From where I sit - Journalistic prejudice

March 22, 2012

Heard the one about the academic pondering obscure points of theory in his ivory tower while real people get on with real work in the real world? How about the saying: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach"?

These outdated ideas of the academy were aired during the debate in Australia this month surrounding the independent media inquiry led by Ray Finkelstein, a former federal justice. Its report, informed by submissions from 49 scholars, recommends the establishment of a government-funded regulatory body, the "News Media Council". Many newspaper publishers are, naturally, against it.

But apart from the debate over whether such a council would threaten freedom of speech, I'm interested in the views of academics expressed by some editors, particularly those at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Limited group. (I need here to reveal that I was a News Limited journalist for much of the 2000s before I became an academic, and had an enjoyable existence writing travel, features and news articles for the publisher.)

In a recent article in The Weekend Australian, associate editor Cameron Stewart claims that journalism teachers are, increasingly, not journalists themselves. He quotes the editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell: "The media studies academic class is far removed from the concerns of viewers and readers and is engaged in a sociological project to change the world and its image. That is, to infect people with progressive left ideology."

The article ignores the fact that "media" is not just about journalism: in fact, journalism is only a small part of the media. Mr Mitchell confuses media studies with journalism practice and studies. At the university where I work, media studies is no longer compulsory for journalism majors: in fact, the two disciplines are taught at separate schools.

Media studies is a broad analysis of all media, including music, books, games and television, and of related theory, ethics, law and history. It analyses dominant ideologies and is not supposed to be vocational. Some media studies teachers, myself included, are former journalists; most come from other disciplines.

As well as practice, journalism majors do journalism studies, which is the theory and critical analysis of journalism and its historical context. They can also take elective units in other disciplines, including media studies, to give them a broader knowledge base.

Mr Stewart asserts that "few journalism teachers have recent experience in the profession". This is not what I have found: most journalism teachers I've met are or have been journalists. I will concede, however, that as a former tabloid and magazine journalist, I am an unusual member of the academy. I did my PhD while working as a reporter at the Sunday Herald Sun and Woman's Day. I believe that tabloid journalists are under-represented at journalism schools.

While Mr Stewart attacks the schools for taking too many students, he then criticises them for offering a broader education than journalism practice alone would afford. But as he says, only 1 in 10 will find a job in the mainstream media. The rest will have to seek work in related areas, so it's just as well that they know more about the media than journalism practice alone. For my money, that is introducing them to the real world.

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