Serving the Greater Good
The idea is to turn out young professionals who are more than competent practitioners. Journalism schools need to turn out young graduates who understand the tremendous power the media possess and who actually want to use that power in socially responsible ways.
This is not a new idea to journalists or journalism educators. Colleges and universities have been concerned about journalism ethics at least since 1924, when Nelson A. Crawford, head of the Department of Industrial Journalism at Kansas State Agricultural College, published “The Ethics of Journalism” with the distinguished house of Alfred A. Knopf. His aim was to contribute to a “professional consciousness” and an ethical philosophy that was “realistic, discerning, intellectually honest, and applicable to the press as a social institution.”
Professor Crawford, we're still working on it.
This fall the School acquired an opportunity to work on it as never before. The School has been selected as the first site in a campus wide initiative to help CU-Boulder students develop a stronger sense of social responsibility.
The campus' new Institute for Ethics and Civic Engagement has awarded the School $40,000. The School has matched that with $40,000 of its own to pioneer a series of new courses, conduct research and meet with professionals – all for the purpose of enabling our students to see clearly how the communication professions can serve the public good.
It is heartening to see the new institute recognize the importance of the School in launching this initiative. The institute's planning group has asserted that civic and ethical responsibility comprise a cornerstone of higher education. Civic and ethical responsibility are also at the heart of journalism education.
The First Amendment identifies “the press” (now “the media”) as the only commercial enterprise in American society deserving of explicit constitutional protection. With this extraordinary degree of freedom lies an equally extraordinary degree of responsibility – responsibility to sustain a system of public communication that benefits democratic processes such as opinion formation, public deliberation, grass-roots mobilization and policymaking. Through the mass media, children and adults learn the values that bind them as communities and as a society, and through the media they learn the processes of civic participation. Basically, media are the agency in American society most capable of “reconnecting the dots” between citizens and the institutions that are meant to serve them.
Media have often failed in these roles in recent years by discarding the notion that they themselves are pieces of a community's fabric and adopting instead the notion that they are detached observers and, increasingly, detached critics with no stake in their communities. Higher education has often suffered the same shortcoming: Rather than becoming involved in helping communities solve problems, and nurturing in students a spirit of participation toward such solutions, the academy too often has stepped to the sidelines, content to criticize from afar.
So, one of higher education's great challenges in the 21st century is also one of journalism education's great challenges: to encourage young adults to fulfill their obligations to serve a greater good.
These ideas are nothing new to this School, of course. The first sentence of our mission statement reads, “The School of Journalism and Mass Communication believes that a well-informed public is the basis of democracy and that the media are responsible for providing the information and critical analysis the public requires to think and act responsibly.” Like most schools of journalism and mass communication, however, we have instilled these values at various times in various courses, without a sustained theme. This project enables us, for the first time, to meet this challenge head-on and systematically.
The faculty is meeting to start planning the project, but we think it will have these features:
The campus institute began with an informal series of discussions among administrators and faculty – much of the conversation dealing with the difficult concepts of character, citizenship and leadership. Educators – especially at public universities – have to be careful not to insist on one particular strain of morality, but rather to give students the tools to explore these qualities in themselves – and the desire to explore them. This approach resonated well with a number of people drawn into the conversation, including the anonymous donor of the gift that launched the institute. The donor, I'm told, strongly suggested that the pilot for this initiative be based in journalism.
A vote of confidence in journalism educators? An indictment of the current profession? I'm not sure – perhaps both. It's pretty clear, however, that when journalists are regularly discovered plagiarizing or fabricating material, when Paris Hilton's love life gets larger headlines than an important issue both presidential candidates have avoided, when political “commentary” is often an assemblage of clever insults, we know that there's work to be done.
The situation is enormously complicated, and no one course or symposium is going to transform professional practice, but that doesn't mean we can't try to create a more responsible future for this profession, one student at a time.
This year the integrity of CU students (and CU personnel) has been much maligned. Those of us who work here see students who care deeply about how they will use the skills they are learning – not only SJMC students, but students across campus. We have an unusual opportunity to help create a different sort of reputation for CU students, and we're seizing it.
I would welcome your reaction and especially your suggestions.