The Nieman idea of mid-career education for journalists in a university setting is now widely acknowledged as essential. Indeed, the need has never been greater. Journalists are struggling to understand the complexities of our times and explain them to readers, listeners and viewers. Critics among us are not reluctant to note when coverage doesn’t measure up to the needs of the public. In his annual meeting with the Nieman Fellows, Harvard President Neil Rudenstine described the quality of reporting on higher education as “uninformed.” Trudy Lieberman, one of the Shorenstein Fellows at Harvard this spring, explains her project as a study of how the press has misreported the development of new technology in medicine.
There is nothing new about the reality of the uninformed reporter or the misreporting of complicated topics in the news. As early as 1919, Walter Lippmann saw that as stories become more complex and specialized, there is a greater need for reporters and editors to develop special areas of expertise in which they can do their work in a highly informed and authoritative way.
The solution Lippmann recognized was for journalists to acquire more of the “scientific spirit” and aspire to a “common intellectual method and common area of valid fact. The field should make as its cornerstone the study of evidence and verification.”
The idea that journalists would have a solid grounding in traditional academic disciplines, such as economics or science, became the basis of the original journalistic convention of objectivity. Bill Kovach, the former Nieman Curator, and Tom Rosenstiel, in their forthcoming book “The Elements of Journalism,” remind us that the concept of objectivity has become “one of the great confusions of journalism,” an idea whose true meaning has been lost.
Objectivity, as it is commonly understood today, is difficult to achieve because of the perception that the bias of the observer influences the way an event is seen or facts are interpreted. Thus, no journalist can be objective.
But in its original meaning, Kovach and Rosenstiel argue, objectivity was seen as a journalistic process that “called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.”
In his widely acclaimed book, “News Values,” Jack Fuller, the president of the Chicago Tribune Co., acknowledges that journalists must be more generalists than technical experts, “and yet they also must be capable of dealing with experts from a position of strength.” He says this requires journalists to become more comfortable with technology, to have a rigorous education in a specialized discipline, and to understand that they are expected to produce work in complex fields that holds up against sophisticated examination. “We cannot accept the kind of ignorance of basic statistical methods that so often lead to preposterous reporting of scientific claims,” Fuller writes.
Undergraduate journalism education is not likely to become more intellectually challenging in its own right. So it is the continuing education programs, like the Nieman Fellowships and those at Stanford, Michigan, Columbia, Maryland, MIT and other universities, that provide the best opportunities for the development of journalistic specialties.
These elite programs, however, offer to a relatively few journalists the chance to take a year off to deepen one’s knowledge of a field of coverage. For continuing education to have a broader reach, news organizations themselves must take the lead. Yet few are making this investment. The reputation remains that the news industry spends less on continuing education than most other businesses. In a speech to the Committee of Concerned Journalists, developmental psychologist William Damon of Stanford University observed that reporters he’d interviewed learned strategies to verify their reporting through trial and error, on their own, or from friends. They rarely learned them in journalism school or from their editors.
What is it about the university environment that is essential in the building of knowledge for journalists? For many Nieman Fellows, it is the Harvard faculty, with the authoritative knowledge and fresh perspectives it brings to the classroom and to discussions with journalists. At Harvard, professors are always asking questions. For every question, others follow, typically without clear or precise answers.
In the academic world, the question is always open. This is an important discovery for many Nieman Fellows. New information tomorrow or a fresh idea next week or next year may suggest a different question or, even, a different answer. As a way of thinking about things, it is a critical counterpoint to the structure of daily journalism, where today’s events want to be summed up with a neat conclusion for tonight’s viewers and listeners and tomorrow morning’s readers.
Of the many lessons of Harvard that make the Nieman year such a formative experience, few are more lasting or more important than this one.