As I hunker down and begin the next phase of research for my thesis, I’m struck by the divisive nature of arguments surrounding what qualifies as journalism and who is qualified to teach it.
Recently, journalism prof Wayne McPhail made some great points about how we aren’t teaching students what they need to know in Journalism School. Since I’m also a journalism prof, this is a subject close to my heart.
I completely agree we need to be jumping into new technology with both feet, teaching our students how to create content for the variety of platforms available, and looking at alternative sources of news – which is why we have Canadian new media guru Amber MacArthur on the program advisory committee where I teach.
Unlike McPhail, I’m not writing this on an iPad, but I do use facebook and Twitter, and a variety of software applications relevant to journalism. And also unlike McPhail, I think a journalism teacher still has something to offer even if she hasn’t shot and cut a story on her smart phone.
Journalism, at its best, is about storytelling. That means everyone’s primary concern should be teaching students how to tell a good story. Secondary, are the tools used to shoot and cut, and the platform it airs on.
I have teachers in my program who have no idea how to use the latest technology – teachers the students give standing ovations to on grad night. These seasoned journalists know how to find focus, ask questions, be smart – skills you still need to know if you’re using a phone – and maybe that you need to know even more given file size is so limited.
McPhail also takes a swipe at the extremely overused person on the street interview, or asking questions of, as he puts it, “ignorant people on busy street corners”. I too have cringed at the comments of passersby caught in the lens of the camera. Perhaps the real issue is that some journalists ask stupid questions, and some stations are more concerned with filling airtime than the quality of content aired.
We need not just to, as McPhail states, understand who our audience is, but be open to the idea that our audience is knowledgeable. Just like traditional journalists shouldn’t assume there are no citizen journalists who know how to tell a story, no one should assume there aren’t informed people in our neighbourhoods.
Teaching students how to do a good “streeter” has many benefits. They learn to approach people and talk to them in person – something many have never done in the age of facebook and texting; it allows them to learn how to shoot with little preparation; to come up with open ended intelligent questions on important issues; to decide when something isn’t good enough to be aired. And wouldn’t that be a great first assignment to shoot and cut on a phone?
There are many things wrong with journalism today, but imagine for a minute if we started looking for the positive and strived to incorporate the best of old and new, traditional and emerging media. As Lee-Wright points out, “the Luddites were not thoughtless vandals opposing progress, but artisans concerned to preserve craft standards and appropriate rates of pay”. Many journalists today are in the same boat.
In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky talks about the controversy when calculators were brought into schools. Parents thought they were a passing fad and didn’t want their kids using them. Shirky says they should have been concerned with teaching children how to use a new tool well. What struck me is that no one was arguing over whether the kids needed to learn to divide.
Perhaps, if all journalism teachers and journalists of all stripes could focus on the fact that we all just want to tell really good stories, we could work together to ensure more stories, from more viewpoints, on a variety of platforms are learned and shared – starting in j-school.