Journalism education: matters of principle(s) from WJEC

Some discussion has been emerging about the journalism education principles (full text here) that were issued at the WJEC — in a few blog posts and comments etc such as those by:

Mindy McAdams (Teaching Online Journalism blog, University of Florida)

Martin Hirst (Ethical Martini blog, Auckland University of Technology)

Rebecca MacKinnon (RConversation blog, University of Hong Kong) — more WJEC reflections here

Guy Berger (Conversant blog, Rhodes University) — article in the SA Mail & Guardian

It was good to meet the latter three at the WJEC.

I have mixed feelings about the declaration itself. It’s more descriptive than aspirational or, indeed, inspirational — an opportunity missed?

More positively, the principles emphasise the importance of journalism practice, “a strong vocational orientation” and “experiential learning” (principle 7), and “strong links to media industries” (principle 8). And “journalism educators should be a blend of academics and practitioners” (principle 3) — although I’m not clear whether this means every individual or collectively.

However, there is no reference to freedom, democracy, human rights, freedom of speech or of the press, censorship, media ownership etc. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the diversity of the organisations involved, including associations from Africa, China, Europe, North America and Russia, and of the political and cultural context in which they operate. I gather that the phrases “civil society” and “public service” dominated the discussions to agree the declaration — and neither appears in that form.

In part, the declaration probably reflects the ‘lowest common denominator’ effect — and key phrases such as “the effective and responsible practice of journalism” “serve the public” and “public interest obligations” are left open and undefined, and thus open to different (even divergent) interpretations. If you’re feeling cynical, try inserting “whatever that means”… (to add to the “where practical” phrases already present in places).

I would have liked it to say more about the teaching and learning of journalism. It can make a huge difference, and tends to be neglected — the focus being mostly on the content. Both need to be seen together, I believe.

Having said all this, it’s quite an achievement to pull together a statement of this kind, however imperfect. Work in progress, you might say.

Another factor is the purpose of the declaration, of course — and when he presented it to the WJEC session, Guo Ke from Shanghai International Studies University emphasised its role in representing journalism education to others. He’s pictured (right) with a slide making this point.

I wonder who will be using the declaration, and how. Some at WJEC suggested it might be of most use to journalism educators in developing countries and emerging democracies, particularly where they face state controls and other constraints. Guy Berger from Rhodes University suggests it could help to “reinvigorate journalism teaching and improve its effects on African media”.

In my situation, I don’t envisage using it much. The priority for editors and employers (of my students) will continue to be questions such as “are you turning out students who can do the job?” and “have they got a solid grasp of news, reporting, writing and interviewing?”

As for the position of journalism in the university world, I suspect academics in other disciplines would look more to what’s going on in practice (outcomes) rather than descriptive statements. But there was plenty of interesting discussion about that at WJEC — a subject for another post sometime.

Finally, a modest prediction for where the WJEC declaration will crop up: look out for journal articles referencing and/or discussing the principles. As well as blogs, of course!

5 Comments

  1. Amid all the sniping at the declaration, I think you’re right to say “it’s quite an achievement to pull together a statement of this kind, however imperfect.” A work in progress, yes. And like the U.S. Constitution (and others), it can be amended over time.

    It’s really tough in some countries to produce meaningful journalism education. You have some journalists who cannot teach and some academics who have never practiced journalism. You have a syllabus that emphasizes the lofty goals of righting wrongs and exposing corruption, but when the student goes out on her first internship, she will learn that no journalist in her country does those things.

    So I admire the declaration as a foundation stone that everyone managed to agree on. It has a lot of the right stuff in it. It’s not too long and not too pompous. It’s a good base on which to build.

  2. Mindy puts it a bit strongly in saying that “no journalist” rights wrongs or exposes corruption. But there is a general point that crops up from this: does humdrum day-to-day reportage have any (potential) relevance to the lofty stuff? To me, it’s a spectrum of degrees – and of awareness by each practitioner.

    I worry that Jonathan decries the absence of the lofty in the Declaration, but seems to disconnect this from the vocational stuff and questions from editors and employers. It’s a sad day if the only questions being asked are: “are you turning out students who can do the job?” and “have they got a solid grasp of news, reporting, writing and interviewing?”.

    Isn’t part of the job of a j-school to remind editors and students that there is more to journalism than this, and indeed that “the job” is unique in terms of making a difference. Perhaps not in all stories – but, depending on creative skill and critical awareness, in a good many.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Mindy and Guy.

    You both point to the enormous range of journalism out there — and I suspect that celebrity gossip (for example) was not near the top of the list for those who drew up the WJEC declaration. Or even on it!

    Covering the ‘humdrum’ is valuable experience for student reporters to lay the foundations for the ‘lofty’ (and not-so-lofty) — to learn the essentials of checking facts, using quotes, research, structuring and writing stories etc. I also find that working on local news helps students to gain a better understanding of readers’ everyday concerns — and to address these in their stories.

    The questions I mentioned tend to be the priorities for editors and employers, I suggested — not necessarily the only ones. It’s certainly part of our job to foster the wider/deeper perspective, too — indeed, plenty of employers seem to appreciate this as well. (The critical reflection blog that I’ve run with students {see other posts} seems to help them with such aspects of their learning.)

    Too bad you weren’t able to come to WJEC, Mindy, but great that you’ve joined the discussions online. I like the redesign of your blog, by the way. Plus the excellent content, of course! It wasn’t long before you and your blog came up in discussions about convergence etc in journalism education.

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