Spring 2011 | Online Exclusives

Questioning the Western Approach to Training

‘International journalism training can have the feel of a quite rigid, institutionalized sense of what must be done even while operating in an environment of increasing contingency and dynamic change … ’

By James Miller
Walter Lippmann complained in 1919 that American journalists were doing the work of "preachers, revivalists, prophets and agitators." They reported the news "by entirely private and unexamined standards." People would look back, Lippmann observed acidly in his book "Liberty and the News," and wonder how nations that thought themselves to be self-governing "provided no genuine training schools for the [journalists] upon whose sagacity they were dependent."
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Lippmann considered making training in schools of journalism a requirement for the job. But what he really wanted, philosophically, was to model the practice of journalism on science, which had successfully harnessed the "discipline of modernized logic." Decades later, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in "The Elements of Journalism," were still pursuing the same possibly illusive end, encouraging newspeople to adopt the rigor of their five "intellectual principles of a science of reporting."

If the dream of a scientific journalism has yet to be fulfilled, the more prosaic of Lippmann's visions seems to have been realized. By 2000, so many young American journalists had majored in journalism or communications that the degree had become in effect a necessary condition for a reporting or editing job. In addition, this is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing—to train on a global scale what its proponents assertively call "world journalism"—in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or political-cultural history of North America and Western Europe.

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There is the obvious irony that these achievements occur at the very moment of mainstream journalism's great unraveling—jobs grown scarce, widespread doubt about the very purpose and nature of news, and amateurism celebrated, all an implicit challenge to the notion of training in a canon of ethics and practice.

Around the time of Lippmann's lament, however, American journalism education was already taking root in pragmatic public universities. Newspaper publishers were giving their names and money to establish such schools at private institutions. Training and occupational enrichment programs began. Lippmann himself helped convince Harvard to use the unexpected Nieman bequest in the late 1930's to offer a mid-career fellowship for journalists. After the war, publishers established the American Press Institute to give advanced training to their employees. In the 1970's publisher Nelson Poynter created his own idiosyncratic training school, which became the influential Poynter Institute.

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If there is a hodgepodge feel to the development of American journalism education and training, its one persistent, overarching theme is the jealous desire for the status of a profession, like medicine and law, for the realization of a science of journalism. Yet, from the start there was sharp debate, inside and outside the academy, about whether and how to educate and train. In 1993 journalist Michael Lewis famously dismissed "the entire pretentious science of journalism" taught in the now nearly 500 schools and departments of journalism. The two principal associations of U.S. journalism educators have issued, during the last 25 years, a series of somewhat self-defensive accreditation documents on "missions and purposes" and "viability" in the "university of the future." The University of Colorado recently moved to "discontinue" its (accredited) School of Journalism and Mass Communication for failing to resolve tensions between journalistic skills training and the conduct of media research.




Western Aid—Western Media

This unsettled history makes no appearance in the confident realm of international journalism training. There, a surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism has been actively promoted for decades. The export of media in the American style was a hallmark of Cold War modernization theory. Then, as now, development experts sought to replicate the U.S. media system, claiming it to be a necessary means of democratization.

The return to Europe of former Communist countries in the 1990's was a watershed opportunity for North American and Western European trainers of "free and independent news." Later, Western journalism training became part AUTHOR'S NOTE
Christoph Dietz’s bibliography “International Media Assistance: A Guide to the Literature 1990-2010,” was prepared for the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Forum Medien und Entwicklung (FoME) symposium, “The ‘Fourth Estate’ in Democracy Assistance,” held in November 2010.
of post-conflict, "peace-building" interventions in Southeastern Europe and Africa. It can now be found nearly everywhere in the developing world. Media assistance more generally, which includes creating an "enabling environment" of privately owned, advertising-supported media, freedom of expression laws, and technological "capacity building" as well as journalism schools has become so extensive that a German scholar, Christoph Dietz, recently produced a 30-page bibliographic guide to 20 years of literature on the subject.

Clearly, global journalism training is today an established part of Western foreign aid, well funded though little discussed and hardly visible beyond the circle of what Ellen Hume, an Annenberg Fellow in Civic Media at Central European University who has written several reports on international training efforts, approvingly called its "media missionaries."

