Why Support Journalism Education
by Dean Edward Wasserman
It's one of the ironies of the times: scarcity amid abundance. In the media sphere, thanks to the explosive growth of digital technologies, the world teems with channels brimming over with talk, topical reports, pictures, video—all the trappings of a network of unprecedented scope for public information and engagement.
That's the abundance. The scarcity has to do with quality: just how little of that raging flood of online information is any good. The digital public square draws the enthusiasm and energies of legions of content creators. But they don’t have the training or analytical skills to verify and understand the realities they’re reporting, and to put them into the broad and meaningful context that real news demands.
Some weigh in on matters of wide public concern with postings that draw tens of thousands of hits. But they don't have the training to recognize what kind of reporting they need to do to ensure their postings are solidly grounded and fair, nor the skills that it takes to do that reporting and convey their findings in eloquent and compelling ways.
And as the media's own economic model changes, with content increasingly saturated with undisclosed commercial messages, they aren't schooled to be mindful of professional values and wary of topics in which they're personally entangled or to recognize the ethical pitfalls of accepting compensation from people or entities that figure in their reporting.
In this way the furious flood of Internet-borne content—the celebrity reports, the online fistfights, the whole panoply of near-news--has made it obvious to thoughtful readers just how profoundly this differs from genuine journalism, and how desperately we all need journalism to flourish and grow.
By that I mean journalism that’s created to inform and illuminate; that is dedicated to bringing to light publicly significant realities in ways that engage people in addressing them and, when warranted, correcting them; that is respectful of its subjects, passionate about truthfulness, and driven by a deep wish to serve the public and to be a force for social betterment.
Yet despite that genuine public need, and despite the immense financial success of online information search engines and aggregators that broker the work of journalists for their own gain, the further irony is that the traditional resources that used to educate and train the rising generation of journalists are imperiled. Again, scarcity amid abundance.
A huge change has been within the news industry itself: Even a generation ago the business was composed of publishers and broadcasters who understood that regardless of how educated their prospective workforce might be, they themselves would have to set aside money and staff time for training. Now, facing their own financial squeeze, employers increasingly demand entry-level hires to arrive for work with their own toolbox of skills.
That means journalism educators have a more urgent task to perform than ever. Yet the cost of preparing these students for the 21st century workplace is also greater than ever, since they are expected to be proficient across a variety of platforms and technologies. For students to be fully capable of gathering and telling stories using print, pictures and sound, audio, and digital graphics, schools need to constantly upgrade and modernize their infrastructure and inventories of equipment—from desktops to laptops to smartphones—from production facilities to studios.
And that takes money.
In addition, the need to ensure that students have honest, hands-on experience in reporting, producing and publishing high-quality work while they're in school, so they can present themselves as fully qualified for the practical realities of the workplace, further ramps up the intensity of instruction and supervision they need.
And that takes money.
And all that comes at a time when the great public universities that have been the backbone of journalism higher education—places like Missouri, North Carolina-Chapel Hill and, yes, UC Berkeley—face steady cuts in the proportion of their revenue that comes from tax coffers, and as a result, unrelenting pressure to discover or devise alternative sources of money. As recently as 1968 UC Berkeley could depend on the state of California for 95 percent of its operating funds. Now the number is 12 percent.
To their credit, private philanthropy—especially visionary foundations—has stepped up over the past decade to help fill in a similar falloff in funding for public interest reporting within the media. As a result top-tier reporting operations have emerged and thrived—the Center for Investigative Reporting, Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, for examples.
But those efforts have done nothing to sustain the underlying flow of skilled talent into the field—and into these robust news organizations themselves.
I doubt there has ever been a moment where the public's need for high-quality, high-impact journalism was as great—and when journalism’s own needs were as acute as they are right now.
That is why we need your help.