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‘Journalism’s crisis of confidence’ A challenge for universities

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A group of shakers in American journalism and leaders of various communications schools came together in late 2005 to discuss the future of journalism and contemplate what can be done to generate a more compelling, honest and fair press in American life. The report from that gathering and extended movement came this season in the mails and it bears good scrutiny.

Largely the brainchild of Carnegie Corporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian, joined early by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a high-powered initiative is launched with the challenge to help “reinvent American journalism” by upgrading its educational programs, general quality and professionalism. In his introduction to “Journalism’s Crisis of Confidence,” Gregorian comments on our “unhistorical age,” how little Americans remember the importance of a free and spirited journalism to the Founding Fathers in colonial times. He cited the role of Benjamin Franklin, his brother James and the most famous case of all, the struggle to free journalist John Peter Zenger, in which public crowds took to the streets demanding freedom of the press. Between 1690 and the 1730s, the field developed its own American profession and set the stage for its selection as a constitutional right.

Today, by contrast, journalism is in dire straights, with surveys showing a drop in trust in journalism from 84 percent in 1985 to 54 percent in 2004 (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; a Yankelovich survey had only 14 percent saying they trusted what they read in media). The required credibility of journalism as accurate and fair is substantially diminished. The serious public is fed up with the shrill shouting heads and unsubstantiated rumor-mongering, from the exaggerations (and hard-hitting reporting) of the Katrina story to the sheepish watchdog performance during the buildup to the Iraq War. “Shock jocks … info-tainment, diversity without standards … information without wisdom … events without context … news wrapped in ideology …” laments Gregorian, noting how the explosion of all types of media, and the 24-hour news cycle that sweeps 1,700 daily and 6,800 weekly newspapers, 1,600 broadcast television stations, 8,500 cable systems, 13,000 radio stations and 28 million Internet blogs, saturates modern life.

While the universal trend is large-scale consolidation (six major corporations now control the major U.S. media), one parallel current is the growth of ethnic media as self-identifying groups, including tribes and cross-tribal national communities, share information bases, worldviews and unique universes of community/cultural and scholarly sources and voices. More than half of all Americans consult their own ethnic media and, surveys show, have more trust in their ethnic media than in mainstream media. Indian Country Today, represented at the Carnegie forum via our participation in the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative, is an example of ethnic media that focuses on news and perspective for the Native world. There is no contradiction in wanting to serve one’s own community of people and a commitment to accuracy, fairness and truth.

The need to develop our own media as well as interact with all media reflected our own message for the forum, which was to encourage deans of prestigious journalism schools in attendance to offer a substantial curriculum on American Indian history and legal universe for their journalism students. (The substantial group included deans and senior administrators from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism; Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University Graduate School of Journalism; Graduate School of Journalism, University of California – Berkeley; Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California; and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, among others.)

The ideological attacks of the past year on Indian tribes, evidencing so much shoddy, derivative journalism even from major news sources, gives us all good reason for wanting to see the profession upgraded. Thus we were encouraged by former executive editor of The New York Times, Max Frankel, who called senior journalists and educators to the “obligation to attack the irresponsible practice of our craft.” The intent is to “improve the practice of journalism” and thus enhance the democratic principle.

With more than half of working journalists coming out of journalism schools, the discussion with the deans is keen strategy. Columbia Graduate School of Journalism Dean Nicholas Lemann emphasized comprehensive courses in politics, science, businesses and the arts, focus on “evidence and inference” and advanced techniques for gathering and assessing information. Developing judgment and ability to learn was a focus. Many spoke on the need for more depth in the range of subjects covered, stronger training. Berkeley’s Orville Schell encouraged the deans to address media ethics issues on the national level, while Alex Jones from Harvard outlined four major topics on which the initiative will focus:

• Gathering definitive research on American media habits.

• Engaging new kinds of media, including ethnic media.

• Studying use of news products in teaching history, writing, civics and other subjects.

• Sharing of curriculum developed by journalism schools and other educational institutions.

We were happy to weigh in on the need for the Carnegie and other initiatives. As always, we pressed for more depth in the general coverage of American Indian subjects. Too often the invisibility of Native populations leads reporters to think of tribes and tribal life as anachronistic, when in fact, tribes continue and are very much of the modern, contemporary world, but with unique cultural ways that persist, such as the gathering of the people as tribal relatives, the persistence of territorial jurisdictions and the resilience of traditional spiritual lifeways.

With such substantial media folks, publics and institutions represented at the Carnegie forum, we hope the small nations and communities within the grand union won’t be forgotten.

Orville Schell has responded to early critics who have suggested that the Carnegie initiative, joined by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, lacks credibility beyond the core “elitist” schools. “Some wonder if this ‘initiative’ is not just a caucus of self-righteous and self-designated elitist deans … that is not the case,” he writes. Certainly, it does not have to be. Journalism is still a working-class profession; learning how to learn and how to be good “generalists,” an emphasis on improving the craft of writing, is called for. In an increasingly hostile and ideologically abusive environment, courage is a required quality. Beyond career-building, a strong heart for the work of informing the people to improve community and world is prime.

More than ever, perhaps, North America is amalgamated from unique and distinct communities of people, each with its own history and sense of time and place and each with its own relationship to the American (and Iroquoian) concept of e pluribus unum. Mutual and common understanding and acceptance is crucial at this time in history.

As law schools have incorporated Indian law courses, so might journalism schools incorporate courses on American Indian social, cultural and economic life, the history of federal/tribal relations, contemporary issues and points of contention. The ethnic press, and certainly the Native press, is another avenue of introduction to sources in the various ethnic communities. Journalists can be challenged to speak directly to Indian sources for stories that report on a tribal people, tribal government or other entity.

The “inherent” continuity of tribal sovereign rights over tribal lands and jurisdiction is as real as it is complex for most Americans to understand, yet for several million American Indians, relatives and relations, representing a universe of cultural unity and diversity, political and corporate boards and councils and businesses representing a collective economy of two dozen billion U.S. dollars, it is an ongoing reality.

The wonder of human resiliency is that American Indians as a national community – the most reduced minority in American society – nevertheless feature a splendid diversity. Tribal knowledge is very local and yet universal. Long memory is valued. As American journalism education reformulates itself, encouraged by initiatives such as Carnegie’s, depth of understanding of minority and tribal communities should become an encouraged, nay, a required subject. The “pulverization” of the tribe, as advocated by Teddy Roosevelt, gave way to the recognition, increasingly by all who have them, of the “ties that bind.”

This is the concept of the living and continuing community – a reality to often missed and dismissed by American mainstream journalism.