I found myself at lunch one day trying to explain the content of a journalism education to a colleague from the economics department at Boston University. He is a world-class economist and scholar—the sort of man whose career affirms the importance of research and academic publication. Fortunately for me, he is also a professor who writes op-ed articles for newspapers on public issues and seeks a broad audience for his work. This put me somewhat at ease.
In explaining what I and others in the journalism department teach, I mentioned, of course, that we seek to give students the skills to be clear and direct writers. I also said that we teach them how to conduct interviews, search for documents, and be good and careful observers.
At some point in our conversation, the matter of whether newspapers have a future arose, and I told him that while I believed they do have a future, teaching students to practice journalism in other formats is important. I explained how we want print reporters to learn how to shoot video and record sound, but how that is just one part of how we are groping for ways to introduce more multimedia skills into the curriculum because of the obvious importance of the Internet to the future of journalism.
But at this point in our conversation, I turned back, importantly, to the content of a journalism education and found myself elaborating more on thevalues and attitudes we are working to inculcate into students rather than focusing on particular skills, especially technical ones. A look came across his face—a look of surprise, curiosity, bemusement or maybe a combination of all three. I think it was my departure from a description of a body of knowledge or even a regime for research and analysis—and my emphasis on values—which he found unusual.
Replying to his expression, I said something like, “I try to teach students to challenge authority by asking hard questions. I want them to develop a strong sense of skepticism. In a sense, I’m trying to acculturate them into the profession of journalism.”
Up until that moment, I don’t think I had stated this point quite so clearly to myself. Yet as these words entered our conversation, I grasped the essential strength that comes with the teaching of values to student journalists. Yes, of course, I have taught the necessity of fairness and accuracy, but in the midst of this exchange I realized the significance of our ability to draw out more visibly and with more elaboration some of the fundamentals of what I call the journalistic value system.
Core Values of Journalism
As we move through a tumultuous period in journalism and journalism education, mostly forced on us by the Internet, it’s important that we name these values. By naming them, we will then find ways to encourage and teach them. In enunciating these values—in reminding ourselves, then teaching our students—it might be that we will understand at a deeper level what it means to be a journalist.
Two critical values are idealism and skepticism. These seem oppositional, but in our craft their pairing can offer us a potent way to engage the world. For young journalists, these two values inspire as well as energize them to do useful, even penetrating, work.
The day-to-day and night-to-night work of a journalist can be grinding and difficult. There is all that travel and the phone squeezed for hours between the head and shoulder. To get it right, and to make it good, the work often takes one more phone call, one more check of documents, or one more trip to the scene of the story. The ability to stay with it requires that journalists have a reliable source of strength on which to draw. I can think of no better source than their idealistic belief that the story they’re working on might in some, perhaps small, way contribute to improving people’s lives.
Even as they draw on that idealism, reporters must cultivate their skepticism. In other words, they need to be hardheaded idealists, to ask to see the evidence, the documents, and check the numbers. They want a second confirming source and then a third. Their skepticism should be implacable.
Joel Rawson, executive editor of The Providence Journal, told me a delightful story years ago that captures the spirit of inspired skepticism. It seems that a dog (Jess) that once had lived in East Greenwich, Rhode Island but had moved to Colorado with his owner was reported to have found his way back to his original home and owners—a trek that took him 18 months over 2,200 miles. It was a great feature story, of course, and it made the papers. But Joel was skeptical: He asked reporter Peter Gosselin to get to the bottom of it, and Peter did. The Colorado dog had a veterinary history that included an x-ray for a broken leg. The Journal had the second dog x-rayed, and—yes, you guessed it—the second dog’s x-ray was clean. No broken leg, wrong dog. The second dog was named Smoky, and he lived less than a mile away.
A funny tale, yes, but think of how history might have unfolded differently if the Rawson standard had been applied to, say, Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
There are other values, too. Independence and courage come to mind. So does a certain prosecutorial zeal to nail the “bad” guys: the ones who game RELATED WEB LINKS
Committee of Concerned Journalists
"Essays on ‘The Elements of Journalism’"
(Nieman Reports eMprint)the system, steal from the public, or exploit those over whom they have power. All of these values are a part of being a reporter. They are what make someone a good journalist, and they are what lift this work above the trivial. Ultimately, the purpose of journalism has to be more than about distracting and entertaining an audience with “content” that eventually is monetized for profit. In this regard, the core principals of journalism are well articulated by the Committee of Concerned Journalists and in “The Elements of Journalism,” the book written by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Among them are these: journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, and its first loyalty is to citizens.
As journalism educators ponder how best to train future reporters—whose work might never appear in a newspaper or on television but will be seen and heard on the Internet—we’d do well to find ways to explain and demonstrate the importance of the value system that underpins how and why we do our work.
Lou Ureneck, a 1995 Nieman Fellow, is chairman of the journalism department at Boston University and former deputy managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. His book, “Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-Fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska,” was published in 2007 by St. Martin’s Press.