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)
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.
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.
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.
There is a fifth dimension; a parallel universe that revolves around a decrepit, dying and dangerous orb of hot gasses that is liable to frequent explosions raining down hot solar gusts of bile and venom on any random planetary object that displeases the ancient Sun King.
Welcome to the universe of News Corp; a solar system cut off from the rest of creation by an impenetrable wall of bias and a cult-like devotion to a host of terrible Gods. This parallel universe defies the laws of gravity and the morality of humans; it relies instead on the ancient and immutable laws of Murdochracy.
Even those who have served the Sun King with loyalty for many years live out their lives in fear of his vengeful minions. As former Times editor Andrew Neil famously wrote, to lose favour with the Sun King; to break the unwritten rules of Murdochracy is to be cast out from the universe to while away your days among mere mortals.
All life revolves around the Sun King; all authority comes from him. He is the only one to whom allegiance must be owed, and he expects his word to be final. There are no other references but him. He is the only benchmark, and anybody of importance reports directly to him. Normal management structures—all the traditional lines of authority, communication, and decision-making in the modern business corporation—do not matter. The Sun King is all that matters.
A few days ago, my English colleague Paul Bradshaw wrote a piece “There’s no such thing as a ‘student journalist'” on his Online Journalism blog. He argues that there should be no distinction between journalists or students of journalism (presumably training to be employed as journalists after graduation) because they are both publishers of information and the students carry out the actions of journalists — they are effectively “doing” journalism — while they learn the skills, technologies and attitudes of the profession.
Students are experiencing first hand the culture of journalism, the experience of journalism and the social consequences of what they do. Paul writes:
There is no such thing as a ‘student journalist’.
Students of journalism no longer practise their work in the seclusion of a classroom. They do not write solely for lecturers, or even for each other.
Any student on a course with some awareness of the modern media world publishes their own blogs; their student media is accessible around the world. They contribute to networks, and build communities.
Even if their course provides no opportunities to do any of these things, they will have Twitter accounts, or Facebook accounts.
All of which means that they are publishers.
I don’t disagree with this in principle. Certainly any journalism course worthy of the name would be requiring students to participate in what I like to call “live fire” news exercises. These are usually done under close supervision. However, writing a blog as part of coursework (and for many students it is an onerous requirement of their study, rather than something they enjoy or immediately see the benefits of) is not journalism. Blogging is not journalism and I thought that debate was settled years ago.
Nor does publishing (in a very loose sense of the word) to Twitter and Facebook constitute an act of journalism, nor does it make reporters out of students.
Sure, every university student has a Facebook presence and some, but not all (and perhaps not even a majority) have a Twitter account, and even fewer are blogging with any regularity, if at all. Despite the hype, the digital natives continue to be social users of social media and rarely do their tweets or Facebooking or other encounters with social media (Instagram, etc) reach what we might call acceptable professional levels. (See for example, Hirst, M., & Treadwell, G. (2011). ‘Blogs bother me’: Social media, journalism and the curriculum. Journalism Practice, 5(4), 446-461. doi: 10.1080/17512786.2011.555367, the pre-publication version is available here).
So, on a purely practical level — that is the stage of professionalism achieved and achievable in the three years of an undergraduate degree — most of our journalism students are not operating as professional, or what I might describe as “real” journalists. Another practical point that we have to consider: not everyone in a journalism course wants to be a journalist and, even among those who do want to be, not all of them will make it for a variety of reasons.
Therefore, our role as journalism educators is more than producing the next generation of newsroom fodder, or even the next Pulitzer prize winner. It is a broader academic role: that of critic and theorist as well as cadet wrangler on behalf of News Corp or whomever the employer is likely to be.
The newsroom is a classroom; the classroom is a newsroom
For 20 years I have operated my journalism courses according to the principle that the classroom is a newsroom, but also that the newsroom is still a classroom. I believe that this is an important point to make in this current debate because, at the end of the day, we owe it to our students to recognise their status as students first and foremost.