International journalism training can have the feel of a quite rigid, institutionalized sense of what must be done even while operating in an environment of increasing contingency and dynamic change—perhaps yesterday's solutions to tomorrow's problems. In "Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support," a report issued by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) in 2007, such training efforts were described as the descendants of American muckraking's "vital tradition" that "has now spread worldwide." CIMA wants more of this, but only through additional training to ensure "standards and quality," professionalized behavior, and even the proper use of the term investigative reporting. The report wonders, "How does one produce a Woodward and Bernstein?" and considers performance evaluation that examines "the impact on a per-story basis." On the one hand, this is pretty instrumental and formulaic. On the other, the expectations are extraordinary: The report says modern muckraking is nothing less than "an important force in promoting rule of law and democratization."

America's own history of investigative reporting, like that of journalism education, is less tidy. In his paper "A Muckraking Model: Investigative Reporting Cycles in American History," Mark Feldstein explains its major appearances (in national magazines early in the 20th century and in metropolitan dailies during the fabled 1960's) as the serendipitous convergence of a literate, politically attentive public, and a commercially competitive media environment in which uncovering malfeasance is good business. James S. Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser, in their book, "Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue," reveal the gap between professed standards and actual practice by showing how mainstream investigative journalists pretend to let facts speak for themselves, while hiding their own moral judgments behind an ironic discursive style.

The stories in this issue of Nieman Reports are the work of industrious people, actively engaged in political change, putting themselves in real danger. But are they journalists? Is their work "investigative journalism" or maybe some variety of post-journalism? Is it mainly an expression of highly local knowledge, often gathered on its own terms, using its own means? Did the writers require Western training programs?

Thinking Differently

After thinking over the prospect of journalism education, Lippmann rejected it, saying of newsmaking that "There is a very small body of exact knowledge, which it requires no outstanding ability or training to deal with. The rest is in the journalist's own discretion." An overstatement, even then, but now almost an anthem for the entrepreneurs at home who are daily inventing replacements for the mainstream news practices that most international journalism training persistently advocates abroad.

Another contemporary view, unexpectedly from inside journalism's establishment, urges the need for a basic reconsideration of what constitutes reporting and how best to prepare reporters to do it. Jack Fuller, the widely experienced newspaperman who became president of the Tribune Publishing Company, devotes a chapter to the conflicted science of journalism in his 2010 book "What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism." Having discovered the findings of cognitive science, Fuller believes that the Standard Model of Professional Journalism repressed what he calls emotion at great cost to its capacity to represent the world in genuinely human terms.

Fuller recommends the active development of a new, more flexible journalistic "rhetoric" that draws creatively from alternative, even non-news forms like cinema, memoir, long-form radio, and the tabloids. Here, Fuller takes a position much more akin to the experimental practices of entrepreneurial journalists than to the idealizations of training. And his preferred means to prepare aspiring journalists sounds surprisingly like a rich liberal arts education.

Lippmann hoped for a science of journalism, but concluded that at its best it was creative work that eluded instruction in fixed routines and formulas. Fuller, nearly a century later, sees the adoption of these same rigidities as a source for the decline of mainstream journalism. There will be journalisms, plural, in the near future—new, post- and even anti-journalism—displacing familiar conventions of the news to the sidelines. The large-scale exportation of mainstream Western journalistic ethics and practices today brings to mind Marshall McLuhan's famous admonition against driving into the future while looking in the rearview mirror.

James Miller is visiting professor at the Center for the Study of Global Media and Democracy at Goldsmiths, University of London, and professor of communications at Hampshire College. His writing on media assistance includes the chapter "Retelling the News in Central Europe: Western Journalism as Democratic Discourse" in the book "Nationalist Myths and Modern Media," published in 2005 by Tauris, and "NGOs and 'Modernization' and 'Democratization' of Media," published in the journal Global Media and Communication in 2009.

1 Comment on Questioning the Western Approach to Training
Michael J. Jordan says:
March 23, 2011 at 10:10am
Thanks for this, Prof. Miller. Given your experience in Central Europe, I thought you might be interested to read about my experience teaching in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Especially, how difficult it was to get students to ask the most important question in all of journalism: 'Why?' http://jordanink.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/why-students-dont-ask-why/
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