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Half-Truths on a J-School

Half-Truths on a J-School

September 13, 2010

Earlier this month, the chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, Phil DiStefano, announced his institution would explore discontinuation of the journalism school, noting that a committee has been formed to consider how to organize a new "information, communication and technology program."

In Inside Higher Ed’s report on this news, "Starting from Scratch," the university's journalism dean, Paul Voakes, is quoted as saying: “We’ve got a choice of going along, doing what most journalism and mass communication programs do, and we’ve also been presented with the opportunity to really take some risks and go out there and declare that there is a new type of journalism education that integrates new kinds of thinking.”

Here’s a thought: Is "a new type of journalism" a half-truth to obfuscate what really happened at Colorado’s journalism school?

Journalism schools are expensive. Skills classes in computer labs usually hold no more than 18-20 students; so deans cannot easily increase class size to rake in tuition dollars, as is often the case in the humanities and social sciences, with survey classes exceeding 300-400 students at research institutions. If a program is accredited, like Colorado's, other restrictions range from the number of credit hours a student can take in the discipline to the assessment of those hours in part by working professionals. Accreditation, which happens every six years, can cost thousands of dollars in meeting national standards on everything from diversity to curriculums.

During recent budget crises, administrators have taken a hard look at journalism schools. Before digital media, deans knew that closing programs could cost them hundreds if not thousands of majors. Now, however, they are sensing a viable alternative in ambiguous programs like "media studies" or malleable ones like "information and communication technology." Colorado is among the first to test those waters, clumsily, giving rise to speculation about what, precisely, is going on there.

In the aptly titled Denver Post article, “It’s a wrap for CU’s journalism school in current form,” Voakes reportedly said, " 'Discontinuance' is an unfortunate legal term. … It implies that we're shutting down, when the opposite is true. Discontinuance is the necessary legal process that would enable us to create the innovative new programs our students need."

A new innovative program without the word, “journalism”? Please.

Perhaps unintentionally, Voakes is harming otherwise thriving journalism programs by claiming his school is on the cutting edge instead of the chopping block.

Mel Mencher, professor emeritus of Columbia’s journalism school, discussed the Colorado situation in a recent news writing update sent to professors who use his text. "Journalism programs are racing to respond to tectonic changes in the media and on the campus," Mencher stated. "Trouble is, the response is heading in the wrong direction. Instead of defending the mission of journalism education, administrators and faculty members are marching resolutely to the edge of the cliff."

Mencher believes journalism education is in the tradition of the liberal arts, providing critical thinking about ideas and events that matter. “What better preparation for citizenship, for active participation in a democracy?”

“As for the specifics of journalism education,” he added, “reporting and writing instruction teaches students how to synthesize observations into a comprehensible, communicated form.”

Unlike English, journalism reports to an audience. It doesn't produce "writers" but "writers for hire" who not only must understand technology but also law, ethics and media management and produce content on demand across media platforms around the clock. Additionally, journalism students must have zeal. They often graduate with $30,000 in debt and take a job that pays less than that annually.

The poor job market is not an excuse to eliminate journalism education. Nobody advocated eliminating engineering as a discipline during the 1980s recession when those graduates were hard-pressed to find work. Journalism education was interdisciplinary before it was cost-effective to become so in the academy. Journalism prepares students for careers in law, business, nonprofits and government because those who can write concisely and accurately for an audience also communicate powerfully enough to effect changes in society. Those changes typically are analyzed by social scientists in information and communication technology whose specialties include Internet and videography involving interactive media, mobile applications, video gaming, social networks and virtual worlds.

Like many universities, Colorado has invested in such an entity. Dubbed the Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society, it bills itself as "a campus-wide entrepreneurial catalyst and incubator for innovative interdisciplinary research, creative, educational and outreach programs that are enabled by information and communication technology." Officials contend that certain pieces of the undergraduate Journalism School theoretically can be located within the ATLAS confines.

In other words, journalism can be part of the pedagogy … but not part of the name.

Journalism does not "study" social impact; journalism creates that impact. And in doing so, it also creates enemies, which is why so many empowered folks wish it would just go away.

Paul Voakes and Phil DiStephano need to answer a fundamental question: Did infighting provide the occasion to discontinue the program so that the institution could fire professors because they lost their tenure home?

According to the Denver Post article, last April Colorado alumnus and former Sports Illustrated writer Doug Looney, then-chairman of the journalism school's advisory board, wrote a "white paper" to DiStefano complaining of infighting in the school. "The SJMC (School of Journalism and Mass Communications) and its dysfunctional faculty are hopeless. Prospects for improvement are nonexistent. It should be closed."

If Colorado’s Journalism School lost support of the chairman of its advisory board, a body meant to protect its interests, perhaps the program really should be discontinued. That’s a truth that makes sense; but we need journalism to expose it.

When then Provost DiStephano appointed his new dean in April 2003, he said in a news release, "I am confident that Paul Voakes will provide the necessary leadership to navigate the tough fiscal times ahead and move the school to the next level of excellence in its academic programs." Ultimately, it was DiStephano’s responsibility to ensure that the program at least maintained its 2003 level of competence by providing the means and support for the journalism school to move forward. If leadership was lacking, that, too, should be put forth as a reason for the proposal to close the journalism school.

Those who’d like to see the demise of hardcore journalism — from regents and legislators to pundits and techies — will embrace the "news-is-dead" motif, promoting the notion that discontinuance is really about digital innovation.

To make matters worse, all this is occurring as Colorado’s journalism program prepares for re-accreditation. A self study has been sent to the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, and a site visit is scheduled for February 2011. Moreover, the re-accreditation process involves the president of the institution — in this case, DiStephano — formally inviting ACEJMC to visit the campus and file a site team report on whether the journalism program meets national standards.

The invitation and visit have not been canceled and should go forward in the interest of getting answers to proclamations about digital innovation in the wake of discontinuation. ACEJMC is rigorous in analyzing whether a program is in compliance with its nine standards, including the first one on "Mission, Governance and Administration." In other words, the whole truth rather than half truth is going to come out in six months no matter what spin the institution weaves, and those responsible for seeking to close the journalism school have the ethical obligation to be candid about what caused it.

Journalism is a vital academic discipline needed now as much as the institutes that study its social impact, an impact we routinely forget when preoccupied by enrollment and budget numbers shaping the pedagogical experience.

Without reporters documenting oppression in the civil rights era, we would not embrace diversity today as a core value. Inequality would be the status quo. Without combat reporters, we would not know the trenches enough to formulate opinions about war and peace. Apathy and/or blind patriotism would be the norm. Without editors monitoring political campaigns, voting rights would be trampled and elections, routinely rigged. Candidates wouldn’t run for office; they’d purchase it.

One journalist can make a difference in the world. Without Bethany McLean, we’d still have Enron — with a government bailout.

Without reporters holding others accountable, society operates in a milieu of half truths, enabling pundits, apologists, politicians and opportunists to slant any issue to their liking — even for a good cause. We have seen too much of that in the academy. Fact is, people study and practice journalism to advocate for and advance the unvarnished truth, which is why the discipline is needed in Boulder and why discontinuing it will haunt the University of Colorado for generations to come.

Bio

Michael Bugeja directs the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State University. His latest book, Vanishing Act: The Erosion of Online Footnotes and Implications for Scholarship in the Digital Age (Litwin Books), is co-authored with Daniela Dimitrova, an Iowa State colleague.

 

 

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