Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More attempts to define journalism

My Comms classes are going the way of today's most popular communication media—the students teach. Is this a case of the foolish trying to indoctrinate the wise, or will all grow together and come to a common wealth of knowledge and experience?

What to call this? Communal learning? Socialist-style education, perhaps? If nothing else, I like the way that sounds on paper. But the lingering teenager in me naturally fights against any and all attempts to make me, a stalwartly independent individual, a part of a larger anything. So whether or not this interesting class model works and or pleases me has yet to be seen.

Not that anyone really cares about my opinion. I’m not a scholar. But such is the wonder of today’s technology. I can throw all sorts of nothingness at the world.

Am I rambling, or coming to a point? Probably a little bit of both, with an emphasis on the former. In class last week, a group of students endeavored to teach us, also students, what journalism is. I imagine this is somewhat like trying to explain water to a fish. We live in it, so it might as well not exist. I do not envy their topic.

As a member of the audience for this session—and I use the term audience loosely here—I received a handout rehashing some of our previous attempts to hold water in a sieve. Some thoughts from the handout:

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
Its first loyalty is to citizens.
Its essence is a discipline of verification.
Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
Citizens have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

They also brought up some interesting philosophical talking points, including the human need for information, or “awareness instinct,” as the more scholarly mind on the topic have deemed it. It would seem few willingly cut themselves off from the world around them. This may explain why today’s teens may need their cell phones surgically removed at some future point. In today’s world of technology, our individual realities are both expanding and shrinking. If I am interested in computer games, I can connect instantly with others of like interests from around the world. Yet at the same time I may be entirely ignorant of other topics I am choosing to filter out of the media I consume.

In an essay published in last year’s issue of “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,” an author interviewed Google executives to discover they hope to one day not only provide information, but semi-prophetic answers to individual questions. The questions are answered using computer algorithms that inflict headaches on any who attempt to fathom them. As an experiment, I asked Google, “Where are the modern media headed.” The first entry to come up was the Wikipedia definition for “cross-media.” So even Google’s supercomputers suspect the journalists of the future will need deep knowledge of a few topics, and a broad knowledge of methods for relaying their message.

Modern human civilization is becoming specialized beyond what we once imagined possible. Most materials I have read thus far seem to frame this as a tragedy, as though we are forgetting specialization was the event that ultimately led us down the path to what we now consider “civilized” human society. Are modern media consumption habits a product of too much of a good thing, or are we clinging hopelessly to an outdated ideal?

Personally, so long as global extinction holds off for a few more years, I’m okay with it.

And for the time being, I’m okay with this new class format, too. Off to the side of my notes, I annotated the lecture title, “What is Journalism,” with my own answer—the art of observation. As we proceeded with the presentation, one of the presenters—to whom I must apologize for forgetting her name—offered a possible definition I could agree with.

“Journalism is something we each have inside us. Journalism is about people.”

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