An open letter to Sharri Markson

October 17, 2014

The Australian‘s media editor, Sharri Markson, caused a storm this week when her newspaper published an “undercover” expose of alleged left-wing bias in two of the nation’s premier journalism programs at the University of Sydney (USYD and the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS)

sharri

Ms Markson relaxing after a hard day of study From http://www.bullshit-blog.com/sharri-markson-undercover-university/

Apparently she’s planning a follow-up and today emailed a selected number of journalism academics and others to seek their views about journalism education.

Sharri Markson's email. Oops, it leaked.

Sharri Markson’s email. Oops, it leaked.

Our correspondent, Martin Hirst, was not on the list even though he’s been a journalism academic for 20 years and is a well-known critic of News Corporation.

However, in to ensure Ms Markson gets the widest possible cross-section of views he sent her the following email.
Dr Hirst is not confident that his views will make it into Monday’s Australian, so in the interests of transparency he’s agreed to share them with us.

Dear Sharri,
Thanks for your interest in a wide range of views about journalism education in Australia.

I realise you have not actually requested my views, but I thought I’d share them with you anyway in the interests of ensuring that you do indeed get a wide range of views.

BTW: I did tweet a question at you a couple of days ago about your consideration of the MEAA Code of Ethics in your undercover story.You were busy and might have missed it; please consider sending me an answer.

In the meantime here’s my responses to your questions

What do you think about media studies and its love of critical theory, post modernism and even post Marxist critical theory?

MH: There is actually a broad range of theoretical approaches in media studies, not all of them revolve around critical theory, post modernism or post Marxist critical theory and of course, media studies and journalism studies are distinct disciplines that do have some overlaps.

Many journalism programs also operate alongside PR and other communication disciplines and we encourage students to take courses in these subjects as well. We also encourage them to take studies in non-communication disciplines in history, politics, psychology, sociology etc, even sports science in some places. We do this because – like you — we value the breadth of knowledge and we know that the news industry needs people with some content expertise, not just a ‘journalism only’ degree.

Views among journalism educators in Australia range right across the theoretical spectrum from highly normative approaches that continue to value objectivity and fourth estate theories of the press; there are even libertarians among us and then there’s those of us who think that critical theory is useful (careful how you define “critical theory” it has a 100 year history and many variations).

For instance: do you mean Habermas theory of the bourgeois public sphere or McChesney’s approach to media regulation in America, or British cultural studies; do you mean Frederick Jameson’s postmodernity, or David Harvey’s “condition of postmodernity” or Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity”?

Postmodernism and cultural studies are not overly influential in journalism education, the “media wars” of the 1990s were the highpoint of postmodernism in media theory and since then things have actually changed.

If you check out the websites of the various journalism courses in Australia you will see that there is a great deal of variety in approaches taken. Some of us are indeed critical theorists and even Marxists (though out of the 100+ who teach journalism in the higher ed system I think you could count them all on one hand).

I am really the only one who frequently puts up a hand to say “Yes, I’m a Marxist.” I am in a tiny minority. I am pretty sure that Wendy, Jenna, Margaret, Matthew and Penny (along with just about all of the JERAA’s membership) would tell you that they are explicitly not Marxists. Chomsky’s not even a Marxist.

The approach that some of us use — among others — is what you might call a “political economy” approach (it is not the same as Marxism, though it is a materialist worldview) and it involves an examination of economics and social relations; in other words an examination of historical reality, similar in many ways to the methods of journalism.

Political economy examines the news industry and the practices of journalism from a grounded position of asking “what is going on in the world and how do we explain it?” Again, you would be familiar with this approach from journalism – it is what journalists also do; ask questions, seek verification and try to approximate the truth using several sources and methods of triangulation.

Political economy is also related to sociology – my PhD is in this field and so too are those of many other journalism academics.
At the same time I also use the work of an American academic (now deceased) called John C. Merrill.

Merrill is interesting in many ways — he has written extensively on the “dialectic” in journalism — as he see’s it the struggle between “freedom” and “responsibility” and how journalists cope with that. Dialectics is not a purely Marxist concept, it goes all the way back to Heraclitus and the idea of “flux”, you would know this as “nobody steps into the same river twice”.

