Why don’t journalism students care about journalism? This is a question that is frequently asked by teachers, professionals and students. Although it is a compelling question, it is a bit misleading.
Certainly there are students whose interests in journalism are superficial and without a greater sense of purpose. Many students are unable to see past the glamorous exterior of’ ‘making news’ and wish for nothing more than to become celebrity reporters.’
This perceived lack of concern, however, stems from a larger issue, namely students’ struggle to grasp journalistic ideals and merge them with the ‘real world’ practices of journalism.
In the ideal world, a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth, so says the Project for Excellence in Journalism.’ This is not an idealistic absolute truth, but a practical pursuit of truth. The compiling of facts and the search for evidence is ongoing and subject to continual change.’ Therefore, the role of journalism in a democratic society is to help provide people with the reliable, accurate, up-to-date information they need to participate and be good citizens.’
This journalistic obligation or commitment to an informed citizenry is supposedly what gives journalists and journalistic organizations credibility.’ Ideally, this means that journalism should provide information for and be representative of all groups within society. In turn, people rely upon news sources and become loyal audiences that create a continual demand for accurate and unbiased information.
This unbiased or ‘objective’ reporting is an issue of debate among journalists. While no person is free of bias or opinions, journalistic objectivity relies on the idea that there is a specialized technique for authenticating information that prevents a person’s individual biases from influencing their professional accuracy. In other words, the reporting is impartial, not the journalist.
This impartial process requires that journalists be removed from the information they cover. This independence, in theory, creates dependability. Certainly, there are types of writing (for example, this very article) that are partial to certain ideas or views. However, these forms of writing gain authority from accuracy and evenhandedness.
The press, sometimes referred to as the ‘fourth estate,’ has the unique role of acting as watchdog over those in power to protect against tyranny and absolutism. The U.S. Constitution protects and supports this role under the First Amendment. Journalists, therefore, have a responsibility to safeguard this freedom by not corrupting or demeaning it through thoughtless or selfish practices.
This kind of social responsibility requires that journalists have a personal moral code. To uphold fairness and journalistic ‘truth,’ journalists must be able and willing to give voice to these principles as well as live by them. This is no small task. As students learn to develop their journalistic skills, they are simultaneously trained to abide by a given code of ethics and a set of principles about how to practice journalism. Learning is one thing, practicing is another.
In the real world, truth is far more difficult to determine and by some accounts is non-existent. Grappling with the process of reporting truthfully, while realizing that the facts may change, can be daunting for students. Although students of journalism are frequently reminded to cover an issue or topic objectively, the suggestion that we are able to remove ourselves entirely from research or reporting is difficult, if not impossible.
Each individual cannot help but bring their own unique perspective to their work. Attempting to maintain a balance between journalistic standards and realistic expectations is not easy.
Many students and new journalists suffer from an ideological schizophrenia as they try to negotiate and merge what they know with what they hope to attain. At times, this struggle can be so immobilizing that students abandon all attempts to adhere to these rules, giving the impression that they do not care about journalism.
Add to this dilemma, the issues faced in the professional world of journalism, specifically those of ‘mainstream’ media and the disaffected nature of journalism students takes on a new dimension. In an environment of shrinking media ownership and decreasing employment opportunities, the professional world provides a very small number of role models who demonstrate a strong grasp of the previously mentioned journalistic principles. Journalism as a money-making industry rather than journalism as a public service is the rule not the exception.
The business practices of journalism often conflict with the ethical or idealistic practices of journalism, thus giving professionals and students fewer avenues for producing the kinds of work to which the ideals of journalism aspire. Finding the types of media outlets that allow journalists to participate in healthy, diverse discourse that, in turn, promotes honest democratic discussion is increasingly hard to find.
Rather than asking why journalism students do not care about journalism, perhaps we should ask why students struggle to understand what practicing journalism really means. It may not hurt to consider whether the very definition of journalism should to be redefined to better suit current realities.