A New Urgency for Journalism

Another new semester will dawn at West Texas A&M University next week. Just as the summer starts its predictable fade into fall, I’ll once again find myself inside a classroom, meeting new students and catching up with familiar ones.

I appreciate the academic cycle, with its built-in opportunities for renewal and change. Every semester offers the chance to start over, and faculty members appreciate it as much as students do. I’ve modified some course assignments, thrown out some others, and tried to predict how I need to prepare my students for a mass communication industry that seems to change daily.

There’s an element of this change in media that concerns me more so today than it has at any point in my professional or academic career as a journalist.

At the moment, American journalism is on the losing end of a culture war.

Much of this, I believe, stems from a deep level of ignorance among the public regarding what journalism actually is.

What I practiced, what I teach, and what I believe is that true journalism has service to the public as its highest goal. A major part of that service is employing an objective journalistic process that seeks to find the truth, is fair, expects accountability and provides the public with information that is relevant to their lives.

However, what the public often understands as journalism is wall-to-wall coverage of the Jodi Arias murder trial; radio and cable talk shows with their hordes of highly compensated opinion mongers; interviews with questionably talented celebrities who just had their first babies; and anchors/reporters who freely speculate during a live interview about what might or might not be happening.

The American news media’s slide toward providing entertainment instead of building knowledge, valuing business models instead of model journalism, and pursuing ratings and website clicks instead of stories that actually, really matter to anyone’s daily life, has invited an erosion of  support and understanding.

I’m not one to gripe about something without contributing some fixes. The advantage of being a college professor is that I interact with members of journalism’s upcoming generation every day. It’s my privilege to help them build a foundation that they’ll be able to stand on for the rest of their careers. I’m specific and honest with them about my attitudes and beliefs regarding journalism, how it’s a noble career that requires fortitude, perseverance, personal sacrifice and strong ethical principles.

I see these things developing in my best students. They will be the ones making the changes journalism needs.

Classes start on Monday. I’m excited about it.

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