To assume that we can (and should) treat them like fully-fledged working reporters does them a disservice and it could also be dangerous for them and for us. I do not want to seem like an old fogey, or as someone who thinks that the average 18-year-old is not mature enough to be treated like an adult. Of course they are and they deserve respect from their teachers and from members of the public that they interact with when we send them out into the world beyond the campus to practice their journalism.
And that word practice is the key. It is practice, to do something repeatedly in order to gain the skill; rather than practice as the performance of the work of a trade or profession that students are engaged in.
In my view, if we do not acknowledge the student status of our students (no, that’s not a tautology), we are not being diligent in our duty of care (the pastoral role of all teachers at all levels) to ensure that we “first do no harm”. Yes, we have to, as Paul rightly points out, engage our students in the daily routines and socialisation of newsroom practice and we have to move beyond the newsroom model too; but in doing so, we have to be constantly mindful that our pupils must be kept safe.
It is true that often the best way to learn is by failure — trial and error — and getting your hands dirty in real journalism exercises is valuable and effective pedagogy, but our students also need to know that the consequences of their failures are not catastrophic.
I have no problem with most of Paul’s points. Putting students in touch with local news outlets which might take their work is a key part of their learning experience. That is also why we offer internships and other work-experience opportunities. At my university we even give it a fancy name “work-integrated learning” and the acronym WIL. It is integrated into everything we do.
The same logic motivates us (journalism academics) to provide students with in-house publication outlets, from newsprint, through collaborations with local community radio and television stations and, increasingly, an online presence edited by tutors, or “journalists-in-residence”.
I think the danger in Paul’s assertion that there are no student journalists is that it might encourage us to forget that we are no longer in the news business. We are, first and foremost, in the education business. The job of the journalism academic (at least in the teaching side) is to educate, not to chase the news.
We can sometimes forget this and can get caught up in the day-to-day excitement of the hunt for news and chasing the story of the day.
But my advice for journalism academics who think this is the main game is simple: Go back to the newsroom.
It is not our job any more to get the “scoop”, we should not be thinking that the best way to influence the news process is to become part of it again from the sanctuary of the ivory tower. Sure, we need to act as editor, sub-editor and mentor to the student journalists in our classrooms, but we should do this from the perspective of teaching and learning, not from the view of an editor whose job is to rundown the news and satisfy the public demand for information.
Any publication that arises from the work our students do while learning journalism is secondary to the real goal which has to be ensuring that the student experience of journalism education is a good one; that the learning outcomes are met; that the assignments are suitable to the level of study and that the students do not leave our institutions scarred for life because of a bad situation that could have and should have been managed more effectively.
One final point, which is also a comment on Paul’s reference to the “teaching hospital” model of journalism education which is based on the premise that university journalism programs should be covering local communities as a matter of course and as a priority at the top of the list of all the things they should be doing.
The key argument in favour of this is not one of pedagogy but of pragmatism. The reasoning advanced by supporters of this model is that the mainstream media is failing both in terms of garnering and holding public trust and also in terms of business modelling.
This is no doubt true and has been for a while. I wrote extensively on these issues in my 2011 book News 2.0 and I gave it the subtitle “Can journalism survive the Internet?” However, it is not, in my view, the fundamental role of the j-school to substitute for a strong news media outside the campus.
Maybe our graduates can be part of the solution to the declining popularity and profitability of the news industry, but not while they are students. To expect that of them is to place too much pressure on their shoulders at a time when they should be engaged with learning and critique.
In recent days The Australian has launched a vitriolic and highly personal campaign against Margaret Simons the director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University. The campaign is aimed at discrediting Meg and her colleagues (me included) who teach journalism and who are critical of some aspects of the Australian news media.
The Australian thinks that Margaret and others are part of some leftwing conspiracy. In other words, anyone with an opinion that editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell disagrees with is fair game for slander and professional assassination.
The premise for this nasty war against Margaret Simons and other journalism academics is that Meg is somehow in the wrong for not ‘disclosing’ that she was asked to provide a name to the Finkelstein review of someone who might make a useful research assistant for the inquiry. The undertone is that anyone critical of the current set up is naturally a Stalinist who wants to shut down the free press in Australia on behalf of the political class.
