What journalism courses should teach.

With the first week of semester over, I thought readers of this blog might be interested in the below, which is a longer version of a piece I wrote for the current edition of the Walkley magazine.

- Margaret Simons

After thirty years in journalism, one tends to think of some things as being innate. News sense, for example, or the need to state the main point of a story in the first paragraph without throat-clearing or qualification.

But if facing a class of young wannabe journalists teaches you anything, it is that somewhere in the chaos of what is laughingly called a career, you must have picked up a few things, because these skills and understandings are not innate. Journalism is skilled work, and somewhere or other you not only picked up the skills: you internalised them.

The skills involved in the work of journalism are constantly underestimated, partly because there are many ways to learn them, as any graduate of the school of hard knocks will attest. There is no licence, no designated career path and no single accredited curriculum to be able to call yourself a journalist. Nor should there be. Any such thing would be offensive to freedom of speech.

The American journalist Bruce Shapiro has described journalism as being the ultimate act of engaged citizenship. Now that almost anyone connected to the internet can publish, increasing numbers of citizens will engage in acts of journalism – the reporting of news to the world. Most will not think of themselves as journalists. Most of them will be confined to the things that they know by being in a certain place at a certain time.

Nevertheless, the fact that isolated “acts of journalism” are happening all over the place raises the issue of what the skills of journalism actually are.

Given that there is no slackening in the numbers of young people wanting to study journalism, what should we be teaching them? These are questions I have been reflecting on consistently over the last few years, first as convenor of a new journalism degree at Swinburne University of Technology, and now in my position as Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne, which launches it Master of Journalism this March.

The skills certainly exist. Everyone knows this if they think about it. Certainly it is known by any employer who has asked a non-trained employee to find something out through an interview or a public records search, or write 500 clear words for a general audience. There is a reason why ex-journalists have no trouble finding employment.

One of the most frequent criticisms of journalism education from inside the industry is that graduates arrive in newsrooms with more to learn. It is a wrongheaded criticism. There will always be things  that new journalists will learn in their first workplace that no academic course can teach them. The same is true for lawyers, doctors, architects and just about every other occupation and profession. Most have systems in place to allow for further learning on the job, with the emphasis on work issues that cannot be replicated in the classroom. Yet nobody suggests that this means the years of university study had no worth.

Journalism courses worthy of the name do their best to replicate, at least for part of the course, the real life pressures of accuracy under deadlines, but nothing can compare to the first workplace, and doing this under pressure not just for a period or two, but every hour of every day.

The skills required for journalism are real, and repeatedly underestimated, including by some of those who think that teaching journalism consists only of theoretical critiques.

So what should be expected of university journalism courses?  Journalism education should be practice led, but informed by reflection, history, and critique.

Courses should teach the basic concepts and skills that underlie and make up journalism practice. I think there are three key areas , each as important as the other.

First, there is news sense, but I mean more by this than the tired old cliché “news is what the editor says it is”. News sense is about an understanding of your audience – and audiences are changing. Increasingly we are talking about niche audiences as much as mass audiences, and increasingly journalists must converse, interact, harness and even create audiences around their work. Student journalists should not only begin to learn that seat of the pants feeling for a good yarn – they should also learn to think flexibly and creatively about their audience. I think a little historical understanding is useful here, including understanding how concepts of news have changed through the ages, from pre-Gutenberg days to the present day, and how they might change in the future. How did this notion “the public” come into being, and with it the idea of the public interest? How might social media once again change our notions of the news?

Second, there is clear communication. A few years ago some authorities were saying that the written word would decline in importance, to be replaced with video. How wrong they were. There has never been so much text. Social media relies on it. Even YouTube includes it. Clear writing in brief and direct factual news English is as important as it has ever been. We should expect student journalists to use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, and mark them down when they do not, while remaining sensitive to how the language is changing. We should teach the inverted pyramid, and expect students to be competent at this simple hierarchy of importance long before we ask them to tackle the much more various and risky form of features and creative non-fiction writing.

But alongside and interwoven with the skills, we should also teach the origins of the form, and point out that these days very few stories adhere to the pure inverted pyramid. We should talk about how the form has changed before, and will change again, and the determining role of technology. Alongside writing, we should acquaint students with the skills involved in multimedia storytelling and web based publication, as well as encouraging them to examine experiments like Google’s Living Stories project, and the increasingly important art of “explainer journalism”, enabled as it is by technology that can present breaking news alongside standing core information necessary for understanding the context and history.

Perhaps most of all, given that we are teaching the most media adept generation ever seen, we should get young people to reflect on their own media consumption and practice. How do they find and communicate the news? What can they teach us?

Lastly, and perhaps most important of all and yet most often neglected, we should teach them how to find things out. This, in my view, is the skill most frequently underestimated by those who criticise how journalists work. Finding things out from primary sources – through interviews, accessing documents, observation, attending events, annoying people, cold calling, cultivating contacts, understanding the uses and abuses of “off the record” and “on background” – is endlessly complicated, and hard to teach in the academic context. Many journalism courses barely cover interview skills, which is a shame. Other kinds of investigators, including academic researchers, know how to find things out. But only journalists manoeuvre in the world of the unauthorised disclosure. Teaching this is a very particular requirement of good journalism courses, and we need to be creative and imaginative about how it is done. In my experience, this is the main area in which those who teach journalism without having practiced it fail their students.

Added to this are the skills in critically evaluating and verifying information. These, too, are often neglected, not only in academic courses, but also in the newsrooms.

In all these things there is a dualism: on the one hand the hard-edged skill, the vigorous and robust practice that will make young people into useful journalists. On the other hand, there are the deeper understandings which are increasingly necessary given the fact that this generation will be the one to reinvent what journalists do. If we are to evolve the profession, we need practitioners who have more than a superficial way of thinking about what it is, and might be.

Which brings me to ethics. It must be taught as a standalone subject, but also interwoven with all the aspects of practice nominated above. Lastly, there is the law as it affects journalists. Much more can be said about both those things than I have space for here.

Finally, any course that is narrow, that implies that one can practice journalism without also knowing about other things, will fail its students. I welcome degrees – such as the one I am presently overseeing at Melbourne – which add journalism skills and understandings to the bedrock of another, broad based degree.

There are many, many ways of learning to be a good journalist. It will always be the case that graduates from academic courses will have more to learn. But if a course teaches both the skills and the understandings, both the present requirements, and something of the past and future, then it will serve its students, the industry and the public well.

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