to become one these days. Tony says he tells them he can't tell them because he never took a journalism course in college. He was an English major, but knew he ultimately wanted to be a sports columnist.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, is it possible that the economic indicators have ceased to be relevant? When unemployment is 10%, and credit remains as tight as it is, and salaries are as flat as they are...in my layperson's book that's a recession. But I am willing to defer to the experts insofar as "textbook" definitions.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think the disconnect between "the economy" and most people's economic status is based in the fact thatn the criteria for determining economic health are stock market/investment based, far removed from the routine activities and concerns of most Americans.

Banks grew "healthier" after TARP, primarily because they invested the TARP funds in improving their bottom line. The credit that was supposed to be freed up to stimulate lending - and by extension, small business recovery and growth - just never happened. And don't even get me started on the financial execs who, fresh from their salvation at the hands of taxpayers, gave themselves historically high bonuses.

As to the future for journalism students, I'd think that spending a few years as an intern or stringer of a major media outlet would actually serve tomorrow's journalists (and the reading/viewing public) better than spending four to eight years in academia. I know that I learned far more from being mentored by an old-school freelancer than I ever learned in college (and it would be unfair and inaccurate to lay all the blame for the disparity on the drugs!).

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I agree entirely (which doesn't mean either of us is right, of course). I have often thought that the "health" of the U.S. economy was an illusion anyway. Obviously we were nowhere near "healthy" back in the early 2000s--the seeds of disaster were germinating wildly--even though by all the usual metrics the economy was growing, the stock market had some enviable spurts, etc. If a great deal of wealth/income is being generated--but (literally) 90% of it is concentrated in the top 10% of the population--that is not a healthy economy.

A truer picture would be given by looking at the savings rate, the foreclosure rate (which remains at or near an all-time high), the unemployment rate, the number of small-business starts, and similar "Everyman" stats. I once suggested whimsically to my editor at the WSJ that financial metrics should purposely lop off the entire top 20% of the population; none of their stats should be included. Then we could see what was really going on.

She called me a communist (jokingly, I think) and we changed the subject.

RevRon's Rants said...

Since it is that same top 20% that writes virtually all legislation, it should come as no surprise that the economic indicators against which our society is measured would focus upon criteria pertinent to that demographic.

Let me offer an analogy (like that's a surprise, right?!). A very wealthy woman neighbor of ours trades her car in for a new one every 5,000 miles, roughly the same interval at which I - and most folks - change their oil. One would hardly expect her to be concerned with the cost of parts for her vehicles, or how well they would function after logging 100,000 miles. I certainly don't begrudge the woman, but neither do I expect her to be particularly cognizant of or concerned about the same things that I consider when making a major purchase.

Your PR Guy said...

Steve,

You make some valid points here. As always. Recently I worked with the famed IU School of Journalism to draft social media curricula, specific to PR. While that has gone back to the drawing board for refinement, I'm amazed at the same points you outline here. It's been an argument for awhile that just because someone blogs, that doesn't make them a journalist. Just as some journalists who blog, aren't bloggers.

This is no personal jab at your efforts, but reading your posts is difficult if I come at them like I'd read other blogs. By definition, you're a horrible blogger. But measured by depth of content, you're outstanding.

What's a good blogger? Content or presentation? Or both?

I think what we are see schools of journalism looking to amplify their offerings with social media training is a sign of the times. I also think that formalized training in social media is coming of age, but has not fully matured.

I also think that if one is a good writer with the know-how to criticize and use information correctly and responsibly -- ie the training in journalism -- then the learning curve for social media is nothing.

Given that nearly 77% of working journalists use social media tools for their jobs everyday, should young aspiring journalists be learning social media tool? Absolutely!

The foundation of journalism won't change (unless your FOX), the way we disseminate information will. And will we always have those quacks calling themselves journalists? Yes.

What we need is a healthy dose of discernment, which is what I find from your post.