By Janice Tibbetts
The rise of “advocacy journalism” seems to be raising the question, both in Canada and the United States, of whether journalism schools should diversify along with the business.
This debate has been playing out in recent months at Montreal’s Concordia University, where the journalism department in which I teach is considering turning its graduate diploma into a global journalism program that trains students to report for international NGOs.
If adopted, it would be a bold step because Concordia would be teaching students to work in jobs that, while demanding roughly the same skills, do not necessarily fit the traditional meaning of journalism.
The faculty is contemplating the move, in part, to help draw students at a time of declining enrollment attributed to a job shortage in the field. Also, there are many current and prospective journalism students who are interested in advocacy reporting and approaching stories with a point of view that openly separates the good guys from the bad.
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The big counter point, of course, is whether journalism schools should be in the business of deviating from the traditional principles of journalism, where the interests of society are the ultimate end goals, rather than the interests of an NGO.
When I learned about Concordia’s proposal last fall, I was skeptical. My initial thought was that sort of training belongs in a communications program rather than a journalism school. But after more examination, I believe that the issue, like most things, is not black and white.
In graduate programs in particular, where many students have life experiences, some reject the traditional role of journalism and come to the program aspiring to be advocates for causes that interest them. Should that sort of bent—the Glenn Greenwald school of thought—be discouraged? Or should educators accept that advocacy is increasingly becoming a part of the field?
Dan Gillmor, an Arizona State University journalism professor who coined the phrase “almost journalists” in his 2010 book Mediactive, recently wrote a piece that appeared on Slate asserting that journalism schools are wrong to overlook the advocates who are making a difference in online media. He is not only referring to upstart media operations that come at journalism with a point of view. He also credits advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cato Institute and other organizations, which he says are often leading the way for traditional journalists by doing “serious reporting about some of the key issues of our time.” The presence of NGOs and other advocacy organizations in the reporting field, Gillmor contends, is arguably necessary at a time when newsrooms are dramatically cutting their budgets for international reporting.
While Gillmor argues that declining enrollment in journalism schools should not be the prime motivator to pursuing a broader view of journalism, he acknowledges it should be a factor.
In Canada, there are at least two programs for international reporting. The University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism houses an international reporting program, in which graduate students investigate and produce enterprise global journalism on under-covered issues, which in recent years have included global logging and the global trade of electronic waste. The journalism appears to be traditional in that students are sponsored by the program and media partners to travel abroad global and craft multimedia reports that are published on the International Reporting Program website. That makes it different that the program under consideration at Concordia.
At the University of Toronto, the Munk School of Global Affairs has something a bit closer. The Fellowship in Global Journalism is designed to help specialists in their given fields to become global freelance journalists. “We won’t wade into the current debate over ‘who is a journalist,’ except to suggest this simple definition: A journalist is anyone who, in live time, helps deepen an audience’s honest understanding of the people or circumstances around them,” says the website for the program, which aims to train “a new generation of global correspondents.” The program partners with Canadian media organizations, according to the website.
While the faculty includes several journalists who currently work or have worked for large media outlets, the Munk school is not a journalism school. This raises the question of whether it must wrestle with the same dilemma as j-schools.
While I grew up in a journalism world where detached reporting was considered sacred, I’m not convinced that schools should take part in diluting this principle. But in an era when enrollment is declining, the traditional industry is in flux and working journalists and society are increasingly questioning the role of the media, a debate over whether to expand programs to include the new world order is certainly one that is worth having.
Janice Tibbetts teaches journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She spent more than two decades in the daily news business, working for Postmedia News, Canadian Press, the Chronicle Herald and the Halifax Daily News. She has written extensively about justice, federal and provincial politics, and legal affairs.
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