Stewart, Assange and Journalism Education

January 18, 2011

Satirist Jon Stewart and activist Julian Assange are symbols of a world without journalism — a largely online marketing-based, consumer-driven world at odds with principles of democracy and freedom.

Stewart is often considered a journalist because he holds people accountable when many metro media outlets no longer do so in their downsized newsrooms. "The Daily Show" does this often by following up on what newsmakers did or said in the past and then comparing that to current, contradictory actions and statements. Wikileaks purportedly holds people and governments accountable. It does so, however, by “WebThink.” Whereas responsible journalists scrutinize motives of tipsters and fact-check authenticity of cables, WebThink just dumps it all on the Internet and lets computer chips fly where they may.

In this brave new media world, you learn about a crisis when it has reached unmanageable proportions, such as happened in the subprime housing debacle at the roots of a recession that has slashed budgets at colleges and universities. And that is why educators everywhere should be concerned about the demise of global journalism, networks of trained reporters and editors generating content on the scene in national and international bureaus. We no longer live nor educate in that world. By elevating access over truth, ours has become a world that reacts via commentary rather than prevents in advance of calamity.

Sadly, some of the leading technology companies, foundations and journalism schools not only haven’t resisted these claims, but may be encouraging them.

At the start of a new year, you’ll read about top stories of 2010. The one that will be missing on many lists will be America’s ranking in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In “Here’s what really mattered during 2010,” the Miami Herald reported: “If most of us in the media focused on the issues that really matter — rather than on celebrity tragedies or the political scandals of the day,” we might be concerned that the Chinese city of Shanghai topped the world education survey. In reading comprehension, the United States ranked 17th; in math, the United States ranked 31st.

As a journalism educator at a land-grant university, I am appalled by these data, fearing how little the First Amendment matters anymore in educational advancement. Freedom of press, speech, religion, assembly and petition — all meant to inform rather than entertain the electorate — have failed to safeguard the American dream.

In response to PISA scores, Education Secretary Arne Duncan remarked, "The United States has a long way to go before it lives up to the American dream and the promise of education as the great equalizer."

Historically, journalism safeguarded that dream, beginning with the John Peter Zenger case (1735), elevating truth over authority and eventually inspiring public education. Journalist-statesman Benjamin Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania on that notion. John Jay, first Supreme Court justice, believed an informed electorate required access to education “at a cheap and easy rate.” Thomas Jefferson preferred newspapers over government with one stipulation — that people were "capable of reading."

In the Internet era, journalism seems divorced from its historic, educational past. Now our reason for being seems to help underwrite online monopolies and social networks that promote rampant consumerism in what should be a greener era of sustainability.

Roots of Distrust

What has society lost by allowing Internet behemoths like Google to alter the funding mechanisms for news? Educators should analyze that question because each discipline is affected, in as much as rhetoric now masquerades as fact.

In the past, advertising always assumed the product that it promoted (i.e., fact-based news) had value worthy of purchase or subscription. Marketing could care less about that, appealing more to opinion, which targets likes and dislikes of consumers.

Journalism used to focus on what citizens needed to know, whether they liked it or not. Now it focuses on what the audience wants, explaining the spike in celebrity and entertainment news. Social networks and search engines give away that news for free in return for personal information and then vend those data to companies whose cookies are as hidden as terms of service.

Giveaway news of fleeting appeal has ceased to inform society in a knowledge economy. Even in the wake of newspapers that died, or are in the process of dying because they cannot monetize the Web, journalism educators and practitioners keep experimenting with digital media in the hope of finding a way to earn revenue within Internet conventions to support costly newsroom operations.

"We need to challenge the notion that digital media and traditional journalism are somehow mutually exclusive," states Dick Doak, 42-year veteran of The Des Moines Register and vice chair of my Advisory Council at Iowa State University. "The digital revolution doesn't obviate the need for traditional journalism skills. It makes them more important than ever."

As evidence Doak cites WikiLeaks’ cables, calling them "a meaningless mass of information until the Guardian and The New York Times made sense of them, using traditional journalism techniques."

WikiLeaks, he adds, proves we need traditional journalism more than ever "to decipher and interpret the information overload."

And yet in the wake of such evidence, the word "journalism" remains under siege at some institutions. The University of Colorado at Boulder is in the process of discontinuing its program (although a new recommendation would align journalism education with the liberal arts). My alma mater, Oklahoma State University, has changed the name of its school from "Journalism and Broadcasting" to "Media and Strategic Communications." ("News Media and Strategic Communications" would have been nice.)

