November 23, 2022

Democracy cannot survive for long without a vibrant and independent press. So the journalism and communications programs where many of tomorrow’s journalists learn have a moral obligation to reimagine what they do.

They must educate journalists to thrive in today’s chaotic environment even as they prepare them to pave the way toward a new and more sustainable journalism in the future.

Over 30 years as a reporter, editor, teacher and journalism school administrator, I have watched journalism’s business model and its bond of trust with Americans weakened to the breaking point. When I arrived in Washington in 1998, I was one of a handful of Latino reporters working for English-language news outlets in the nation’s capital. Today, our field is more diverse, but it remains far from representative of the communities we cover. These industry challenges are reflected in low enrollment at some journalism and communications programs, in higher education’s continuing diversity problem, and in the attacks that student journalists and their teachers face at high schools and colleges across the country.

Threats to democracy, the free press and journalism education are inextricably linked:

  • A lack of diversity in the industry and the academy.
  • The low salaries of entry-level journalists and the high cost of education.
  • A broken business model that has led to the collapse of local news outlets.
  • A curriculum that struggles to keep up with changes in the field.
  • Dwindling civics education and civic participation, and the corresponding explosion of mis- and disinformation.

Journalism educators do not have the power to fix society’s problems any more than a free press on its own can save democracy. But we have an obligation to build a journalism education model that keeps us grounded in core values while looking to a future we cannot predict.

What follows, I learned working with colleagues and students to improve and rethink how and what we teach. It is a foundational aspiration, the beginning of a dialogue about how journalism education can improve in the service of democracy. I look forward to engaging with other ideas that help us create thriving environments for our students, for our field and for our shared democratic values.

Here are seven ideas that can serve as guideposts.

Articulate clear principles and abandon practices that do not serve our citizens

We must examine what we teach and why so as to separate the comforting routines we’ve repeated for decades from the core principles we wish to pass on. We should proudly defend our belief in facts, fairness and the search for truth, for example. Getting things right, from the big disputes to the proper spelling of the eyewitness’ names will always be important. Talking to and hearing from people with abhorrent views is necessary if we are to understand what ails us.

But a journalist’s job is to seek the most accurate version of the truth available at any given time. That requires honest and rigorous investigation. It requires that we identify where power lies and who is being excluded. What better places than universities, where the scientific method reigns supreme, to reinforce the idea that if our methods are rigorous and transparent, we can stop with the misleading “they said/they said” debates. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue in “The Elements of Journalism,” let’s teach our students to be methodologically objective — curious, rigorous and transparent.

Diversify our people and our practices

When newsrooms and their leadership don’t reflect the communities they cover, they fail to understand and properly serve them. Journalism and communications programs suffer from the same problem. We must strive to diversify our faculties, staff and student bodies to help ameliorate the problem. But that is not enough. We need to broaden how we think, who and how we teach, what we cover, and our view of what constitutes journalism. The Accrediting Council on Journalism and Mass Communications calls for programs to demonstrate that they have “a diverse and inclusive program that embodies domestic and global diversity and that empowers those traditionally disenfranchised in society, especially as grounded in race, ethnicity, gender, ability and sexual orientation.” Our credibility and our purpose in a self-governing society are at stake if we fail to follow through.

Innovate while being nimble and transparent

Not everything we do needs to be part of a three-credit class, an eight-semester degree program, or a track so inflexible it is obsolete the moment it completes the university’s approval process. I am not arguing that we water down the approval process for courses and programs. That process serves a purpose by focusing on high standards. But at a time of rapid change in our field, we need to re-imagine how we teach and how our students learn. We need to create programs with built-in flexibility that allow us to adapt quickly, even if just at the margins, in ways that keep what we teach more relevant and up to date. We need to build in research and experimentation that is driven by curiosity. That should be natural at universities. Maybe most importantly, we need to be unafraid to fail fast and teach our students the same. And when we fail, let’s be open about how and why, and how we will try to be better the next time. Transparency engenders trust.

Collaborate across disciplines and across hierarchies

This starts inside our own walls with journalism and communications researchers and practitioners working and teaching with each other, and with our students. We have much to learn from our students, who can see the problems before them and don’t yet fear change. Professional journalists need to continue to build news collaboratives that enhance local coverage as well as national and international investigations. Our students can learn how to do that while they’re in school if we reach beyond our campuses and work with other journalism programs, local and national news outlets, and others. There is also much we can learn about technologies, methods and ways of approaching problems from engineers, social scientists and others on our campuses. And there is much we can teach them, too. For example, we must teach the non-journalists why we believe in saying out loud the uncomfortable things that those in power would rather we not repeat. The non-journalists may not like it. Most people don’t. But they’re smart enough to understand why it’s important to democracy and to the kind of independent thought valued at universities. Autocrats don’t believe in academic freedom, after all.

Serve the public while giving our students needed experience

Our students need to learn and understand the theories and history that underpin our craft and our society. They also need better education about how their government and other institutions are supposed to work, and where they fall short. But they must learn while getting experience in the real world. Journalism and communications programs across the country are covering local communities, state legislatures and more. They are partnering with news organizations at every level. Let’s do more. It helps our students and it serves an important public function.

Open our doors more widely

Journalism cannot be the province of the elite. But rising tuition and low salaries often make it just that. We must find ways to support more students who want to get into the field, be it through fundraising or new structures. And we have to help them graduate without overwhelming student loan burdens that exacerbate the already high level of burnout in our profession. Large schools should partner with smaller ones as a way to spread cutting-edge teaching in data analysis, augmented reality and other areas. Four-year programs should partner with community colleges to help provide smoother pathways into our field. And let’s make it easier for computer science students and others in STEM fields to minor, double major or get master’s degrees in our disciplines. They make us better.

Defend democracy and the First Amendment

There is no greater challenge today than the threat to democracy. There should be no shame in standing up for the only profession besides religion that is enumerated in the First Amendment. What journalists and communicators do freely in our country often leads to a prison sentence or worse at the hands of despots of the left, the right and the power-hungry around the world. Let’s make sure our students know that advocating for a free press and advocating for democracy go hand in hand.

The thoughts above are not a prescription as much as a path for beginning to reimagine the journalism of the future. Let’s teach our students how to lead so they can invent that journalism of the future — the journalism that helps save democracy.

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Rafael Lorente is the associate dean for academic affairs at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and a former Washington…
Rafael Lorente

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