I fell in love with journalism when I was 21. I stumbled onto the paper at my university after taking my first news-writing course as an elective. The smell of the ink and cigarette smoke, the clack of typewriters and a few keyboards (just arriving), along with the serious, likeable and intelligent students that worked there immediately grabbed me. I had only recently discovered I could be a decent writer, and I had always been interested in history and current events. Maybe most importantly, I had a chip on my shoulder and a problem with authority.
Many of these people toiling were misfits and mutants, fiercely dedicated to an ideal. That whole mystique of the press as an institution struck something deep in a young person looking for a calling. I loved the tradition of its people standing up and telling truth to power after being clever enough to ferret it out. I wanted to be one of them.
So, I went to journalism school and became a reporter. I worked as a journalist for 15 years. I kept striving to be one of those clever, plucky reporters I had admired in college. I risked my life a few times, going to very bad places and talking to people who had guns. I was threatened a few times and every mayor hated me. I learned public documents, the art of the interview and how to tell a good story in an economical way. I won awards and at some point along the way I realized I was the real thing – a newspaper reporter.
I also realized it was time to get out. I realized my news judgment, as well as everyone in the news business, is biased. I also witnessed a distinct tilt to the left among many of my colleagues. I remained firmly rooted in my right-leaning views, which I kept to myself while making every effort to remain objective as a newsman.
And then the business hit hard times. The business end began intruding regularly into our news calculations. My company bought and sold papers. One day I woke up and found they’d sold mine. The business of news is not the same thing as being a news reporter. They don’t teach you that in journalism school, you learn that on your own.
I loved my journalism education and on most days, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But would I send one of my children to a journalism school now?
I don’t think so, at least if they want to be a journalist. A political science degree would do a much better job of enriching their knowledge of politics, even if those in political science also tend to lean too far to the left. A degree in business or in engineering would certainly give my children a better chance of securing a job in journalism because it would give them a specialty that they could cover as a journa
And how will a journalism school address the main issue facing journalists today – that of lost credibility? Journalism may be suffering financially, but it suffers far more from a growing lack of credibility and intellectual honesty. The big institutions, can no longer get away with ignoring the issues of bias, context and inaccuracy in their news pages.
Pew research indicates that over the years there has been a growing disconnect between the public and the extent to which it believes what the media reports. The disconnect is even greater when split among political parties. Journalism is changing to a more advocacy-based model. New forms of media follow this new outline. It seems that much of the public, especially those who lean to the right politically, have decided to cash the new media’s credibility checks, after having so many of the old media’s bounce.
What can journalism schools do to address the perception that they teach journalists a liberal bias? How many journalism schools have at least one professor who hammers home the theories of Karl Marx in his or her classes? How many journalism professors preach objectivity out of one side of their mouth and then openly campaign for liberal politicians, often professing their personal opinions in class? How many journalism professors look at the financial success and rising ratings of conservative media and dismiss it out of hand as biased and “not real journalism?”
Point-of-view and advocacy journalism may not completely be the future, but it will most definitely be a part of the new media landscape. And until journalism schools take a deep look at themselves and examine how they prepare their students for this landscape, until they teach that a news story, no matter how objective, is just one person’s understanding of how the news is presented, they will continue to send out students unprepared for the media landscape they face.
Journalism schools should teach students how to gather information, how to think critically, how to conduct an interview and how to do the research necessary to tell a good story. They need to teach their students how to recognize their biases and live with them. Stories need to be researched, balanced and fair. Leave the bias out of it.
Right now, I don’t think enough journalism schools are trying to do that. And until they do, I don’t think I could tell my child to go to journalism school, no matter how much I enjoyed my experience.
Wally Sparks is the pseudonym of a professional journalist who worked over 15 years in the news business as a reporter and editor. Sparks currently has a public relations connection to a University.