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!

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