VOICES: J-School’s fatal flaw

Is journalism’s next generation missing the mark?

If we’re being honest, journalism is a calling. We play doctor with words, and magic with ideas; finding creative ways to tell stories that’ve been told a thousand times, or new ways to engage with a story for the first.

For many, the media is the sole occupant of the space between the public and their most imposing institutions. Whether it’s their government, big business, military or the local hardware store. 

And for this, journalists all over the world are targeted for their ideas — often jailed or worse, killed. 

The targeting of the press comes with an exhaustive historical and contemporary precedent as well. Our ideas hold a unique potential for change, and they inspire an equally unique fear from our greatest bearers of power as a result. 

In a larger sense, we are the personification of democracy in action — an adornment of the system.  And to me, it’s an idea that every working member of the press needs to be intimately aware, and never lose sight of.

An ultimate failing of our industry is our tendency to overlook the gravity of our job. Journalism is more than just words on a page, it can be life and death — too.  

Step one of this process  should start at J-school, where students should be made familiar with the quickly changing media landscape that waits for them post-graduation; and one that outfits outgoing journalists for success in a workplace that’s become increasingly unforgiving. 

If it were only so easy.

Your first and second years in the program are a feeling out process of sorts. Students are still uneasy and unsure, and professors have to compensate for lecture halls full of tentative 19-year-old’s dumbfounded by their lessons. 

The approximation of these years are filled with practicum — almost exclusively. We’re drilled on the nuts and bolts of a story; the formatting of a page, the length of a lede, and structure of a nut graph, but completely ignore the theory that drives it. 

As we move into our senior years in the program we see much of this continue. And for many j-schooler’s: an over-emphasis on practicum leads to an under-emphasis on thinking and ideas. 

There seems a hesitancy in realizing that the thinking behind a story is fundamentally more important than its execution. 

What we’re left with is a generation of journalists that understand the ‘how’ of a story, but not the ‘why’. We’re not taught how to critically think about a narrative, or adopt our critical voice — and therein lies no expectation to examine the logic of argument, or foster a culture that learns to find value in the dissenting opinion.

For some staff, there exists a failed sense of urgency in helping students realize their intellectual identity, or discover a motis operandi of their own. A maladaptive culture where independent thought isn’t fostered, and the one size fits all approach to learning breeds a sense of rinse, repeat and regurgitate. 

The fact is: we’re looking at a generation of journalists that don’t know how to think about a story, and it’s a tragedy of our time. 

For example, despite having taken the occasional class on ethics, law and the more theoretical aspects of the job, there seems a disconnect in the translation of these ideas from professor to pupil. Our discussions of libel law, indigenous issues and the best practices of the industry seems almost intentionless, where the professor’s cursory course questions are met with the deafening silence of unwitting students.

This has become a regular trend at j-school as well, where a journalism professor proposes a question and a class full of students sits quietly in response. And rather than challenge the intellectual timidity of their students, professors are more than happy to move on with their lesson. Their attempt at student engagement is enough, and whether any of it registers is an afterthought.

Now, of course, the brunt of this burden should be shared by both J-school’s and their students, but we’re helpless in finding solutions without identifying that these issues are symptomatic of a system that’s grown tired of innovation. An education system run like a Fortune 500 business, where outcome matters more than the means of production.

From our first day, we should be challenged with questions like: why do you want to become a journalist? Why are you here? And, why do you think what you do is important? School should be the first proving ground for our competence, and serve as our first measuring stick for success in the workplace.

And as our landscape continues to turn, and we’re challenged ever-more confrontationally in the public sphere, the way you think, will be the only way to answer to the cynicism of the public. And answering these questions with reason, will be the way to the future of the industry. 

Speaking personally, I’m not concerned with finding success in the industry. Since I was a child, I was aware that I’d approach success an outsider to the system — in my experiences, and in my thinking. I worked twice as hard, read more than required, and learned to embrace the fact I wasn’t going to be like everyone else.

This is less an indictment of the system, and more an acknowledgement of its ability to set the stage for a resounding failure once in the workplace. A jarring reality for kids, parents and a public that’d expect a nearly $30,000 education to provide the opposite.

At our best, journalists should be thinkers — looking to challenge the ways people think, and call to question some of the ideas that people most hold dear. Unfortunately,  it’s a standard I feel we’ve missed.

The job is a burden of some esteem, and one that calls for far more than it’s been given — from students, and those that teach them.

The road to building better journalists starts in the classroom, but it should extend to every avenue of your life. And as the industry seems primed to face some of its toughest public challenges head-on — it’ll be our ideas, and laboured thinking, that will see us through to the next era of the industry.

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