Academia has set up legacy media to fail the test of change

Plus ca change?

In a 2015 the Sydney Writer’s Festival discussion, journalists Heather Brooke and Alex Mitchell discussed the changing nature of journalism. Mitchell, a veteran of 50 years, commented that “When I started in newspapers if you hung around the newspaper office or the newsroom, you were considered some kind of bludger…Now, if you’re out of the office they say…‘he or she should be working away at their computer getting stories.’” But different methods of gathering information are not the only changes in journalism.

Australian political editor Dennis Shanahan writes how journalism has evolved from a trade to a profession, from cadetships to degrees. A university education, Shanahan says, should inculcate a way of thinking essential to modern journalism: critical thinking. The ability to analyse and apply independent thought.

Unfortunately, universities are suddenly forgetting about all that. Critical thinking has been discarded in favour of Critical Theory: parroting rote-learned Marxist cliches. Quote:

The requirements for journalists were persistence, curiosity, the ability to work under pressure, to be able to get along with people, to be at times physically courageous, to be accurate, to be able to tell a story, to be observant and to be able to draw a conclusion from disparate facts.

It was about getting new information, primarily from people, particularly information that revealed things of interest to the public and at its best exposed wrongdoing or helped people live their lives. End of quote.

That was a time when almost all journalists did an apprenticeship as cadets. Nowadays, cadetships are either non-existent or done in conjunction with a degree; most journalists learn their profession at university. This was in many ways a necessary step. Quote:

…When I decided to attend university, at the completion of my cadetship, while I continued to work, I was driven by a clear knowledge journalism was going to be demanding more of me in the years to come than a high-school education.

I did a BA at the UNSW studying English, political science, international relations, the history and philosophy of science, and Southeast Asian history. ­Although some of the facts I learnt during those three years were useful in my professional life — and still are — it wasn’t what I learnt that was most important but how I learnt. A tertiary education, even the Masters Degree in Journalism at Columbia University, New York, did not really help me develop better reporter or writing skills given my level of practical experience, and I still ­believe a good degree, in whatever discipline, combined with on-the-job direction is the optimum media training. But, it was the forced discipline on how I thought that mattered most. End of quote.

Interestingly, Shanahan’s academic record is very similar to mine, but, as he says, what is most important in a degree is not always the “facts learnt during those three years”. I remember well a seminar I attended for one of my science subjects: a panelist said, the facts he learned in his degree have almost no relevance to his day-to-day work. But the way he learned to think, he uses every day. Quote:

To be able to critically analyse everything from Joseph Conrad in English literature to the organisation of the Indonesian military in Southeast Asian history was a skill that could be applied to any subject. I can assure you not many political speeches attain the sublime level of Conrad or Keats, but critical analysis and perspective gives the confidence to make an independent judgment on our political discourse.

Self-confidence through education and experience is an essential element of good journalism because it produces practitioners who are prepared to “make a call” and stand alone if it is necessary to ensure there is a proper debate with divergent and competing views on any issue. Freedom of speech is also essential to allow those divergent views to be heard. End of quote.

And there’s the problem. Universities are becoming increasingly hostile to free speech. The humanities are almost exclusively left-wing redoubts. Even the sciences are succumbing to the left’s bullying groupthink. This is all happening with astonishing swiftness. When I did my degree, almost all lecturers were openly left-wing, but it was still possible to make contrary arguments. When my youngest started his degree, he said that there was no way he’d dare say what he really thinks, because he knew he’d be bullied into submission by other students and the lecturers. In one instance, a lecturer openly called a student a “fascist”, because he admitted to being a Christian. Quote:

There is no debate, no diversity and no freedom of speech where preconceived ideas and fashions dictate that contrary views are not even considered. It is the challenge of communicators and those given the skills of critical and independent thought to abide by and nourish those eternal principles of diversity of thought and freedom of speech. End of quote.

The Australian