Print

 

Back in 1951, when I began teaching journalism, we were concerned with a number of problematic areas affecting the press. One was press freedom. Another was press responsibility. Another was bias and propaganda. Still another was a lack of ethical concern.

Today, as I look back over more than 50 years of teaching, I am intrigued by two things: (1) that the intervening and current concerns are the same, and (2) that, in spite of all the rhetoric and conferences that have focused on these problems, nothing really has changed.

Which leads me to ask myself: Other than purely hands-on, practical, workaday training, what good is journalism education? Maybe students have learned to write and edit better (we're not sure), but have the foundational conceptual and moral underpinnings of journalism improved? When we read such articles as "Journalism's Chronic Crisis: Corruption of its Honesty" (by Stuart Loory and Petya Stoeva, Global Journalism, 4th quarter 2004) and look around at the vast tsunami of trash and superficiality that is flooding in on us, we have serious doubts.

Back in the 1950s we didn't talk much about ethics. That is, we didn't drag out the word "ethics" very often. No books of substance on ethics had appeared since the 1920s. Of course we were concerned with plagiarism, hoaxes, propaganda, and biased reporting. And a deep concern for press freedom was ingrained in journalism education.

And what was journalism education? Writing, page layout, editing, and photojournalism-intermingled increasing with public relations and advertising. And broadcasting was beginning to come prominently on the scene. I can't remember any specific courses in ethics. But they were just around the corner, and beginning in the '60s ethics became a common academic interest and focus of innumerable conferences and workshops. Today the journalistic woods are filled with ethicists, spinning their theories and opining on cases.

Along with this concern with "responsible" journalism, other non-hands-on courses such as public opinion, propaganda, and general semantics and communication theory courted the students, especially in graduate courses. Sociology, psychology, linguistics, and economics spilled over into journalism programs. "Communications" replaced "journalism" in spirit, if not in name, and journalism increasingly was pushed into the very applied or "practical" corners of the departments, schools, and colleges.

Theoretical and research considerations, especially from the '70s to the present have left journalism at the tip of the academic peninsula, making one wonder if it would not be better to have the media sponsor their own training programs.

This shift from practice to theory/research is not surprising. Growing number of graduate students, beginning in the 1970s and '80s, have increasingly lacked substantial professional journalism experience. Some Ph.D.s now teaching in communications and journalism programs have no real practical experience at all. They consider themselves communications specialists, not journalists. And most of their own academic work has been in academic areas such as psychology and sociology.

And then there are the advertising and public relations faculty members that have entrenched themselves solidly in the old journalism programs. Students enrolled in their courses have rapidly increased, due to promise of public exposure and better salaries.

These are mainly the extroverts (people-lovers) of the student population. The introverts (language-lovers) are mainly the students who go into the print media where they can work largely in their private worlds.

And, for the theory-based graduate students, they largely earn Ph.D.s and go into the academic life, teaching research and theoretical courses that assume no real knowledge of how the real media work. What is happening, naturally then, is that the old concept of journalism education is disappearing into a new convergence curriculum of something called "communication." The new student in this area will be a product of theory, research, and technology. Maybe a new degree will be needed: TRT (Technical Research Theorist).

This new TRTer will, of course, face the same old foundational problem in public communication: The morality issue. Will his or her postmodern education make for more ethical communication? I doubt it very much. Not what can I do, but what should I do? That is still the foundational question.

It is my belief that occasional courses in communication ethics cannot improve the situation. In spite of their historical public image, I think that Machiavelli is more potent than Aristotle, and that the modern communicator will drift toward the former thinker every time. The ends, we hear ever more frequently, are more important than the means. Rationaliza-tion of success in our competitive world trumps our respect for virtue.

Some of us will continue beating the same old drum, intoning "ethics" and "responsibility" at our conferences and in our books and articles, but the actual social communicators will march, without the disciplined cadence of moral philosophy, to the inner voice of power and success. And they will bring their research, theory and technology to their support.

* John C. Merrill is professor emeritus in the University of Missouri-Columbia, and has written many books and articles on the philosophy of journalism. He may be e-mailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Yes, he earned a Ph.D.

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 9,22.