Last summer, I talked with journalism students in Hong Kong and six Chinese cities—Beijing, Shenyang, Chongqing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shantou. They reminded me a good deal of the ones I see at home. They are bright, idealistic and not particularly well informed about the world. Wherever I went, they wanted to know about the differences between journalism education in their country and the United States.

Obviously there are many, but I preferred to think of an important similarity, which is purpose. “What is the purpose of a journalism education?” I asked them. Quickly, we’d find that this question could not be answered without addressing a larger one: What is the purpose of journalism?

If you cannot answer that with some confidence, you can neither practice journalism with any direction nor teach it with any conviction. And you probably cannot study it, either, without ending up with a confusing mess of theories, rules and anecdotal craft wisdom. So we would start, these Chinese students and I, from an examination of first principles, which is always an excellent place to begin any inquiry.

As it happened, the purpose of journalism and journalism education was much on my mind. Shortly before I left for China, the highly publicized search for a new dean of the Columbia Journalism School was suspended. The school’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, declared that “To teach the craft of journalism is a worthy goal but clearly insufficient in this new world and within the setting of a great university.”

Journalism and the Public Trust

Moreover, I had been reflecting on a course that Jay Harris, the former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, and I had taught a year ago at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. We called the course “Journalism and the Public Trust.” In it were the seeds of an answer for the Chinese students.

The purpose of journalism, I said to them, is not all that different from the larger purpose of surgery, which is more than simply cutting people open and sewing them back together again. The real purpose of surgery is to heal. Similarly, the purpose of journalism goes beyond reporting and writing stories. It has to do with something more fundamental, which I have come to think of as serving the public trust.

Some Chinese journalists and educators are grappling with what the concept of a public trust means for their country’s press, but in the United States, the notion is clearer. Or at least, it used to be. As the authors of the First Amendment understood, to be free, men and women must be able to make their own decisions, particularly their political decisions. They understood that people cannot have liberty without access to information and that government, by its inevitable nature, strives to limit what people can know.

The relentless acquisition and independent presentation of that information is the public trust the press serves. This concept even transcends democracy. Like journalism, it is only a means. Democracy is a system that is the political means to liberty, just as journalism is the professional means by which we serve the public trust.

By declaring that teaching “the craft of journalism is a worthy goal but clearly insufficient,” President Bollinger makes a useful point. Young journalists who know how to report and write but are ignorant of the social, historical and theoretical context of their profession are doomed to live in the shallows. Similarly, journalists who have been taught all about theory, history, ethics and the law of the press but who cannot go out, get the story, and write it are equally useless and ought to be in another line of work. Neither the one nor the other is equipped to serve the public trust.

As I talked with the Chinese journalism students, increasingly it occurred to me that whether we should be teaching craft or academic breadth involved the wrong choices—or if not wrong, then irrelevant ones. The case for doing both well is so obvious as to seem not worth much further discussion.

In fact, the question of whether craft or academic breadth is a worthy and sufficient goal “within the setting of a great university,” strikes me like asking whether it is best for young people to join the Army or the Navy when the military already has been hijacked by a half dozen warlords. I use “a half dozen” advisedly. That’s the number of corporations that Ben Bagdikian, in the sixth edition of his book “The Media Monopoly,” says “dominate all American mass media” and provide “the country’s most widespread news, commentary and entertainment.”

The fact that fewer and fewer corporations own more and more of the media is scarcely a secret. Nor is it a secret that privately owned news organizations are becoming an endangered species and that three-quarters of the country’s daily newspaper circulation is the product of chains. By now, it’s also well known that the large institutional investors, who represent thousands of individual investors, are concerned with the financial performance of news organizations and not the quality of their journalism.

What are the implications of this for journalism education? Some institutions might be turning out whiz practitioners of craft. Others might be producing journalists rich in historical, social and theoretical understanding. But what does it matter if the owners of America’s media don’t recognize the value in the journalist’s role in serving the public trust?

The great task for us, as journalism educators, is to equip our students with a firm sense of the public trust—how it developed, what it means to America, how it manifests itself or is betrayed by the work that individual journalists and news organizations do. Our journalism programs, departments and schools need to become the places where such concepts are nurtured, protected and ceaselessly advocated.

These are things I tried to get across to the Chinese students this summer. Despite the differences between our systems, they sensed some fundamental similarities. Their press, too, is in a time of great change, as reliance on public subsidies is being replaced by reliance on the market.

So I said to them what I said last fall to our students at Berkeley: A press that is hostage to its investors is no more a free press than one that is hostage to government. Surely, great universities, and even lesser ones, can understand this.

William F. Woo, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, has taught journalism at Stanford University since 1996. He formerly was editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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