Shifting attitudes: The task of teaching contemporary journalism

Jason Free, Features EditorBy Jason Free Jason Free: In terms of selecting new students to your program, what are the attitudes, knowledge and skills that you feel are necessary for a successful academic career? Dan-Kennedy-1-392x261 Dan Kennedy: Like many undergraduate programs, we don’t get to select our freshman. The university-wide admission process is heavily dependent on test scores, so you can say, on a general level, we are looking for students who can demonstrate the more-traditional academic proficiencies like earning strong test scores and competitive grades. Outside of those elements, they are also looking for demonstrations of leadership, intellectual curiosity, things like that. In terms of the students who enter our particular program, we don’t necessarily know who we are getting until they arrive in class. We tend to attract students that have been editors for their high school newspaper or staff members on their high school’s radio station. Some of them come in with a portfolio of their journalism which is terrific in terms of being able to assess their development early on in their academic careers. Free: How does your program help students develop and transition away from their academic careers and toward their professional careers? Kennedy: That’s an interesting question because some feel journalism education needs to be completely reinvented. I believe there should be a balance created in higher education that includes the more old-school fundamentals of journalism as well the latest technologies and trends in the profession. When you are dealing with young students, it seems educators all feel the need to discuss things that are of immediate interest to them like the Internet and the digital applications of journalism. At Northeaster, we are introducing digital skills at pretty much every step of their time with us. Starting this year, in order to get a journalism degree from our program, you will have to complete a new course called Digital Story Telling in Journalism that offers a survey of a wide range of digital-story-telling techniques. The course covers everything from reporting a news event, using Twitter, snap-phone photography, video, a little bit of data visualization, a little bit of mapping and blogging. Again, we are not really trying to make sure that students are well versed in these particular skills. What we are trying to do is introduce them to the idea that the digital technologies that they use in their everyday lives are also important tools for doing journalism. We don’t want them to think the technology is an end, however, because we all know that technology is really just a means to newer technologies. Our hope is to help them understand that they really going to have to be lifelong learners as technology continues to change and impact their profession. To create that balance I was describing, journalism educators need to remind students of the basics as well. With all the evolving technology available, they still have to go back to learning how to do research, learning how to interview, learning how to write and doing that all within the context of an ethical journalistic framework. Those elements of journalism, honestly, do not look that much different than it did in the classroom 20 or 30 years ago. The final thing I hope they develop is some appreciation for the idea that is no longer acceptable for a young journalist to know nothing about the business that he or she has entered. We spend a good deal of time discussing business models where the jobs might be how the business is changing, things like that. Free: At SixFinger, we often compare and contrast how different fields of industry are taught at the university level. Your notion that students need to understand the business of journalism is reminiscent of what many music industry instructors have mentioned to us. In general, there have been a couple schools of thought. One, programs focus heavily on the fundamentals of the subject, let’s say music, and they teach students just a little bit of the business of music. Then there are other programs who say, “You don’t really need to play the guitar. You just need to know the business issues and trends that impact guitar players.” Many programs are now adopting the hybrid approach you mentioned. They believe student have to understand both sides of the subject. The thing I find interesting relative to most programs but especially for those in areas such as the music industry and journalism is that programs are attempting to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet. As an instructor, you are preparing students to work within business models and with technologies that don’t exist yet. That’s where your call for students to become life-long learners must come into play. Kennedy: Well, let me backtrack a little bit. I don’t want to make it sound like there is any sort of deep emersion in the business of journalism within our program because there isn’t. The first model you talked about in music where we get into it a little bit, that might be a better way of describing what we do. Our real emphasis is on helping our students to become good journalists and good public relations practitioners. Public relations are part of our programs and a lot of students go into that area of work when they graduate. I would say that a minority of our majors actually peruse careers in journalism. Certainly we have a group that does and they go on to do well. The other thing I want to say about the business of journalism, keep in mind Northeastern is built on its