Teaching Journalism – Like Catching Blancmange?

It is now a fortnight since Week Zero in the journalism department of Coventry University – two weeks since the 50-plus on our courses arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and full of expectation of a life of hackery ahead. Nearly 8,000 others arrived at universities with journalism somewhere in their course title.

But with real journalism jobs dropping like autumn leaves (9,500 disappeared between 2007 and 2009), are we in ‘hackademia’ guilty of selling a chimera?

First, just what is modern journalism and how should we teach it? Are bloggers journalists? Are tweeters? What about ‘citizen journalists’? Local radio presenters? Is there such a thing as a journalism ‘profession’ and a canon of professional norms and practices to pass on? Writes John Mair…

The internet has made much about print journalism seem from the Dark Ages – positively dinosauric. So too it will prove for journalism education. Any student graduating from Coventry or anywhere else in three years time without web skills – writing, recording, editing for the internet – may as well forget it in terms of a career.

Teaching modern journalism is a bit like catching blancmange. No sooner do you think you have it than it has moved elsewhere. By definition, all of us former hacks in the academe are out of date in our practice. Sad, but an iron truth. I for one think we might be better teaching reading, writing and computer skills than highfalutin stuff about the place of journalism in the world order and the semiotics of Rupert Murdoch.

Then we have to ask ourselves as hackademics whether we really can teach the two qualities I think are essential to any good hack – curiosity and mischief. I presented a paper in 2008 at a Chinese conference at the second-biggest media university there (10,000 students), arguing that you could not teach curiosity. There was near uproar, with media professors jumping up and harrumphing my thesis as nonsense.

They don’t go big on curiosity, and certainly not on mischief, in Chinese journalism!
Too many of the journo manqués on our course seem to lack that curiosity gene. Jon Snow, an honorary professor at Coventry, expresses it well: “I wake up in the morning, switch on the radio to the farming news and want to know what is happening and why.” 

Many of our students will be baffled by that. As to the mischief gene, that seems to have been lost in generational translation too.

Finally, is journalism really a corpus of knowledge, or is it just a series of craft skills – finding, writing and editing – applied to explain the world on a series of platforms to readers, listeners, or viewers?

Should we not firstly teach the size and shape of the world (at Oxford University it is called politics, philosophy and economics) so students can understand it before interpreting and reporting it? The sheer ignorance about how things work – or do not – amongst the wannabe Pilgers, Wheelers and Simpsons sometimes makes my hair stand on end.

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University and the inventor of the twice weekly Coventry Conversations. He is a former factual producer for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 and writes regularly on media matters.

 Many Thanks to BBC College of Journalism, www.bbc.co.uk/journalism

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