By DeWayne Wickham, Morgan/Journalism & Communication*
In truth, the current crisis in journalism has more to do with how we do our work than how we deliver the news. Still, too many people see the troubled state of print and television news and ask the question: “Is journalism dying.” My answer is that it is alive and doing exceedingly well. People who think otherwise confuse news delivery systems with the news those platforms deliver.
This may not be so apparent in the midst of a noisy chorus of too-close-to-the-forest-to-see-the-trees assessments of the changes that have befallen the journalism profession. Declining newspaper circulation numbers, falloffs in news magazine readership, and the near annihilation of local radio news broadcasts have led a lot of people to conclude that journalism is on its deathbed.
Even some journalists have worried aloud about their craft’s life span. Last year, for example, Matthew Hartvigsen, the content director for DeseretNews.com, wrote that the “future of journalism is yet to be determined.” The proof he offered of journalism’s endangered state was a Pew Research Center report (The State of the News Media 2013) that looked at how the financial problems of news organizations are whittling away at their audiences.
But to link journalism inextricably to the declining health of newspapers, television and radio news operations is to take Marshall McLuhan’s contention that “the medium is the message” to a maddening extreme. While the journalism professional is undergoing some seismic changes that are shrinking demand for newspapers and contracting audiences for television and radio newscasts, Americans have an insatiable appetite for news. This is due in no small part to the great change that has occurred in how people get news and information. According to a 2013 Pew Research Internet Project, 55% of Americans have smartphones and 60% of them use this highly portable technology to access the Internet.
Another 2013 report, this one by the Pew Research Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, concluded that 45% of people who get their news from Twitter are 18-29 years old, and 34% of the people who turn to Facebook for news are in the same age range.
While technological advances have altered the news audience and how people receive their news, what worries me is the quality of the news content they get. Determining what is news, and what is not, is the real existentialist crisis that faces journalism today. And it is a fire that is fueled largely by the unmet need to reconsider how we define news, and rethink what it means to be a journalist.
“News,” I used to tell my students when I was in the classroom, “is what those who get to decide, say it is.” But for much of my professional career this subjectivity has been held in check by the hierarchy of “deciders” who oversee the newsgathering process of traditional news organizations. This began to change as technology has given an ever-growing number of people the ability to be reporter, editor, copy editor, and publisher, all rolled up into one, on a social media site.
But in too many cases, these people are news aggregators, not news reporters. They cross-dress as journalists but rarely subject their news decisionmaking or copy to the common protocols of mainstream journalism. Still, they are able to use blogs and other social media platforms to rapidly distribute the unprocessed information they generate—often with greater speed than traditional journalists.
The challenge that faces the journalism profession—and journalism education—is not so much to fight this new generation of mass communicators as it is to help train them. To (as best we can) heavily arm them with a respect for ethical standards, a proficiency in the use of journalism’s new tools, and a knowledge of the global village they’ll have to cover. This emphasis on ethical and knowledge-based journalism should be the new normal in journalism education.
Most of what people know, they learn from media. But to the extent that the information people get is warped by the flawed reporting of journalists who bring little knowledge to the coverage of a story, invalidated by factual errors, unacknowledged conflicts of interests, or poor communication skills, it will injure their ability to make good decisions. The ripple effects of this damage could plunge us into an information wilderness in which truth and accuracy are hard to distinguish from untruths and inaccuracy.
This challenge is proof enough that journalism—far from dying—is a dynamic profession in the throes of change. And journalism educators must be the first responders in the fight to keep the work of journalists relevant—and informed. We have to find ways to train as many would-be journalists as possible to subject their reporting and writing to acceptable standards that ensure newsworthiness. We can do this through the retooling of traditional courses in degree programs. But we must also fashion certificate programs that will draw bloggers into the family of professional journalists, perhaps via Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that might also make journalism education attractive to people in marginalized communities and developing countries.
If we do these things well, the future of journalism will be bright. If not, it will surely become a profession that is filled with as many beguiling imitators as a WWE wrestling ring.
*Professor Wickham is Dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State. He writes a weekly column for USA Today and has worked for US News & World Report, The Baltimore Sun, and others. The author of four books, Wickham is a founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. His dean’s web page begins, “Welcome to the future.”
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