co-op program so virtually all of our students are spending a decent amount of their years here actually working full-time jobs in journalism, public relations and other communications-related fields. So they are getting a pretty firm dose of a really up-close look at what the business of journalism and those other fields look like just through co-op. It isn’t necessarily something that they have to get a huge amount of in the classroom. Free: Do you think more emphasis does need to be placed on the business side of things in the classroom given that there is so much change within the business? Kennedy: I could probably point to a half a dozen areas where more emphasis should be placed, but students can only take so many courses while they are in school. They are going to get a strong education, but we can’t do everything. It really is as simple as that. We tried something recently, and we will do it again, where we offered a course in media entrepreneurship and it was actually taught by a teacher who usually teaches in the business school at Northeastern. While it was open across the university, it was basically populated by journalism and business majors. It had some success. It was an elective. It was the sort of thing that ought to be required, but any time you make something required, you are taking away something else. It’s a juggling act when you are trying to put together a program. Within any good journalism program, there is a real effort to keep the number of required courses to the absolute minimum. We even want our students to consider double majoring because that sort of broad knowledge is what makes good journalists. Keep in mind that something like half of the people going into journalism as a profession went to journalism school which means that half didn’t. This is something that has been true from the beginning of journalism. We don’t kid ourselves into thinking you can’t go into journalism without taking advantage of what we do because it just isn’t true. Free: If you had a magic wand, what would be some of the things you would see to stimulate intellectual thinking and critical thinking at the high school level? What would be some of the things that you would think would help not only students want to go into journalism at the college level but other fields as well? Kennedy: Off the top of my head, I would target something that is also true for the culture at large. You often hear that one of the things harming journalism is a lack of media literacy. “We need more media literacy.” I don’t really disagree. It’s like saying, “Apple pie isn’t any good.” I am not going to say that media literacy is a bad thing. One of the questions that I have been harping on for several years is what leads people to be interested in media literacy? I would argue it is civic literacy. We are living in an era where very few people care about what is going on in terms of local government and their communities. That apathy goes on to the state and national government too. We all know that people are set not to like these things. It would be a great thing if high schools put a stronger emphasis on civic literacy by teaching and actively involving students and showing them the importance in what is going on in their community and the world around them. Once students have that interest, they want to know where they can find more information. That is where media literacy comes in. If high schools could do a better job of really engaging their students in the civic life of their communities, there would be more interest in journalism. Students that would come to us would be better prepared and more interested to go about the work that journalists generally do. A lot of journalism students come to us wanting to be sports journalists or fashion writers or something like that. That’s fine because there are still jobs in those areas, but it is pretty rare that we get someone who wants to be a public affairs reporter especially at the local level. A lot of them are going to find that once they get their degree those are the types of jobs that are going to be offered and they might be working in those jobs for a very long time. Those jobs can be very rewarding, but the typical 18-year-old is not interested in doing that type of work because he or she has not had the grounding in civic life that would prepare them for an understanding that it can be rewarding and that it’s interesting as well. Free: I used to teach a lecture called, “Monday night homeless shelter.” The main question was what would happen if, instead of Monday Night Football, we had Monday Night Homeless Shelter? Some of my students gave the initial knee-jerk response of saying no one would watch such a program. I would usually answer facetiously, “Well, that would be a terrible thing, wouldn’t it? People would turn off their televisions and probably have to talk to their kids.” But then, we would explore the idea that people who did watch would know more about the issue of homelessness and they might want to get more involved in addressing the problem. Kennedy: Exactly. Not everyone, but a lot of people would probably become more active within their community if they were just a bit more informed on the real situations of some people in their community. That is exactly the civic literacy I am talking about. Free: But we have to consider another problem that goes beyond why there is no television program called “Monday Night Homeless Shelter” or why such a show may not actually create the effects you mention: sensationalism in journalism. It is so prevalent today. Many would argue that a large amount of what is