Networked Journalism Education

Universities should be information hubs for their communities

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News organizations and universities have grown up together. Both flourished in a progressive era that welcomed scientific progress and valued objective expertise. Both have had long, healthy runs dispensing knowledge and information to the public. And now, for related reasons, both are often seen as isolated, inflexible mammoth institutions deaf to public needs. A new generation thinks reading newspapers and sitting in classroom lecture halls is equally lacking in stimulation.

My vision is that journalism faculties — all faculties! — will start working to make their insights and observations and research applicable to the big and small problems gripping their communities. As with journalism, we (at least, some of us) need to shift our emphasis from production of highly structured, particular types of knowledge to participation in the creation of knowledge that binds people and places in tangibly constructive ways. And done in collaboration with students, the ‘service learning,’ applied research and community involvement may ignite more enthusiasm than we’re seeing in many college classrooms.

Both journalists and professors can be highly focused on defining what they do and doing it, regardless of whether anyone else needs or wants it. There is still a place and a demand for some of that, of course, but the great need, as I see it, is to radically rethink what our work is about and who it is for.

What might that look like? I see journalism faculty and students acting as facilitators, connecting communities of particular needs with appropriate faculty and students in the university. In the process, greater two-way information flow will foster more applied and more relevant research and teaching.

Here’s an example: our university is doing a great deal of interdisciplinary research on climate change. Scientists have their research questions. Funding agencies have their mandates. Everyone gives lip service to outreach. But little attention is spared for identifying what information people in the state actually need to know, when and in what form.  No politicians or policy makers are giving citizens advice about how to respond to climate change economically, socially, politically. Community organizing has never been a traditional role for professors or for journalists, but now that’s exactly what’s needed in our state, fractured by competing interests and limited resources.

We could start anywhere. Say we started with the problem of ranching and how it might be affected by climate change. Or growing plants. Or running ski resorts. Rather than asking students to ‘cover’ an issue for a semester, we teach them to find the community of people who care about addressing the problem and listen to them. A lot. Find out what they need. Figure out the critical information gaps that prevent progress. Listen and watch carefully to learn what people need to know. Follow Jonathan Stray’s suggestion and find out where the misperceptions lie. At the same time, find faculty on campus who have relevant expertise. Talk to them. Reframe the problem. Bring them together. Get students to participate. Facilitate relevant research and related service. Help participants to make media about what they are doing. Communicate the process as a participant and enabler, rather than a detached observer.

Lots of problems would need to be solved before a scenario like that could really work. But they are problems that can, theoretically, be solved through agreement and reordering of priorities. Our communities need us, desperately. Will we have the courage to reorient who we work for, in what ways and how?

Written by Donica

January 21st, 2011 at 1:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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