J-School Centennial Experience

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Quality citizenship

Posted by absolutelyape on September 11, 2008

The general idea of the Scholarly Symposium roundtables have been expressed already – I actually want to draw attention to one specific comment made during the question-and-answer portion of “Institutional Rumblings and Modernization.”

I think we’ve all heard enough laments by old (by that I mean age as well as traditionalism) newsies about the crisis of journalism with the advent of Internet news. But the discussion is still valid, is still worth picking apart, especially in light of some of the things said at tonight’s forum.

“Quality of citizenship needs as much attention as quality of journalism,” said Edmund Lambeth, a Missouri Journalism School faculty member, in response to questions about how blogging and open sourced information online could potentially hurt or hinder the role of journalists everywhere. This comment stuck out to me because it wasn’t the same… whining?… I’ve heard in the past about how out-of-touch most bloggers/citizen journalists are with what it means to really tell a story. This was a step in the direction of progress, of proactive change on the part of educators, students, journalists, and just citizens in general.

I asked Lambeth to expand on this issue when the roundtable took a short break for coffee and whatever spongey cakes were left over from the luncheon. He traced civic education problems with the general public back to the high school level, where civics, as a serious class (or series of classes), have all but disappeared from the mandatory curriculum. His point was that we, as a general public, aren’t trained from an early age to engage in commitment to public good. So when we grow up and look for a way to grab a piece of this accessible media pie (by creating a blog in seconds, by submitting our own stories and experiences to YouTube and CurrentTV and other media sites, and in many more ways) are we really interested in promoting the public good (whatever that means to us) and furthering honest, thought-provoking dialogue on current issues? Are we really interested in whether something is factual?

Well… what can we do about never really getting adequate “training” on civic duties, about not exploring what “public good” means and how our own coverage of events or issues relates to that? There’s no turning back time to take a class (would that have helped, anyway?).

What do you think? How do we, looking forward, fulfill our civic duty? And how do we translate this to others so that they exercise social responsibility as well in their media endeavors of the future?

It seems several solutions were brought up in subsequent question-and-answer sessions. No doubt this question will continue to take the stage as the Centennial events continue…

According to Lambeth, one of the many answers is rooted in formal education. More civics classes, more ethical discussion among high school, college, and grad students. More partnering with the social sciences in certain classes and lectures.

Other professionals, like Fred Blevens, agree that the education system could improve an understanding of civic duty.

“We have mandatory classes that teach you how to give a speech, even if you’re never going to do it again,” said Blevens. “But no state mandates the teaching of consuming and reporting of journalism. If we teach them to consume it, they will learn how to do it.”

That may sound a little weird, that we should be taught how to consume media… but think about it. I mean, we’re journalists, so it’s second-nature to check up on every fact, right? But the general population doesn’t. I don’t doubt that a large portion of the general population consumes what they read, hear, see, without asking questions. Take Wikipedia’s stronghold of curious web-surfers… chances are, you’ve probably met at least someone who believed that everything they read on Wikipedia was true.

Blevins supports (voraciously, at that) teaching people how to check up on facts, how to be skeptical… because that’s the way of the journalist. “If your mom says she loves you, check it out.” If we get more people to start thinking like journalists, could that improve what’s written or said or visualized on the Web? Could that improve the content we find ourselves wading through in order to find the closest thing to the truth? Transparency is one example: if people are trained to be transparent about how they got their information, that alone would help readers/viewers discern whether they’re dealing with a legit report or not.

Other professionals think the answer to improving online media lies ultimately with the journalists. One woman stood up and said that the discussion seemed to be looking at the wrong problem entirely by blaming citizens/the public. “The journalists should be leading. They aren’t leading!” she said. “And the answer for that is… [journalists need to] think smarter, faster.” She paused. “Good luck,” she chimed sarcastically, before sitting down among laughter.

As I noted before, this discussion will only reverberate the Reynolds Institute as things take off for tomorrow. I know a lot of this may seem tiresome to us, the “youngins” so accustomed to new media, but it’s just encouraging to me that professionals have possible solutions to these issues.

Citizen journalism, in whatever form – it’s here to stay. As Clyde Bently, News-Editorial Professor, noted, 120,000 new blogs are created each day. So let’s just deal with it and see where we can make media literacy work, eh?

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