What J-School is

Let’s forget for a moment that Sharri Markson’s stint undercover at UTS and USyd was more or less an extremely unethical Never Been Kissed. The real kicker about her research into the way media is taught at Australian universities is that it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what media education is (and needs to be) in a liberal democracy – a misconception that is gaining traction.

Firstly, as has been pointed out elsewhere, not all media students want to be journalists.

But, giving Markson the benefit of the doubt – that at least some of the students in the lectures she infiltrated were future journalists – her assumptions about what makes a media education are still distressing. Markson’s main concern was that News Corp was being dragged through the mud for not only its influence but for the sheer fact of its size – and that this betrayed a leftist bias. While it may be an uncomfortable for everyone that News Corp dominates the Australian media landscape, it’s hard to see how obscuring that information makes for better-educated journalists (even if it might make for more subservient ones). And there’s the rub: what Markson’s report really argues for is the rationalisation of media education – that journalism students should be taught the nuts and bolts of making a story, and only enough about power, criticism and the industry itself as to get around without making a nuisance of themselves.

After all, journalists who aren’t in touch with what power is and how it is controlled will be far less inclined to bring it into question.

There’s a very good reason why journalism career pathways tend to be guided through a media degree. The idea that students need only be ‘job ready’ in terms of the raw skills necessary to read off a teleprompter (or to remember how to spell Grauniad, for that matter) threatens the notion of the responsible, publicly engaged and incisive journalist. A newsroom may be a place for quick decision making and ruthless pragmatism, but the development of a well-informed, analytically savvy and skilful journalist – a university’s responsibility – isn’t about teaching green kids how to pitch Today Tonight leads.

Theory matters for several reasons if students are to be successful, well-rounded and adaptable in an industry that’s changing and losing shape faster than an icecream at the Boxing Day Test. Besides the fact that no one has ever been poorer for reading some Habermas (or skimming through some lecture slides), the alternative is to learn only about the ‘how’ of the industry you’re entering and not about what that ‘how’ means. Being kept in the willful ignorance that Markson advocates about the reality of the industry would make the next generation of News Corp journos more akin to peasant conscripts than world-beating factfinders.

Students go into debt not just for a degree, but for the opportunity to be equipped to succeed in an uncertain future. Any media studies course with student interests at heart will seek to equip them with a thorough understanding of what news has been and how it has functioned, so they can learn to read the history and the present of the media, and be prepared to deal with future challenges. This isn’t just in the service of being able to rattle off classic pun headlines, as fun as that is. Unless you view journalism as a divide-and-conquer game of controlling and manipulating information (and even if you do), uncritical and unanalytical education will fail to provide students with a thorough understanding of how news functions in the real world, and why, even if they know how to produce it. Consider the theories of media influence, the history of the penny press, the rise of CNN as a challenge to pre-existing models, the code behind Facebook ads, and yes, even the power wielded by Australian mainstream media: understandings of all of these are vital tools in the journalist’s kit, helping them to deliver better content, write better stories for their employers and their audiences, and to stay a step ahead of the digital funhouse.

Theory and critical analysis are especially relevant when it comes to context for the changes currently unfolding in the media landscape. Markson criticised an assignment that involved researching new and independent media but skills in recognising, utilising and staying ahead of new media are only going to become more important as the fish and chip papers go the way of the VCR and the 8-track tape. How do you stay ahead by closing your eyes? We’re all newborns in the new media landscape, but journalists have to be trained now not only to have a scent for the story but to know the how, the why and the who of the telling – a process that is far, far more complex than keeping your i’s dotted and your eyes on the camera. Besides, by critically understanding the contemporary media environment, students will better know what kind of journalists they want to be within the Australian media context: who wants to put a graduate on salary only for them to bail for the New Left Review in a fit of self-realisation a month later?

When talking about responsible journalism, it always feels facile to invoke the heroes of the past, because for every Watergate, there’s likely to be a dozen Utegates. Like the Grand Final, responsible journalism is all about the one-percenters. After all, news isn’t just the delivery of journalism; so often, it is ideology presented as fact. Every article comes as the final product of a long series of decisions – a combination of the conscious, unconscious and editorial – and universities have an obligation to ensure their students are best placed to identify and weigh up these decisions along the path to print or publish. As such, another important element of an education in journalism is the study of stories done wrong – and, funnily enough, the mainstream media have a lot to answer for in that department. For example, the coverage of the 2007 murder of Liep Gony remains a chilling example of what uninformed, hasty journalism can do to inflame racial prejudice, spread misinformation and foster social exclusion.

In this context, Markson’s lament that ‘rather than be inspired by some examples of excellent newspaper journalism’ students were asked to hunt out successful examples of new media journalism becomes comical.

Beyond that, an understanding of what News Corp is should be vital to any student of journalism. If a student doesn’t realise how different a story in a Murdoch paper is to a blog by an embedded freelance journalist (in terms of power, ideology, influence and reach), what bloody use are they? News Corp may be our biggest employer of journalists, but if I sent someone out to write a story about the company and the corporation’s size was all they came back with, I’d wonder about what they had ticking under their bonnet.

Even a student who wants to write for the Australian should be aware of what levers are in the hands of the Murdoch press. Power is real. If ‘doggedly unimaginative’ and ‘uncurious’ are on the News Corp employment criteria, then I wish Murdoch and co. a very happy twenty-first century for the brief and finite amount of time they’ll be relevant.

After all, if a university isn’t the place where you’re taught how to learn to think independently, critically and analytically, then where else is there? Journalism in a democracy cannot ever be defined by the wishes of the big players, especially to those who are devoting the best years of their lives to studying the practice, meaning and making of media. Students deserve an opportunity to make up their own minds, and that means exposure to the greatest breadth of thought possible. If you still want to write for the Spectator after being forced by your professor to study Adorno, then your peerage awaits you. But ultimately, if people are taught skills but not shown what those skills mean when they’re used, they’re on a short walk off a long dock. The banality of Eichmann’s evil, after all, emerged from the dedication of finely-honed abilities to the service of horrors. If we are to speak to and for one another, we must know what that speaking means.

The Australian could do with going back to school again – and maybe listening up this time.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Alex Griffin is a writer and researcher from Kenwick, focusing on labour, technology and Australian marginalia. His work has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Voiceworks, JUNKEE and Overland. He tweets @griffreviews.

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  1. I did the BA in Communications at UTS way back in 1980s and it was a left leaning education even then. So what’s the story Sharri? Nothing new?
    Back in those days we listened to Pro Palestinian, Marxist feminist lecturers who were critical of everything in modern society. I learnt a lot about how to analyse, criticise and, above all, how to write. But dont worry, I went on to be an honest taxpayer with a big corporation, working in internal Comms. I guess if I just wanted to work for a daily newspaper I could have done on the job training rather than a degree. This degree was the making of me, I enjoyed it immensely.

  2. The Markson stoush is wayyyy overblown. The ‘shocking’ revelation of bias recalls that silly work-up of a couple years back when the Sydney Morning Herald ran a ‘news’ story declaring that there was ‘a worldwide epidemic of collage poetry plagiarism’, a claim that almost brought on a heart attack of laughter. Bias? Much ado that doesn’t even rise to the level of being about nothing.

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