WJEC declaration of principles for journalism education – the backlash

A number of my colleagues in the Australian Journalism Education Association (JEA) have given me permission to post sections of their discussion of the World Journalism Education Congress Principles of Global Journalism Education on this blog. You can trackback by clicking on the World Journalism Education Congress category link.

I thank them for that. It is a good opportunity to consolidate the conversation and continue it. I have put the material here in chronological order. That way you can follow at least some of the threads.

John Cokely, University of Queensland 11 July 2007

I was saddened to hear fellow journalists and journalism educators from Africa, Indonesia and India [and not surprised to hear them echoed among Europeans and Americans] citing US-grown Fourth Estate models of journalism as the only models worth anything … what they are actually saying is this is the only model “worth preserving” and frankly we should not be in the business of preserving anything about journalism.

We of all people should be in the business of working experimentally in the garden of journalism, uprooting and discarding old dead wood, pruning where necessary and nurturing new shoots and seeing what’s coming on … looking forwards, not backwards.

If we journalists in the academy can’t be relied on to experiment and find new and better ways in journalism, no one can. Many valued practitioners I speak with can’t even imagine such a thing as “a new and better way in journalism”.

We need to imagine it, research it, and find ways of growing it. Otherwise journalism will become moribund and start looking like … oh oh … globalised, corporate co-called “news organisations” … not mentioning any names …


 Another John (Herbert) from the UK

I agree with every word you have written on this John. And also with what Alan and Marti have said. And as Marti and others have also said in response to mine,although I was loath to bring them up in my post wondering if I was a lone voice, I remember the comments some of us made in general discussions ( not at the podium but elsewhere) about the complete blandness of the principles to the point frankly of uselessness since without talk of the need to resist any form of censorship or self censorship, the need for the highest ethicalmartini ( sorry couldn’t resist) approach to our journalism, for the absolutes of searching after truth and freedom for all in our reporting, we are on a slope that is not just dangerous but lethal. Somehow we have to in our journalism education think local and NOTaccording to some principles of American founding fathers. Each country should be shining a light on its own journalistic founding fathers and what they have endured in the cause of the search for truth and freedom of speech and reporting.

But the bit of John’s message I wish I’d written was this:

“We of all people should be in the business of working experimentally in the garden of journalism, uprooting and discarding old dead wood, pruning where necessary and nurturing new shoots and seeing what’s coming on … looking forwards, not backwards.

If we journalists in the academy can’t be relied on to experiment and find new and better ways in journalism, no one can. Many valued practitioners I speak with can’t even imagine such a thing as “a new and better way in journalism”.”

I just wish John  had been asked for comments before the most unsatisfactory UNESCO so-called model curriculum was published. It is just so wrong and out of kilter with the way modern journalism should be going as not just to be alarming but, frankly, puzzling as to how anyone could miss the boat so badly.

  As John [Cokley] says we should be looking forward not backward. That is what journalism education should be doing; it’s what JEA should be supporting. it’s what universities and students want us to be doing. To come out with a set of curriculum guidelines which frankly is the way things were being done in the 60s and 70s is so far behind the eight ball as to be funny ( except it isn’t funny, it’s pathetic).

Where is the notion of experiment in the  so called curriculum; where is the need for research; where is the multi skilling now so necessary, where is the intelligence associated with the prime need: the thinking journalist of the future. All that such a curriculum does is replicate all that is worst about journalism of the past as a trade. It must be a profession and in order for it to be a profession it needs a professional, thinking, creative, forward thinking educational approach.

 I hope the UNESCO thing will be discarded before it has time to grow roots and cause untold pain and suffering to journalism educators and journalism schools trying to reach for the stars.  Most importantly it does not in any of its curriculum show any sign of knowing that the world is changing, it is now multi media and our courses must change to reflect that new and vital 21st century development. It doesn’t even reflect journalism in the digital age.

And neither does it, or the so-called universal declaration of principles show any indication that journalism is a dangerous profession. I would have liked to hear more about the trauma associated with reporting and its dangers

A response from Professor Michael Bromley, University of Queensland, 12 July 2007:

This is an interesting debate, and may come closer to resolution if we factor in as central the idea of journalism as research. This is something we are increasingly having to turn our attention to, and, as journalism is now fully embedded in the higher education system, why not?

The underlying premise of ‘research’ in the HE context is that it is rigorous (reliable, representative and verifiable), conscious (ideologies, methodologies, epistemologies – even ontologies) and produces new knowledge. This is all underpinned by peer review and what DEST in Australia calls ‘impact’ (which might be better described as ‘reception’).

What came out of the WJEC/JEA discussions around journalism as research was pretty much this, and this kind of approach is widely accepted by most of the investigative journalism organisations around the world. There are several IJ groups I am aware of which have definitions and peer-driven evaluations of IJ. (IJ is the most convenient example, but I am sure this could include enterprise and other related forms of journalism). These also serve to distinguish journalism from allied activities – PR, literature, preaching, etc., etc..

That would seem to be the basis for some kind of ‘journalistic paradigm’, which as Kuhn pointed out is in no way ‘neutral’ or ‘value free’, but valorises the process of inquiry and discovery described above.