Now we have a situation occurring at one of the finest schools in the country, Medill, whose faculty overwhelmingly approved the name "Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications." Rationale: Journalism doesn’t encompass everything the school does. No, but the brand did, as some media observers note — to the point of satire in the Chicago Tribune.

The problem with not knowing your name — or the academic conventions associated with that name — is that other disciplines eventually will encroach on your subject matter. Computer science and design will claim "media" and business, "integrated marketing communications," resulting in program duplication during a recession when budgets at private and public colleges and universities are tight. These debates are happening across the country even as community newspapering survives at outlets that aggressively cover civic and local events. Enrollment at journalism schools is relatively healthy, too, especially in regions with strong press associations.

In "Not Dead Yet," published in 2009 in the American Journalism Review, consultant John Morton notes the prevailing strength of smaller dailies, still profitable despite the recession and the Internet. However, even Morton worries about the future of newspapers if publishers continue to give away information online. "My greatest fear," he writes, "is that newspapers’ diminished journalism will cause permanent harm to their market strength and their ability to succeed on the Internet and in print."

To be sure, every journalism program has been trying to discern how to respond to information gathering and distribution in an Internet age. No journalism school can continue teaching principles and methods as it may have done a decade ago without taking digital media into account.

However, we’ve been at this for years without confronting Internet conventions, as I am doing here, believing that those conventions rather than the news must be challenged — not only by journalism educators but by all in higher education.

I am putting this on record as a journalist and journalism educator and not speaking on behalf of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, which I direct. That said, I am immensely proud of what the faculty and alumni have done — often in partnership with industry — to pass on to our majors the laudable traditions of a land-grant institution that embraces our state motto: Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.

Our enrollment is high, and our corporate sponsorship even higher. Our budget is slim, and our curriculums even slimmer. We don’t teach entrepreneurialism; we practice it with year-round apprenticeships and outsourcing services. Our graduates understand what technology can, should not and must never do. But I worry about their future because educators and foundations keep touting technology without assessing it. Doing so will tell a sad narrative of failure to monetize large-scale news operations.

Case in point: the Knight Foundation continues to fund journalism education programs in the hope of advancing "the best values of journalism through rapidly developing digital media." This year, for example, the Foundation announced a $5.75 million gift to Queens University of Charlotte in hopes of its communication program becoming "a national leader in media and digital literacy."

That’s a worthy initiative. A more urgent one, however, might have investigated online revenue practices by monopolies such as Google and Facebook, determining whether journalism can survive within them while maintaining principles of truth, privacy and accountability.

Less publicized this year was Google’s $2 million donation to the Knight Foundation to support the foundation’s “media innovation work.” Ironically, Google’s chief salesman Nikesh Arora reportedly made the gift because "[j]ournalism is fundamental to a functioning democracy, and we want to do our part to help fulfill the promise of journalism in the digital age."

Fair Use or Abuse?

It's about time Google anted up. Distribution on its news tab of links and excerpts from media outlets worldwide played a role in the demise of many newspapers unable to secure a licensing agreement as did the Associated Press and France’s wire service, Agence France Presse, which settled in a lawsuit.

Google always claims "fair use" in defending its questionable practices.

Again educators need to assess how fair use, associated with academic freedom and the free flow of ideas in a republic, has evolved into a profit loophole for select online monopolies.

The concept of fair use is elusive because no specific word count exists to constitute infringement. Section 107 of the federal copyright code notes four qualifying considerations:

  • The purpose of the use, including whether it is commercial or educational.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work.
  • The portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

Google distributes links and brief excerpts for free on its site, noting that news serves the public interest. The search engine also only uses a brief excerpt and so can claim it didn’t infringe on copyright, leaving the media outlet in the conundrum of having to prove monetary loss based on specific items. Micro-payments, hits on sites and other means to generate revenue will not underwrite national and international news nor refute the conventional wisdom that such news is cheap and free for the taking.

National news is expensive. International news involves bureaus and foreign correspondents. Within the past year the Washington Post closed all its U.S. bureaus and ABC News closed its bureaus around the world and cut in half the number of its correspondents. Ironically, the fabled global village has ousted the scribes because they cost too much even as online monopolies like Google reap gargantuan profits.

To show how Google infringes on copyright, I use a grocery store comparison. As intended by statute, "fair use" concerns a customer sampling a grape before buying the vine. Google samples every item on the shelf every minute 24/7, devouring journalism in the process. Unless addressed, watchdog journalism will continue to wane and entertainment news to flourish because the former requires reporters and the latter, only publicists.