Merrill was a very conservative libertarian and thus would actually share some political opinions with your ultimate boss, Mr Murdoch. He would also probably be a member of the IPA today. So you can see, despite my Marxism, I am not sectarian.

On the other hand, to balance this out, quite a few journalism educators are not very theoretical at all and would rather teach the inverted pyramid than critical theory. Where you might find consensus among us is that a balance of theory and practice is important; most would also say practice should probably outweigh theory in a journalism course and in most of them it does.

Does it [critical theory] have a place in journalism education or is it ruining it?

Of course critical theory (of many stripes) and other theoretical approaches have a place in journalism education and, far from ruining it, actually improve it. I have been involved in journalism education since 1993 and I think it has got better in that time because those of us who came into teaching straight from the newsroom (and if you care to check that is just about everyone of us who is teaching journalism today, despite your newspaper’s constant dismissal of this fact without checking) have gained qualifications in teaching (for example I have a Grad Cert in adult education) and also have postgrad qualifications (I gained my MA in Australian Studies while working as a daily journalist and my PhD while working as a lecturer).

Theory and practice go together and in a professional course of study, consider nursing for example – as journalism in a university setting is — it is vital that both be central to the curriculum. As academics we are obliged to consider theory and practice, it is the role of a university to do both and challenging orthodoxy is part of that.

We challenge the orthodoxy of thinking within the journalism and news business as well. One orthodoxy that we challenge is the perception fostered by your newspaper (among others, but mainly you) is the whole “those who can do/those who can’t teach” dichotomy that is constantly thrown at us like rotten fruit. It is a false proposition and no more than populist nonsense, so why do you continue to spout it?

Is it because it suits your ideological agenda, because it is not supported by the facts? We (journalism educators) are not “failed” journalists as your editor continues to shout about.

Has there been a shift away from the practical side?

No, there has not been a shift away from the practical side of journalism in our courses. Practical and applied journalism are central to the journalism education project and embedded deeply in our curricula. There is, of course, variation between schools, but in general all of us take great pride in being practical.

If you look at unit and subject offerings across the country you will see a strong emphasis on “learning by doing” which is a key pedagogy in journalism education. Nearly all of us run online publishing outlets for student work (I am doing a research project on this at the moment and looking at the application of what the Americans call a “teaching hospital” approach to journalism education; you are welcome to contact me to talk about this).

My own pedagogy — which I’ve used very successfully for 20 years — is “the classroom is a newsroom / the newsroom is a classroom”.

This is simple really – we simulate the newsroom environment in our classrooms to teach the practical aspects of journalism — students do a range of tasks from compiling stories as in-class exercises from materials we give them (e.g. Media releases, etc) which would be a common first-year approach; then in more advanced units in second and third year students would be given real assignments; i.e.. “Get out of the classroom and find a real story to cover”.

We teach interviewing, research skills, how to do an FOI, how to keep contact books, writing the inverted pyramid, writing features, writing for online, audio and video editing, radio presentation and even on-air broadcast techniques for television.

There are hundreds of examples up and down the country of journalism students writing of the student press or their local paper, running community radio stations, doing current affairs programs for community TV, and having their own online outlets.
Then of course there’s the internships and work experience at all the major news companies across the nation and some of the newer start-ups too.

So it is wrong to say that there’s been a shift away from the practical side.
However, we do have a strong emphasis on law and ethics and you might argue this is theory, but it is equally about practice – we teach this through case studies and visits to actual courtrooms too.

Should journalism training return to a focus on the practical side rather than the theoretical?

There is no conflict here Sharri, see previous answer. In my view we get it about right, there’s always room for improvement and there is change constantly. Like the news business itself, we both (journalists and journalism educators) have to adapt to change because it’s right in front of us.

I hope you find my comments useful; I’d be happy to talk if you want to clarify anything.
You can look up my publications list from here. And you will notice I’ve actually written a couple of very practical textbooks among journal articles etc that you might dismiss as “critical” or even “Marxist” theory.

Best wishes
Martin


Jahar – like a Rolling Stone

July 21, 2013

Jahar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone, July 2013

It seems to me that the ‘portrait’ of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone is actually quite appropriate. If you bother to read the article, the picture that friends and acquaintances paint is very close to the image on the front of the magazine.

I wonder how many of the vociferously complaining patriots have looked inside to actually read the article?

