Most journalism majors don’t become journalists, but most journalists are graduates of journalism programs. This means that how educators approach the preparation of students in this digital age will shape journalism’s future direction in significant ways. And in this transformational time for journalism, what is best represented by a liberal arts education needs to be placed front and center so those who become journalists will be, at their core, ready to act as intellectually sophisticated producers and disseminators of information.
Sensing this need, the Knight Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York sponsored blue-ribbon conferences and demonstration projects aimed at reshaping undergraduate and graduate-level journalism programs. In May 2006, they issued a progress report entitled “Journalism’s Crisis of Confidence: A Challenge for the Next Generation.” It stressed the need for curricula to ensure that aspiring journalists be educated to become worldly intellectuals who retain the common touch necessary to reach audiences in an evolving media landscape of almost infinite complexity. With this in mind, a few programs, such as Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Northwestern University’s Medill School, and USC Annenberg’s School for Communication, are in the process of designing enhanced curricula and joint degree opportunities with other departments and schools. In September 2006, a task force of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication reported on the state of its affiliated doctoral programs, and spoke to the need for improving theoretical engagement with key issues and smoother integration of communications research into craft-focused undergraduate and master’s-level courses.
Neither report sheds much light on exactly how the suggested approaches will prepare journalists to deal with the enormous challenges and opportunities of the digital age. Nor is much attention paid to assessing the roles journalists or journalism educators might play in shaping the technological and economic frameworks in which newsgathering will be practiced. And no consideration is given to what journalism education might do at the precollege level to promote news literacy among children who spend increasing amounts of their time finding and sharing information online.
Fortunately, some academic leaders are undertaking new initiatives, such as the new Graduate School Journalism Scholarship for students with undergraduate computer science degrees. However, we must do more to prevent a widening gap between academic preparation and the technological and economic forces of the digital age into which students will emerge. And the consequence could be that the valued place journalists have long held in our democratic process could be endangered.
Seeking a New Approach
There are ways to act on critical aspects of these problems. For example, while it’s not unusual for middle and high school English teachers to have students create print and online newspapers and magazines as a way to teach writing and information gathering, journalism education—including media literacy—needs to be more directly infused into the curricula. Multimedia research and communications skills are essential for students as they become critical consumers and producers of information and news; but they must also take to heart the rights and responsibilities that accompany this privilege.
To do this requires the development of a degree track for teachers with certifications in language arts, art education, and computer science. Therefore, undergraduate journalism education should offer a liberal arts track and an education track, just as happens often with other liberal arts disciplines.
Concern is now being expressed about the future of investigative reporting as newsroom staffs and reporting resources are cut. So I offer some examples of how such an approach might help in this regard:
If middle and high school students practiced the skills of online journalism in the course of their studies—researching public records, assembling databases from information they gathered, doing podcasts of interviews and their own production—then their lifelong connection to news and to the importance of its reliability could be strengthened.
Young people taught in this way might be more likely to enter the newsgathering field, either as journalists or as publishing entrepreneurs.
Even the majority of students who don’t become newsgatherers might become more civically engaged, perhaps using online sites such as YouTube as places to practice their own local watchdog reporting.
The challenge for journalists—and journalism educators—is to think about ways to create dynamic curricula to enhance the practice of journalism. Such a challenge lends itself to the development of new and closer partnerships among journalists, technology specialists involved with communications tools, economists looking at new business models, and educators working with the next generation of potential journalists.
Adrian Holovaty, a programmer involved with journalism Web sites, eloquently argues that journalists need to move beyond the linear narrative and think of stories as chunks of data to be segmented and cross-referenced so readers can easily find what interests them. His new direction relies on the database capabilities of content management systems. But Holovaty’s experience working in newsrooms has shown him that for this to happen, those who manage newsrooms need to learn to treat their technology people as partners, not as mere support staff. In the future, especially if students emerge from school with greater adeptness with technology, this divide might be lessened.
But Holovaty goes further in proposing that journalists abandon hard news storytelling in favor of database-driven presentations. This question is one I’ve been researching with a computer scientist. Her background is in computational linguistics and gaming; mine is in literary journalism and narrative theory. Together we are trying to create a prototype storytelling engine that delivers chunks of story content from a database that is programmed to allow the end-user flexibility and control while ensuring that related chunks of material—which might be text, image, audio or video—are presented in a sequence that preserves context and coherence. We are well on our way to designing the information architecture for the prototype. We presented our research at the 2007 summer conference of the New Media Consortium. Notes on the project, including links to the slides from the presentation, are available at the blog, The Nancybelle Project.
It’s impossible to know how well such content management systems will function as future tools of journalists in terms of their power, flexibility and esthetics. What we do know is that undergraduate and graduate journalism curricula need to provide opportunities for students to participate in and reflect on the intersection of storytelling and technology. Exposure to linear and nonlinear storytelling should already be happening. As for technological knowledge, it will be important for students to understand the limits of artificial intelligence technology, because those limits constrain the ability to use gaming as a journalistic medium. They ought also to grapple with ethical questions raised by the semantic recognition programs and recommender systems that power the most advanced search engines and e-commerce marketing software programs.
High-quality research will inevitably lead to new communication technologies and techniques, which can be employed earlier in the educational process and will likely end up in the toolbox of future journalists. If this approach to journalism education takes hold, it might also improve the media literacy and civic engagement of nonjournalists. And in the digital world of our future, those who see themselves as readers today are increasingly likely to become publishers and editors of their own words tomorrow.
Kim Pearson is an associate professor of English and interactive multimedia at The College of New Jersey, a contributing editor for BlogHer.org, and former contributing writer for the Online Journalism Review. She is a senior investigator in a research project funded by Microsoft Corporation that teaches advanced computer science skills using a multidisciplinary game-design curriculum.