The Cloudy Future Of The Fourth Estate


The media could find its role as a watchdog reduced to the standard of a blind beagle if colleges and universities across the nation take cue from the University of Colorado, which recently closed the doors to its journalism school as of June 30. The closing signals the wrong type of journalism education reform that is necessary, through the unhindered practice of the craft by students, as a means of blending a new era of news, while preserving the traditional tenets of journalism required of a democratic society.

In today’s information age everyone consumes news and seems to criticize the media for its shortcomings in producing it. But in the U.S., where the media is supposed to play an integral role in a functioning democracy, the news simply cannot be shut down for reform the way Colorado has shut down its J-school. So if the Fourth Estate is here to stay for the foreseeable future, the question then becomes how to prioritize journalism education.

Journalism is at a crossroads thanks to the impact of the digital age, which is reinventing the media landscape. Consequently, journalism schools across the nation are reinventing how they teach journalism, with mixed results. According to the 2005 Carnegie Corporation/Knight Foundation Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education initial report, “(journalism) industry leaders didn’t have confidence that journalism schools could give students the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly evolving media environment.”

The results of the 2005 report were released this month after select J-schools across the nation implemented a few of the goals the Carnegie Corporation/Knight Foundation hoped to achieve. One of the goals met was the participating schools marrying the concepts of digital knowledge-based journalism — an embrace of the multimedia future of the news — and entrepreneurial journalism — an embrace of sustaining the business side of the news — two concepts not required of the traditional journalism student.

But as beneficial as an updated journalism curriculum may be, the craft cannot be learned in theory alone. A popular sentiment among journalists is that reporting in the field is often an education in and of itself.

Problematic then, is the fact that the journalism industry is downsizing, as increasing numbers of reporters become the victims of newsroom budget cuts and media organizations struggle to remain autonomous from the mass media conglomerates. These cuts do create opportunities for savvy college journalists looking to enhance their journalism education in a professional setting, but because of understaffed organizations, learning how to practice enterprising journalism is sacrificed in order to have vacant beats meet bare minimum standards.

One can argue that the journalism industry is also (paradoxically) growing, particularly in its scope. The advent and rise of the Internet, though damaging to the bottom line of many traditional media outlets, has been a boon to the ways in which news can be disseminated — look no further than the omnipresence of social media today. Therefore, prospective journalists need to master more skills than ever, placing more significance on their journalism education, before being counted on to implement these skills in the real world.

Journalism should constitute more than churning out work on a rolling deadline; journalism is really about telling and framing the important stories at its foundation (of course, ethical and honest story-telling is assumed).

However, preparing future journalists with the foundational skills necessary to fulfill the aforementioned role they are expected to provide for a democratic society seems to be undervalued, at least at Colorado and possibly other schools in the future. Unfortunately, the lack of emphasis on journalism education – traditional or otherwise — coincides with a time when valuable journalism education is needed the most given the multitude of avenues journalism practitioners have at their disposal to deliver timely, thought-provoking and quality work.

Photo Credit: Kim Nowacki