Professionalization Without Standardization: Journalism Education, Voice, and Democracy

I attended two conferences a week ago on a sort of crazy schedule: Auburn, Alabama on Friday afternoon; back in New York City for conference number two on Saturday morning. But I presented two papers I care quite strongly about.

Friday’s paper was the first in what I hope will be a series developing a theory of the First Amendment based on one of my media theory heroes, the late Jim Carey. I call it a “Conversation Model” of the First Amendment, one that is rooted in the cultural studies idea that conversation constitutes culture–or the idea that we are a product of our interactions with each other, our environment, and with various media. It’s a theory that I think encourages individual voices.

Saturday morning, I presented my history of American journalism schools from the end of the Civil War to the founding of Columbia’s J-school in 1912. My thesis there is that journalism didn’t take up the opportunity to solidify itself as a professional school when others (law, medicine, education, and on and on) did, fusing Progressivism, German universities’ ideas of research and the burgeoning middle-class professionalism.

Bt as I was gathering material for yet another paper that I plan to write (this one analyzing the robust history of anti-J-school rants), I had the idea that the real problem with journalism school is that it doesn’t teach ideals; that it teaches standards. And standardization is the enemy of voice. And voice is the primary component of conversation. And conversation is essential to Democracy. And a free press is the great bulwark of liberty.

(The impetus for this link was an essay by Ron Rosenbaum on a wonderful NYU compilation of essays about J-school.)

So here is the challenge to myself. Three things I need to write now:

1. That analysis of the anti-J-school rant.
2. An essay (or maybe a reported article, even for the mainstream media?) about how the Columbia J-school revitalization (which spawned that NYU online colloquium) got derailed–telling the story from Lee Bollinger’s halting of the dean search in 2002 until Nick Lemann’s (accidental?) release of his self-evaluation a couple of months ago.
3. My dissertation, fully exploring the links between democracy and the education of journalists.

Maybe that last one is too ambitious. But I like ambitious.

Anyway, the implications of this for journalism instructors: teach the democratic implications. Don’t stifle the voice with “technique.”

It’s not a fully-formed idea. Feel free to pick it apart.

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