J-schools sitting out debate over journalism’s future?

28 08 2009

During the accelerating decline of journalism as we knew it, I have always assumed that some of the best minds were working furiously in our leading journalism schools on the solution and that any day now, they would start leading us to the future.

Not so much, according to Ernest Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School.

He points out that at the Kerry hearings in May, not a single journalism professor testified.

Their absence points to a serious underlying problem with journalism schools and the profession more broadly — journalism schools are not adequately engaged with the great public debates over the future of their core sector.

Business school educators are regularly interviewed on NPR or in national business magazines about the state of business education, and its contribution to the crisis in confidence in business ethics and economic performance. Medical school professors are similarly engaged with their relevant publics. Not so with journalism teachers.

Yet arguably, the performance of journalism schools has something to do with the current sub-par performance of the profession. And the performance of journalists working in independent, high quality media has a lot to do with the fate of our American democracy. As journalism professors and deans set their priorities for 2009-2010, the invisibility of J-schools should be near the top of our agenda, otherwise we risk paying a terrible price for our inattention to the big picture beyond our classrooms.

To be fair, many J-schools and their auxiliaries are working hard on the issues. It’s more a lack of visibility that lack of effort, he notes. Certainly, great thinking is going on by the likes of Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky at NYU and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou. mu-home-logo

Still, as an institution, journalism education remains relatively silent. The New York Times reported in April on J-schools trailing the transformation of their industry. I opined then that it had much to do with populating the faculty with washed out journalists.

Maybe that was harsh, but Wilson also points out that J-schools largely have yet to grasp the urgency of the situation — a fault of living out the past rather than envisioning the future. Second, professors need to inform their teaching through more contact with the journalists in the trenches rather than falling back on the way they used to do it. Third, Wilson says, the schools need to move toward rigorous and relevant academic research  — again a call for future orientation. Finally, J-schools need to expand the conversation. They’ve been too inwardly focused. It’s no longer about journalism only; it’s now about democracy and societal transformation.

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