The Seven Laws of Journalism – This Semester
As we enter the home stretch of summer my thoughts are turning to the fall semester and how I will teach 20 first-year college students how to write like journalists. Many of them will be in “communication” and won’t necessarily want to become journalists. This task of educating can be daunting but for reasons you might not have considered.
I get the impression that some in the academy as well as in the profession think that students don’t know what journalism is because young people can’t differentiate between newspapers and blogs, the Evening News and the Colbert Report, or CNN.com and The O’Reilly Factor. That’s true to a degree. They do tend to lump all the genres together into “news media,” which they often deride as a personality-driven cesspool of bias (much like their parents, I presume). But, at the same time, they actually tend to define journalism too narrowly.
Most of us old-school folks have stopped thinking of news in silos — print, broadcast, online; cable, network, public, corporate — and have become comfortable seeing journalism as an entity that crosses platforms and business models. We see that it can occur in big city newsrooms, on neighborhood micro sites, or at the hands of a foreign dissident with an instantly transmitted cell phone video. We’ve grown with the new technology, so even if we were resistant at first, we can spot real news among the digital information din. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and obscenity, we know it when we see it.
Students, on the other hand and perhaps counter-intuitively, think of journalism in old-school ways. “News,” as they define it, is dry and objective — and generally to be avoided unless you’re a hard-core politics junkie. It belongs in the domain of newspapers, local television news, and hourly newscasts. No way do they believe that blogs or social networking sites like Facebook — or even features on Slate or in Vanity Fair — can be part of news. Oh yeah, and they don’t even use the newest darling of online media –Twitter — unless their journalism teachers have forced them to.
So, you can see that the job of a journalism teacher encompasses much more than showing a class a newspaper and saying “here’s what news is. Let’s learn to write like this.” News isn’t so neatly compartmentalized. Students have to be able to find it in the morass of what masquerades as news. But they also have to expand their idea of what constitutes this particular information product because access to news delivery is so much more porous, and gatekeeping so much less rigid.
What has tended to happen in journalism schools, from what I can gather, is that teachers teach students about what it was like in the past when newspapers defined news, instruct students on how to write like it was back then, and then try to bring students up to speed on the complexities of the current situation. There’s a lot of talk about objectivity, opinion vs. news, the principles of journalism, and the role of journalism as a major purveyor of democracy and justice for the little guy.
In my experience, this approach seems to create confusion, problems of credibility, and a bit of eye rolling. And, it’s getting harder to sustain this linear outlook as the old news world grows ever dimmer in memory. Eighteen-year-olds aren’t really interested in revisiting The Front Page or even All The President’s Men. They care about making a living wage and having a life — and they don’t necessarily see journalists as heroes.
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