Given such a plight, why the focus by journalism schools on "rapidly developing digital media"? Each new handheld gadget or killer application features easy-to-learn programs — so easy, in fact, that users do little but click icons to operate them, with the most important one being "I agree."

Worse, typical users do not read what they have agreed to because “terms of service” are obtuse, dictating who owns your data and what prohibitions apply to content you created and posted. Several colleagues at Iowa State University and I did a content analysis of terms of service for Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Second Life and Facebook, astounded at the sheer number of liabilities and prohibitions. Those constituted more than 13 percent of the entire word count of one application’s service agreement.

Our data are included in an article under consideration in a journal and, as such, cannot be shared here until publication

Suffice to say this is a typical example of a liability: "If anyone brings a claim against us related to your actions, content or information on Facebook, you will indemnify and hold us harmless from and against all damages, losses, and expenses of any kind (including reasonable legal fees and costs) related to such claim” Section 15, 1.

As if that is not enough, Facebook also includes this in all caps in Section 15.2:

WE TRY TO KEEP FACEBOOK UP, BUG-FREE, AND SAFE, BUT YOU USE IT AT YOUR OWN RISK. WE ARE PROVIDING FACEBOOK "AS IS" WITHOUT ANY EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTIES INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND NON-INFRINGEMENT. WE DO NOT GUARANTEE THAT FACEBOOK WILL BE SAFE OR SECURE. FACEBOOK IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ACTIONS, CONTENT, INFORMATION, OR DATA OF THIRD PARTIES, AND YOU RELEASE US, OUR DIRECTORS, OFFICERS, EMPLOYEES, AND AGENTS FROM ANY CLAIMS AND DAMAGES, KNOWN AND UNKNOWN, ARISING OUT OF OR IN ANY WAY CONNECTED WITH ANY CLAIM YOU HAVE AGAINST ANY SUCH THIRD PARTIES.

The section continues for another 173 words.

You cannot fund the values of journalism this way. In exposing this in 2004 in Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press), I cited Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, who complained about online funding mechanisms, indirectly referencing Google in his 1999 book, Weaving the Web. The smarter the search engine becomes, he wrote, the more marketing drives the search. To illustrate Berners-Lee used a shoe store analogy: "It’s like having a car with a Go Shopping for Shoes button on the dashboard; when pushed, it will drive only to the shoe store that has a deal with the carmaker. This doesn’t help me get the best pair of shoes for the lowest price; it doesn’t help the free market; and it doesn’t help democracy" (p. 133).

More recently, Berners-Lee expanded on that analogy. In the December 2010 issue of Scientific American, he writes: "Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service — but only within their sites."

That’s an example of a prohibition found in almost every service agreement of the most popular applications being used in higher education, especially journalism schools.

Berners-Lee also cautions against online monopolies that have arisen from this funding model. And yet Knight and other foundations have largely overlooked this aspect of Internet, even though doing so contradicts goals associated with democracy.

A Call to Action

In discussing this in my recent Inside Higher Ed essay, “Half Truths on a Journalism School,” about the demise of Colorado’s journalism program, I wrote that one "journalist can make a difference in the world. Without Bethany McLean, we’d still have Enron — with a government bailout."

That article has prompted calls to action to rescue journalism education. Currently, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication is organizing summits on different topics, including exploration of unpopular subjects such as expressed here. Another summit appropriately titled “The Future of Journalism” is being proposed by the University of Denver, with involvement from the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the University of Northern Colorado, and other area universities.

The proposed summit deserves funding, and Knight or another foundation such as Gannett or Scripps Howard (my former company) might underwrite it in the interest of balance, allowing more skeptical voices to be heard because they have devoted their careers to the unvarnished truth.

In the Internet age "truth is no longer assumed but rather contested and debated," organizers write. "The old economic models are broken, and whereas numerous small experiments are now underway, many wonder if new institutions will emerge that can support the large scale journalistic efforts our communities need."

Such summits represent journalism’s last best hope to challenge the conventional e-wisdom. Otherwise prospects of democracy look bleak, especially if placed in the texting hands of future “information specialists” reared on friending and tweets without the benefit of knowing first-hand how reporters in our time fostered civil rights, ended unjust wars, and jailed thieving politicians, mobsters and tycoons.

Instead we will be entertained by satire after the fact. Activists will rely on technology going viral when threatened personally. And all the news that’s fit to text will come to us via acquaintances on Facebook.

Bio

Michael Bugeja, who directs the Journalism School at Iowa State University, is the author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms, both published by Oxford University Press.

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