I also think that Rolling Stone’s justification for the story and for the cover image is sound.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. –THE EDITORS

The first par of this apologia is just boilerplate. No American publication could cover this event without first expressing sympathy for the victims. Perhaps the mistake the editors made was thinking that such a statement would be enough. But, at the end of the day, trying to satisfy or mollify the redneck patriotic sentiment of most whitebread Americans is a thankless, if not hopeless, task.
I also can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if Rolling Stone were to put Trayvon Martin on the cover. He’s another young American male who fell foul of the system. He ended up dead, shot in the heart by a part-time security guard who has recently been acquitted of criminal responsibility for Martin’s death.

The right stuff

Janet Reitman’s portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is comprehensive and well-written. Just about everyone she’s talked to for the story — Tsarnaev’s friends and his high school wrestling coach — all express their shock and disbelief that the quiet, dope-smoking young American they knew could be the same Jahar who appears in this series of images, emerging bloody and bowed after his capture by heavily-armed Boston police and FBI agents.
It is also relevant to have a discussion about the moral and artistic merit of these photos, taken by a police ‘tactical photographer’. This one, in particular, makes Jahar look like a wounded 21st century Jesus figure.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the moment of capture by Boston police

By all accounts, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an all-American, high school sweetheart and mother’s favourite son. His Chechen background, while obviously key to his overall personality, seems to recede in the background in Reitman’s piece. The picture we get from listening to Jahar’s many friends talking to Reitman is that he was almost too good to be true.
“He was smooth as fuck,” says his friend Alyssa, who is a year younger than Jahar. Girls went a little crazy over him – though to Jahar’s credit, his friends say, even when he had crushes, he never exploited them. “He’d always be like, ‘Chill, chill, let’s just hang out,'” says Sam, recalling Jahar’s almost physical aversion to any kind of attention. “He was just really humble – that’s the best way to describe him.”

Cara, a vivacious, pretty blonde whom some believe Jahar had a secret crush on, insists they were just friends. “He was so sweet. He was too sweet, you know?” she says sadly. The two had driver’s ed together, which led to lots of time getting high and hanging out. Jahar, she says, had a talent for moving between social groups and always seemed able to empathize with just about anyone’s problems. “He is a golden person, really just a genuine good guy who was cool with everyone,” she says. “It’s hard to really explain Jahar. He was a Cambridge kid.”

What’s not to like about this boy? the cover image seems totally appropriate. It screams out the contradictions in this young man’s life that saw him transform from the quintessential nice kid into someone capable of a cold-blooded act of terrorism.

The Wrong Stuff

It seems many Americans don’t want to know the truth about Jahar Tsarnaev and the hundreds of thousands of kids like him in towns and cities across America. If Jahar can turn on the society that he made his own and that made him welcome as a refugee and a citizen, then what’s to stop hundreds more from doing the same?
It’s much better, it seems, to demonise Dzhokhar Tsarnaev through the lens of the terror frame and to imagine him as a ‘Chechen’ with an ideological chip on his shoulder and as holding the devout (read ‘exrtremist’) views of his faith.
But that is not what Janet Reitman found. She reports that others in Jahar’s circle of friends had converted to Islam and that this was not seen as anything out of the ordinary.

A few years ago, for instance, one of their mutual friends decided to convert to Islam, which some, like Cara, thought was really cool, and others, like Jackson, met with a shrug. “But that’s the kind of high school we went to,” Jackson says. “It’s the type of thing where someone could say, ‘I converted to Islam,’ and you’re like, ‘OK, cool.'” And in fact, a number of kids they knew did convert, he adds. “It was kind of like a thing for a while.”