considered journalism these days is just political propaganda. When I was a college student that mixture was completely taboo. I am wondering if it’s impacting the types of students you are getting and their perceptions of what journalism is. Kennedy: I am not entirely sure I agree with your proposition. Your proposition is based largely on the idea that millions are getting their news from places like FOX or MSNBC. They are not. Those are not particularly heavily watched news outlets. FOX is just something their grandparents watched. Look at the demographics; I think the average age of an O’Reilly viewer is 75 so where are students getting this propagandized news you mention? What I find is that students are very skeptical of the idea of “the news” as some sort of a discreet package that has to be consumed on a daily basis. They don’t seem to believe that the news is where you have to get a certain amount of international, national and local information. As an instructor, what I find is that if there is a story that really captures their interest, they will go very deep on that story and they are not going to necessarily use the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or something like that. I have found a lot of the young people, in general, are very taken with Vice. Vice has its virtues, as we know, a certain type of real up-close story telling that very few organizations do. The problem with Vice is that it does come with a very heavy dollop of propaganda. For instance, the most celebrated piece that they have done in the past few months is inside the Islamic state. It is extremely interesting, but a fair amount of what is in inside the Islamic state is ISIS propaganda. I found it fascinating because I hadn’t really seen very much ISIS propaganda. I thought it was very much worth including and it was showing us how they see themselves which itself adds great value. You do wonder sometimes though about what effect that has on people who may not be sophisticated news consumers. Fortunately, the documentary made it very clear how brutal the Islamic state is. Honestly, I really think a lot of the ideological news and information you are talking about, even ideological blogs, they are read by older people. There have been studies on this point. I don’t know that young people are all that connected with it. I sometimes teach a course where we do end up talking a great deal about bias and, if anything, I find young people are over sensitive to bias and they see bias in everything. You might just say any reporter has to make choices about how to tell the story and it necessarily involves emphasizing one thing and not emphasizing another. Instead of just being an honest attempt to figure out how to tell the story, I find young people immediately say, “Well, that is biased. That’s bias.” Free: Where do you think journalism is going to go with this new way of thinking by your students? While they are not big-time, discreet news consumers, they do seem to be bias sensitive. How do you see that impacting journalism a generation from now? Kennedy: It goes way beyond how students think about news. The most important trends in journalism are things we have been seeing for a long time but we don’t talk about them often. When you look at the big long-term trends that are fundamental in changing journalism, I believe the collapse of advertising is key. The advertising model just doesn’t work anymore and it is not like it will work in the future, so the question is: how do we pay for the journalism? The other big trend is the continued decline of every source of media other than the internet which just means everything is going online. Increasingly, people say that print is going away, but when you look at it television is going away. Radio is going away. Everything will just be a click away and you decide what it is you are going to watch or read. There is absolutely no reason in 2014 for one news source like, let’s say the Boston Globe for instance because I am here in Boston, for one news source to offer a package of everything from international news, local news, the funnies, obituaries, weather, crossword puzzles, whatever. These are all artifacts of the industrial age; a time when it was very expensive to operate a printing press so it was most efficient to gather all of these things into a daily package. That does not exist anymore, so I kind of wonder what a news organization is going to look like in the future if it tries to be a general source of news information. I tell myself that maybe the New York Times or NPR will make it. They seem to be doing better than the others in that environment. I wonder if anyone is going to make it. The future is maybe that we all become seekers of news rather than more-passive viewers of news. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing except people are going to have to get used to seeking it out the places for news that fits their specific needs or interests. It may be that you have a hyper-local news source coupled with other special interest sources that you like. I wrote a whole book about new forms of online hyper local. You will have international news sources such as Global Post. You might have a national political source like Politico, God help us. All of these places will be separate and stand on their own. You won’t have anything pulling the news all together. I tell myself, at the age of 58, maybe I care about that a little too much. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I do think that is the biggest long term trend that we are looking at.

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