“Why J-school?”

Andrew Mendelson, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s new associate dean, talks journalism education, multimedia, and why the field of study is more relevant than ever.

Why study journalism? This is the first question I am asked when I say I am a professor of journalism. This is usually followed by something to the effect of, “Are there any jobs?” Isn’t it a field that anyone can do? Can’t anyone take a photo, create a blog, produce a video?

Journalism is a great field of study, whether you intend to pursue it as a profession or not. Journalism is central to our understanding of our communities, our nation and the wider world, as well as our place within each. Journalism represents our pasts, presents and futures, though not always in ways we might prefer. At its best, journalism challenges us to confront the worst of ourselves in hopes of becoming who we aspire to be. At its worst, journalists flatter us with what we want to hear, the tailors to our emperor. At its best, journalism allows us to see aspects of our world in new ways; at its worst, journalism maintains the status quo.

It is this best and worst of journalism that excites and scares me about journalism education; the promise and the peril of what journalism might and should be. Today, there are more and easier ways to do journalism, to find, produce and distribute more varied stories to more varied audiences. Digitization has changed the way journalism is done, the way it looks and the way it is consumed. Digitization has also overturned and obscured the previously distinct roles of journalist, source and audience. We need to take advantage of the power new technologies offer. We are now able to harness data in new ways. We can loft cameras above scenes using drones, which provides us with new perspectives. But each new journalism tool forces us to confront issues, ethical, legal and epistemological.

In the clamor over digitization, we are often blinded to more enduring issues in journalism. Too little attention is paid to diversity: of journalists, sources and audiences. Newsrooms, those of legacy media and startups, still look much as they did 20, 30, 40 years ago. There are still many stories that are left untold, due to lack of resources as much as lack of perspective. News products still feature many of the same narrow set of voices as years past, something that the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation hope to change with a new diversity initiative.

This is the calling of journalism schools, and the challenge they face: to help students wield varied tools to inform, engage and uplift society; to help the profession of journalism find new ways to perform these roles and create sustainable business models; and to analyze journalism’s strengths and weaknesses by placing them in a global, cultural and historical context.

Why study journalism? Because to do it well, to do it better than it has been before, takes skill, artistry and knowledge, of its past and potential.