Yep, strange as it may seems to some of us, but this is a ‘thing’ now. When I was in high school I went to a Christian fellowship and I remember a tearful ‘coming to Jesus’ in the backseat of a friend’s car. I even got my own Bible. A few weeks later it was all over and I was back to being a fairly insistent non-believer. The only reason I went to fellowship was to get out of the house on a Friday night with money in my pocket, go into the Wagon Wheels hotel for an underage schooner and then try to pash one of the fellowship girls in the church graveyard.
I went on to become a level 7 aetheist and hardcore communist, but I never wanted to blow people up.
It seems that Tsarnaev expressed a certain amount of anti-American politics – such as not agreeing with its imperialist foreign policy – but that too, I would argue, is par for the course among that late teen age group. It is a time of rebellion, some of us never grow out of it, but most do.
What this episode really shows is that there’s no easy answers and that stereotyping is a foolish waste of time. But the reaction to the Rolling Stone piece is a little OTT. It is seen as being too sympathetic to the young man, but in tone and content it is not that different from a Boston Globe profile of the Tsarnaev brothers published in April 2013. There’s a fairly nice portrait of Jahar in that piece too.
Jahar Tsarnaev from a Boston Globe video

Jahar Tsarnaev from a Boston Globe video

A disturbing coincidence

There’s another disturbing link in this case that is another piece of the Tsarnaev puzzle.
It seems that the older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, is now being implicated in the September 2011 murder of a small-time Boston drug dealer and two others.
That killing occurred on either the 11th or 12th of September and the link to ‘9/11’ is now being theorised as deliberate.
Conveniently, another Chechen, who lived in Boston and was a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is alleged to have confessed to police that he and Tamerlan were involved in the drug dealer deaths, though at the time neither was questioned.
Even more conveniently, the police who questioned Ibragim Todashev about Tamerlan, say he was shot and killed by them during a ‘disturbance’ and just at the point in an interrogation where he was going to confess to his and Tsarnaev’s involvement in the drug dealer killings.

Todashev was fatally shot by an FBI agent at his condo near Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida just after midnight on Wednesday.

He had allegedly turned violent as he was preparing to sign a written confession to his and Tsarnaevs involvement in the 2011 triple homicide, said authorities.

‘The agent, two Massachusetts State Police troopers, and other law enforcement personnel were interviewing an individual in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing investigation when a violent confrontation was initiated by the individual,’ the FBI said in a statement.

‘During the confrontation, the individual was killed.’

This is a more comfortable narrative for many Americans. It makes the point (true or not) that at least one of the Boston bombing perpetrators was already a crazy fucking terrorist two years before the marathon attacks.
That explains everything, doesn’t it?

One tweet does not a revolution make: Technological determinism, media and social change

May 11, 2013

This is my recently published piece on technological determinism and revolution – case study of the Arab Spring.

Reprinted from Global Media Journal

Abstract

This paper discusses the problematic influence of technological determinism in popular news media coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring events of 2010-11.

The purpose is to develop insights into how and why elements of a ‘soft’ technological determinism inflect both journalistic practice and news discourse in relation to the Arab Spring. In particular it discusses how the ‘bias of convenience’ and a journalistic obsession with the ‘continuous present’ connect with this determinist inflection to create a potential distortion in the journalists’ ‘first rough draft’ of history in relation to significant and complex events such as social revolution.

Debates about the significance of social media and communications technologies more broadly in generating mass outbursts of protest and even violence have raged in the popular news media for the past decade at least. A wave of interest in ‘theories’ about how and why new services like Facebook and Twitter may create or enable mass protest was generated by the revolutionary events in Iran following the June 2009 elections (Hirst, 2011). Many of the arguments then and now, in coverage of the Arab Spring, are suggestive of a form of technological determinism that is coupled with other underlying and little-investigated assumptions inherent in most forms of news practice and discourse.

The question of the influence of technological determinism within journalism studies is a far from settled debate and this paper follows Mosco’s argument and suggests that the idea of a social media revolution is a myth of the ‘digital sublime’ (Mosco, 2004). At best social media is a new battleground in the struggle for information control. At worst it can blind activists and commentators to reality (Morozov, 2011).

Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping journos safe: more than a code of practice

May 30, 2010

About a year ago a 16 point code aimed at keeping Australian journalists safe in war zones and other areas of trauma reporting was released at a war reporting conference in Sydney. Last week in Auckland several New Zealand journalists suggested it was about time a similar code was established here.

Award-winning freelancer and producer, Jon Stephenson said that he hadn’t seen any progress in New Zealand in the year since the first Red Cross-sponsored conference on war reporting in Wellington; which coincided with the 2009 Sydney event.

Stephenson made his comments during a panel discussion at a follow-up event held at AUT in Auckland on the 24th of May.