Ian[Richards, Uni South Australia] is correct, therefore, in arguing that we cannot simply impose some universal notion of ‘truth’. However, a paradigm is surely about making a justifiable(?) claim to a certain sort of truth – in this case, journalistic truth. This may be no less (or no more) shaky than any other form of truth, but the distinction between it and the kind of truth which is produced by routine journalism practice lies in application of the research process. As Martin Hirst would point out, read Orwell (particularly The Road to Wigan Peer and associated diaries and notes) to see this at work.

Therefore, it seems to me, that journalism cannot be described without central reference to inquiry, discovery and the formation (not the packaging) of new knowledge. Of course, journalism can exist without any of these things, and will no doubt continue to do so, just as chemistry, engineering, the law and even medicine can exist without any inquiry, discovery or formation of new knowledge. However, these forms (no matter how numerically superior) should be at the margins of the field, and not at its centre. It is the research-driven core which should inform practice: otherwise, God help us all the next time we visit the dentist!

This is why majority contemporary practice in journalism cannot determine journalism as research. To do so would be like nominating a conveyance solicitor as a specialist in jurisprudence; or a country GP as an authority on nano-surgery. What we have seen in other fields, especially medicine, is the separation of routine from research-driven practice, to the extent that it is now positively dangerous to undergo certain forms of treatment outside major metropolitan hospitals. Of course, the corollary of that is the emergence of new specialisms in rural medicine, etc., etc..

This kind of segementation is not possible if you adhere to a uniform, universalist idea of journalism. We would do well to consider whether there are multiple journalisms (for democracies, post-democracies, emerging democracies, non-democracies, theocracies, autocracies, and so on) which nevertheless also subscribe to a ‘journalistic truth’. This is quite different from journalisms driven by the political system (the so-called four theories.)

What may cement these apparently opposing tendencies together is perhaps a sense of purpose, and this is where it seems to me John Herbert is correct. What unifies medicine as a set of segmented practices is primarily a commitment to human well being; law to justice, and so on. One could not imagine a set of principles in medicine or law without a mention of well being or justice. Isn’t journalism’s underlying commitment to ‘public interest’, whichever prism that is refracted through? (The scope for this is evident from Lenin’s ideas about journalism, which also had at their core the purpose of a form of public interest – the people’s interest. Not the same thing, in my view, but that’s another story …) And when the public interest is not served by the context (as demonstrated by journalistic research), then journalism necessarily finds itself at odds with the political system, business, etc., etc..

The problem with not basing such opposition on adequate research is that journalism then degenerates into so much ‘calling out’. We should remember that the solid work done by Ida Tarbell on Standard Oil was dismissed as ‘muckraking’ by Teddy Roosevelt because so much other journalism could be condemned as irresponsible and sensationalist.

Completing this circle may be the most worthwhile exercise journalism can undertake – to establish a defensible claim to ‘journalistic truth’ which acknowledges but also transcends cultural specificities. Is that the equivalent of theorising, identifying, isolating and addressing a virus in a lab in Brisbane which can then be used to manufacture a vaccine which can treat women everywhere? To my mind, John Pilger has tried to pursue this kind of agenda for many years. ICIJ started out with similar intentions. I would like to see some support for ACIJ [Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney] in developing such an agenda.

By its very nature this would not be ‘Australian’ but journalism. Because it laid claim to a particular ‘truth’, it would have universal relevance. Because it recognised it was a specific journalism (one of many), it would be sensitive to alternative receptions.


And again from Michael, 16 July 2007

Carrying on this discussion …

Martin asks, ‘what type of journalism is suitable in a theocracy or dictatorship? Surely an oppositional journalism that fights back.’ Precisely so, although Lenin had different views of journalism in a dictatorship of the proletariat.

And ‘what’s “post democracy”?’. Far more contentious, this. But I construe this as the popular realisation that, as Martin said, democracy has been reduced to a ritualistic ‘four-year cycle of ballot box pretence’ – what John Keane has long argued is the disabling of the majority. I see this most obviously in Australia, although compulsory voting masks it. Pretty much everywhere in the western world electoral participation has fallen off enormously since 1945/6, and dipped particularly in the 1990s. What’s the point? Journalism in these places is now reduced (in Australia for sure) to a parallel ritual of meaningless stenography.

The alternative is to ‘vote’ through consumption (or non-consumption). This manifests itself most transparently in environmentalism. Even at the everyday level, ‘there is more chance of influencing Tesco than Tony Blair’, as the saying went. Journalism which engages with environmentalism, fair trade, industrial relations, etc., etc., might retain some of the idea of ‘fighting back’. I would point to the extent to which these issues are marginalised in the mainstream western media (even to the point of global warming denial) as evidence of their potency. The last thing Rupert Murdoch wants are media investigating global trade – or suggesting that he supported the invasion of Iraq because he believed it would bring the price of oil down to $20 a barrel and fuel (sorry) an upturn in advertising. After all, the Australian prime minister assures journalists, who take what he says at face value, that oil has nothing to do with the mayhem in Iraq.

Perhaps journalists ought to stop being mesmerised by politicians and investigate the causes and effects of their activities.



2 Responses to WJEC declaration of principles for journalism education – the backlash

  1. […] WJEC declaration of principles for journalism education – the backlash. Digging into the whys and wherefore’s of an international list of priniciples at the wonderfully named Ethical Martini. Interesting response to what is a fairly bland document. […]

  2. patrick yen says:

    Thank you for posting these transcripts.
    Many insightful perspectives.

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