US journalism schools search for answers in Trump era

Tutors struggle to prepare reporters for public less interested in facts

June 23, 2019
Fake news
Source: Reuters

Two and a half years of sustained political attacks on US journalism have left university programmes determined to push back with a commitment to accuracy and modern storytelling, but less clear on whether wholesale changes in their philosophy are needed.

Increasingly, academic and journalism experts said, student education in journalism schools emphasises broader subject knowledge, especially skills involving computers and digital investigative work, along with entrepreneurial flexibility.

But when it comes to figuring out how to approach a public that seems less interested in facts and more receptive to rhetorical assaults, journalism schools do not appear ready or inclined to begin overhauling their models.

Some leaders, such as Peter Bhatia, president of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, the main body for certifying US journalism schools, saw an industry and its educational partners still assessing the harsher climate.

“That’s a work in progress,” said Mr Bhatia, editor of the Detroit Free Press.

Others, such as Charles Whitaker, professor and dean of journalism at Northwestern University, are adamant that any problems with journalism brought to light by the 2016 presidential election are not the responsibility of the schools to fix.

The election of Donald Trump certainly did expose professional failures, Professor Whitaker said, including a flawed idea that “objectivity” meant giving equal weight to opposing sides regardless of factual content. And, more specifically, he said, journalists were guilty in 2016 of taking at face value what US voters and polling data were telling them.

“We should do a better job of picking apart the arguments and laying out more information for the public to make informed choices,” Professor Whitaker said. “And I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of that.”

But those are failures of practising journalists, not of the universities training young reporters, he said. “You’re not going to lay this at the feet of journalism schools,” Professor Whitaker said.

Trump surrounded by reporters

The head of another leading US journalism school, Steve Coll of Columbia University, said that in an era in which the US president labels reporters “enemies of the people”, and domestic assignments can become as violent as overseas postings, journalism schools need to teach students to bring “an attitude of confident professionalism”, without arrogance, as they carry out a constitutional function.

“I think we’re up to the challenge,” said Professor Coll, dean of journalism at Columbia.

Journalism education was being confronted with the specific problems of the Trump era after already having struggled with other manifestations of the digital revolution, Professor Coll said. Schools teaching journalism went through a period of “drift”, he said, reacting to technological change by focusing too much on skills of short-term value and quickly outdated platforms.

“There was a sense of chasing a shiny object around the digital revolution,” Professor Coll said. “I don’t feel like that’s going on any more.”

The internet also left students struggling to define their roles, he said. Just a few years ago, “it wasn’t unusual to encounter young students who were a little bit uncertain or even confused about what journalism was any more,” he said. “There was a sense that, ‘Well, aren’t we all journalists?’”

Budding journalists and their educators might still be hunting the optimal mix of journalism-specific training and outside subject expertise, Professor Coll acknowledged. Columbia’s journalism programme operates only at the postgraduate level, and that might be the better approach overall, he said, as students arrived with a different major and often some on-the-job experience.

One of the most popular routes into journalism, Professor Coll said, involves students with technological backgrounds who discover not long into their careers that they want to work “more in the public square”. Such students are invaluable, he said, because unlike journalists of the past, who might have chosen their profession to avoid mathematics, the ability to analyse data was key to uncovering how leaders in society exercise their power.

More challenging, for now, was finding academic staff who can synthesise those skills. “It’s hard, I’ve learned, to try to add to a faculty these kinds of abilities, because they’re a little bit untraditional; they don’t always fit well in a legacy system,” Professor Coll said.

Journalism schools also needed to help students develop entrepreneurial approaches to practising their trade, Mr Bhatia said.

At Columbia, one statistician and computer coding expert on the faculty offered no-credit breakfast sessions at 7am on Mondays to teach such skills, Mr Coll said. He regularly attracted some 80 students – about a third of the journalism programme’s entire enrolment.

“There’s a real understanding that this is valuable, it’s necessary, it will give you an advantage.”


Print headline: US journalism schools seek stronger story for Trump era

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Reader's comments (1)

The underlying problem is that conservative and radical right voices are under-represented on campuses. There is no evidence in this article that the public is less interested in facts than previously.

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