TV3’s experienced correspondent and news anchor, Mike McRoberts, agreed with Stephenson, as did TV1’s Campbell Bennett.

The keynote speaker at the AUT event was former ABC correspondent and now journalism educator Tony Maniaty. It was a great speech in which Maniaty talked about the outsourcing of danger now that most large news organisations in Australia and New Zealand no longer have fully staffed bureaux in many places and tend to only send reporters into hot spots when a story is breaking. He also noted that smaller, lighter digital cameras mean that the safety net of a larger, tightly-knit group no longer exists. Heavy gear and complex camera-audio set ups required three or four people to manage, creating camraderie and support networks:

Today, my students can – and some do – circumvent all that rigmarole by walking around the corner, buying a laptop and HD camera and a cheap air ticket to Kabul, and two days later be filming – alone, unsupported – on the frontline. And in this increasingly prevalent scenario are two more challenges facing us. One, we need to inject compulsory safety training modules into our media courses; and two, we need to address more carefully the vexed issue of freelancers, and what I call ‘the outsourcing of danger’. If networks are not prepared to send staff reporters into hot zones, do they have any right to send others there – for far lower pay, without training or insurance or training, without safety gear?

The idea of running safety training modules in J-schools is an interesting one, but what do we leave out in order to include them? We constantly come up against this “pint pot” problem; I might also add that the news industry needs to take some responsibility here (and shoulder the cost). Though I think that having some sort of safety code is not a bad idea. Read the rest of this entry »


Shock, horror: Columnist admits shortcomings

February 20, 2010

Congratulations Tracey Barnett, you have won this week’s Poolittzer for unexpected honesty in journalism. You can pick up your prize – a neatly string-tied bundle of fish and chip wrappings – from  out the back of any dairy in central Auckland.

All facetiousness aside, Tracey is one of the more readable columnists in the New Zealand Herald – it might be because she’s not from ’round here. From memory I think I heard an American accent the last time I spoke with her. Sorry, I’ll really put that facet aside now.

Whatever the reason – Tracey thinks it was a well-earned rest from reading the news over summer – today’s column All commentary, no analysis, all of the time should be a wake-up call to the rest of her colleagues.

The basic premise is that columnists are show ponies who are so caught up in the hype of the news cycle that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

My profession suck at what they do. Let me be very specific. Commentators, pundits, columnists, people like me who get their little heads put in a box on the left side of the story, are myopic sheep – on a good day.

Someone finds a way to start the news narrative and like clueless lemmings, we all jump into the same plotline to finish each other’s sentences, clinging to page one.

Yep, I reckon she’s right and there’s a PhD thesis in there for some enterprising postgraduate. Read the rest of this entry »


State of Play: Commentary on contemporary journalism

May 4, 2009

I was able to catch an advanced screening of the new Russell Crowe flick, State of Play, over the weekend. Ben Affleck also stars as a rising Washington star who falls from grace.

All I can say is, if you’ve got any interest at all in journalism and the news business, go and see it when it hits a cinema near you.

I’m not a huge Crowe fan and certainly wouldn’t go to see State of Play because he’s in it. It’s the story that’s interesting.

The movie is a Hollywood adaptation of a BBC TV series of the same name. It’s a political thriller and the plot’s fairly standard for the genre – mysterious shooter pegs small time crook leading to bigger fish and a national security scandal. Anyone who’s seen it will instantly make comparisons with All the President’s men.

What’s very interesting about this version is that it’s been updated to the digital age and there’s lots of references to blogging and whether or not that’s “real” journalism. Jokes about YouTube and celebrity also help to keep it topical.

But for me, the drama is in Helen Mirren’s role as the publisher of the Washington Globe as she comes to terms with the declining health of her once great newspaper. That side of the story rings very true. Mirren has all the great lines: “Reporters don’t have friends, they have sources.”

Read the rest of this entry »


A Current Affair – crash test dummies

May 13, 2007


Crew faces probe over crash – General – News – smh.com.au

Those fun-loving boys and girls over at Channel Nine’s A Current Affair are in the sh!t again. It seems they may have caused an accident in Melbourne while shooting a story on ‘nasty’ truck drives who hog the road.
The details are in this SMH story, but it’s still under investigation by Victorian police.
I wonder if they had another crew chasing the ambulance sent to the scene.