Journalism educators need to get passionate about First Amendment freedoms and responsibilities — on-campus and off

Monday, December 28, 1998

Reporters and editors, correspondents and news directors are held in roughly the same regard as used car salesman, lawyers and members of Congress these days. So why would anyone aspire to be a journalist?


An even more interesting question: Who would encourage such aspirations?


That’s the job of journalism educators, of course.


Despite the deluge of media criticism and press bashing that permeate public discourse and dinner table conversation, not much is said about the role of these educators. Yet they are the ones who mold the minds and create the credentials of the journalists who determine what we read in our newspapers and view and hear in our newscasts.


In other words, journalism educators play a vital role, an increasingly challenging and complex one.


In the classroom, journalism educators are pressured to find new and better ways to teach the fundamentals of news gathering and reporting. They must teach their young charges how to be fact finders, storytellers, gatekeepers, and truth seekers. They also have to teach the internal conflicts among these basics: how the telling of the story can get in the way of the facts and how the gate keeper must temper the zeal of the truth seeker. Negotiating these conflicts may be the business of the student, but reconciling those conflicts is the task of the educator.


In the journalism schools, deans and administrators struggle to define themselves and their place in the university. Are they more like trade schools or are they scholarly enterprises embracing a multitude of disciplines and subjects from communications theory to speech therapy to journalism? Should public relations and advertising be part of the journalism program? Does each student need to know the skills of writing, broadcasting, graphics, videography and web design in order to be prepared for the 21st century newsroom?


Outside academe, the challenges for educators are equally daunting. Newsroom managers want journalism graduates who combine journalistic skills with knowledge of the economic, technical and competitive trends afflicting the industry. A young journalist wanting to get ahead must have some idea of “full-time equivalents,” “dark time,” “churn” and the budget process as well as newsgathering techniques.


Aside from all of this, there is an even larger challenge for today’s journalism educators, and that is to make manifest the moral dimension of their calling. Now more than ever, the teacher of journalism must sharply raise the profile of the driving force behind journalists and journalism.


There is democratic imperative for a free and independent press, and that demands much of those who teach journalists and journalism. They serve as keepers of a flame that would flicker and fade if left to the tender mercies of those on deadline, who are after all rewarded for producing copy not rationales.


Journalism’s academic community has a mandate beyond the classroom or the school: To describe and defend the First Amendment rights and values that undergird not just freedom of the press in the abstract but other free-speech activities on and off campus.


Journalism education, no less than its professional counterpart, must have a soul; it must be driven to serve the First Amendment. Too often, too many journalism educators are friends of the First Amendment the same way a biologist is a friend of the bug. The First Amendment has to be more than a specimen or a mere object of study.


Too many journalism educators remain silent when free-speech issues arise on their campuses. They allow violations of student and faculty First Amendment rights to go unchallenged. They ignore the protections of tenure and submit to orthodoxy of thought and policy.


Quite simply, when freedom of speech issues arise, too many educators fail to make it clear to their colleagues and their communities that it is quite possible to stand up for the freedom without endorsing the speech.


They must show their students, especially, that preaching the First Amendment is not enough. They must practice it, too.


When they do that, they put forth a convincing response to the question of why they choose to be journalism educators.


In addition to teaching the skills, they get an opportunity to demonstrate to their students that there is more fulfillment in informing rather than in influencing, that there is more satisfaction in empowering others than seeking power for oneself.


They get an opportunity to teach their students to trust information over secrecy and to trust people over their self-appointed guardians.


Most importantly, they get an opportunity to improve and expand a noble and necessary endeavor, to set an example as well as a standard, and to inspire as well as to instruct.


Paul McMasters can be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.