You Don’t Need a Degree:
And newspapers are dead, so why is journalism even part of the college curriculum?
by Michelle Dowd
“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.” — Terry Pratchett
Our newsroom is asymmetrical, rimmed by Apple computers cramping the walls at odd angles. An oversized wooden table dominates the majority of the room, and this is where students sit facing each other, as if partaking in an Amish meal. Pranay, a student new to the college, and to journalism, pulls down a white screen over the dilapidated cabinets that line the one free wall, and points to a picture of a solemn young man trapped in what looks like a cage. He explains how Shane Bauer went undercover as a correctional officer in a privately run prison, to expose the viciously inhumane conditions of CCA, a private organization that runs 61 facilities across the United States, including 34 state prisons,14 federal prisons, 9 immigration detention centers, and 4 jails.
Pranay informs the students about how, in 2009, Bauer and two friends were accused of being spies, and taken into custody while hiking near the Iranian border in Iraqi Kurdistan. Bauer was held in captivity for over two years, including a 4 month stint in solitary confinement. This unusual life experience undoubtedly affected his interest in prisons, providing a clear point of reference for recognizing, describing and challenging the harsh conditions of our own systems of incarceration — particularly those that are privately run, which have fewer governmental requirements for transparency. The “Mother Jones” article is 35,000 words, and Pranay has read it all. “Journalists inform us about what we need to know,” he says, “Good Journalism gets our attention, and really good Journalism keeps our attention throughout an entire article or book or documentary, or whatever. But great Journalism, you know, great Journalism creates real world change.”
The students begin dutifully taking notes, but as Pranay showcases another Mother Jones article claiming ten major judicial, governmental and policy changes that have taken place since their CCA investigation broke most put their laptops aside, confused. “Isn’t that against the rules?” one girl asks, “I mean, he’s not supposed to be trying to change things, right? Isn’t he supposed to be objective?” Some of the students seem uncomfortable, but Pranay obviously isn’t, so I let him lead the discussion without interceding. “I didn’t think that happened anymore,” another student says, “I mean, I saw Spotlight, but that was like, in the nineties. How did he get permission to do that these days? Isn’t it unethical to cover shit up like that?” Pranay explains that Bauer didn’t have to lie. Apparently, no one at CCA even googled his name.
In an interview on Longform Podcast, Aaron Lammer says to Bauer, “One of the most incredible details about this story is that you did this, basically transparently, under your own name…Do you think that having had that prior [solitary confinement] experience informed your emotional response to the things you saw?” Bauer responds that he doesn’t know what his life would have been like had he not been held in captivity in Iran, but he doubts he would have considered doing this. “I mean, I hadn’t written about prisons before I was in prison myself, and that experience certainly drew me to investigating prisons in The United States…”
We used to call this a conflict of interest in the field of journalism. But the reality is, Shane Bauer had the necessary motivation, drive, curiosity and skepticism to spend four months as a prison guard under horrific conditions, in order to capture the truth about an institution to which very few reporters have ever had unrestricted access.
Could he, or would he, have done this without a vested interest?
In our newsroom, students are encouraged to follow their personal interests, to engage in curiosity and skepticism, to develop ideas that interest them, and to strive to present culturally relevant, well-researched stories from a clearly-defined perspective. Which, to be fair, is undoubtedly their own. They practice formulating a professional persona, but are also encouraged to adopt a unique voice in their storytelling, instead of regurgitating news in the attempted voice of “just-the-facts, ma’am.” This does not mean they make up news or that they are loose with facts or sloppy in their reporting. It means they are aware of their limitations as reporters and that they are transparent about their perspectives. As critical thinkers, they define their terms synonymously, ostensively, stipulatively and bi-conditionally, and they support their positions with real events, hypothetical instances, authoritative testimony, statistics and analogies. Journalism no longer requires you to categorically present facts as if they have no vantage point or vested interest.
Journalism is changing beyond what and how we’ve been trained to define it in the past sixty years, and this isn’t as apocalyptic as many would have you believe. The principles of informing the public and acting as a watchdog to abuses of power remain fully intact. But journalistic content is now part of a conversation, not merely a monologue or one-way broadcast, and journalists are responsible for engaging with their audience in a way that was inconceivable before the ubiquity of smartphones. In Beyond News: the Future of Journalism, Mitchell Stephens claims, “The Web allows our best journalists — it requires them, I will argue — to return to an older and higher view of their calling: not as reporters of what’s going on, but as individuals capable of providing a wise take of what’s going on….”
The vocation of journalism is no longer a form of stenography. While working for an organization like The Los Angeles Times might require you to take personal opinion out of your coverage, this is no longer the only tone in journalism, and there is clear value in more transparent reporting, especially online. Whether we are looking at Katherine Boo, James Foley, Judith Miller, Jeremy Scahill, Naomi Klein, Leandra Medine, Lynsey Addario, or Shane Bauer, many of the reporters who capture our interest and inform us of global or domestic issues clearly challenge the hegemonic discourse of long held traditions and/or corporate interests.
Journalism has long upheld the standards of objectivity, fairness, impartiality, and balance, and while these are surely admirable goals for which we should strive, the subjectivity through which we obtain information is clearly not impartial, and should therefore be recognized. In “Hey MSM: All Journalism is Advocacy Journalism,” from Rolling Stone, Matt Taibi argues against the possibility of objectivity or unbiased reporting, advising that “people should be skeptical of everything they read. In fact, people should be more skeptical of reporters who claim not to be advocates, because those people are almost always lying, whether they know it or not.” Taibi is clear that the business of journalism no longer requires a neutral perspective:“No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view. The advocacy can be hidden, as it is in the monotone narration of a news anchor for a big network like CBS or NBC (where the biases of advertisers and corporate backers like GE are disguised in a thousand subtle ways), or it can be out in the open, as it proudly is with Greenwald, or graspingly with Sorkin, or institutionally with a company like Fox. But to pretend there’s such a thing as journalism without advocacy is just silly.”
This means that in order to have an informed opinion on anything of substance, students must take the time to consume media in an informed and responsible manner, and that as citizen journalists, we have both the right and the responsibility to contribute to sociocultural conversations and public discourse in a meaningful and transparent manner.
Anne Lamott reminds us that “Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.”
Engaging in civic discourse is what being an educated citizen is all about. Journalism isn’t dead, nor is it dying. It’s simply changing. And in many ways, for the better. Telling stories (audio-visually, print or digital, via words or images), is a powerful and necessary egalitarian tool to engage in a 21st century global conversation that informs, inspires and creates our world. Pranay may not ever be employed as a staff writer for a major publication, but he knows how to research, ask informed questions, engage in socio-political discourse, and write clearly, passionately, and analogically, while inspiring others to do the same. And those are skills that will be clear assets in any profession he chooses to pursue.