This is ridiculous and unsustainable, but it doesn’t stop the News Limited papers from barking on about it.
I am a defender of Margaret Simons, though I don’t know what ‘Advanced Journalism’ might be and Meg and I probably disagree on elements of both the Finkelstein inquiry and its value and on aspects of journalism education.
As is usual in such situations, The Australian has made no attempt to find an alternative viewpoint, instead over the past few days it has rolled out the usual suspects – convenient sources who have been used before and who are guaranteed to sing off the same hymnsheet as The Australian and who can be used as ‘useful idiots’ to promote its editorial line.
Shameful, sleazy, nasty and dirty. It is exactly what we have come to expect from this self-indulgent rag.
I have written an open letter to Nick Leys and other journalists at The Australian who are involved in this beat up. I am challenging them to offer a right of reply and indicating that I am willing to provide it at short notice so that it can be in Monday’s media section.
An open letter to Nick Leys & others at The Australian
I’m disappointed with the piece today by Christian Kerr, (additional reporting by you),
We now know academics favouring a new regulatory regime were brought into key roles in the inquiry.
Actually, you know nothing of the sort. Your paper has accused Margaret Simons of being a conspiracy theorist, but on this yarn you lot have out-conspiracied the Roswell crowd.
It is not unusual for government departments to discuss and recommend to ministers on the appointment of advisors and inquiry personnel. There’s nothing at all unusual in that.
But your motivation is not honest reporting, it is part of a political agenda you are running to shut down discussion and debate about the lack of transparency and accountability in the Australian media. You have built a monster out of spare parts and bullshit and now you want to chase it down.
Hot off the press
Scooped is finally available. You can order online from Exisle Books
This book is the first new text on New Zealand journalism in ten years. Scooped is an edited collection of essays canvassing the politics and power of journalism and the news media in New Zealand today.
Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand critically examines some of the most pressing economic, political, social and cultural issues facing journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Approaching journalism as a field of cultural production, the book brings together contributions from a diverse list of academics and journalists, and interrogates the commonsense assumptions that typically structure public discussion of journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rather than simply treating power as something others have, and politics as something that the media simply covers, the book situates journalism itself as a site of power and cultural politics. Lamenting the often antagonistic relationship between journalism and academia, the book offers a vision of a critically engaged journalism studies that should be of interest to academics, students, journalists and general readers.
Some reviews of News 2.0.
For the record
This is an excellent book, a must-read for every journalism student, tutor, journalist, media manager and academic media-watcher.
Newzwire Jim Tucker
Hirst is undoubtedly the right person to tackle the job, having previously co-authored Journalism Ethics and Communications and New Media and here all that expertise is used to illuminate the precarious state of journalism in the digital age.
Artshub Matt Millikan
Hirst suggests one of the main reasons people turn online for their news is a mistrust of mainstream media by the public. Overall, the book was an interesting read.
The Fringe Magazine Scott Wilson
And the first…Alan Knight, professor of journalism at UTS, Sydney
Mainstream journalism has failed the public interest, reckons author, Martin Hirst. Citizen journalism is too feeble to provide a viable alternative. The future looks grim.
Fortunately, Dr Hirst believes that pessimism of the intellect should be coupled with optimism of the will.
I’m recently arrived in Timaru for the New Zealand Journalism Education Association (JEANZ) 2010 annual conference.
I’m giving a paper examining the job market for journalists in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK. The bulk of this post is about that [and it’s quite interesting].
The JEANZ agenda looks great and just enough speakers to fill one-and-a-half days. Our host is Peter O’Neill and the Aoraki journalism staff. The theme this year is “What editors want”. I’m sitting in the very pleasant Aspen on King motel and I have a half-smirk / half-grimace on the dial as I ponder this statement.
You see, there is no question-mark, but perhaps there should be. At a similar session at last week’s Australian JEA conference, there was a lively debate between the panel of editorial trainers and the assembled hackademics. I’ve got some notes here somewhere…I’ll dig them out and be right back. Read the rest of this entry »