Educator says journalists’ blue-collar view of themselves
has penetrated the minds of university administrators
who often decide whether a program will live or die sp.
DO YOU CONSIDER newspapering a trade or craft and yourself as a “wordsmith?”
Wrong words, says Betty Medsger, longtime chairman of the San Francisco State University Department of Journalism and a former Washington Post reporter.
Such a self-image can be harmful to the public perception of journalism and is definitely creating problems for journalism education, an endangered species in several universities, she pointed out.
Speaking at the joint conference of the California Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press News Executives Council in Oakland, Medsger said: “I’m somewhat troubled by the language we use to describe ourselves ? wordsmith, craft, trade. I’m concerned about what it may say about how we view ourselves and journalism, and what it does to our relationship to journalism education.”
Contending that there is no journalism education program in the country that is not already threatened with extinction or could be, Medsger asserted that journalists’ blue-collar view of themselves has penetrated the minds of university administrators who often decide whether a program will live or die.
Many journalism educators themselves, she said, are afflicted with the same self-deprecation, failing to impress upon academic officials the importance of what they teach. Instead, Medsger went on, they insist on using such terms as “nuts-and-bolts” or “mere skills” courses.
Journalists’ “modest, working-class description of themselves,” is atttributable to false modesty, an anti-intellectual attitude, an inferiority complex “or some combination of all three, which I suspect is the case,” Medsger observed.
Medsger said she has sometimes found academics in other disciplines more educable in elevating journalism than reporters and editors.
News people seeking teaching jobs reveal their low self-opinion by submitting resumes that are “short word maps” of where they had gone to school and work and what their job
titles had been, Medsger said.
“My heart would sink because I knew that when this resume left the journalism department and went to the levels of the university above the department, it might reasonably be regarded as inadequate,” she recalled.
The resumes ? many from highly qualified applicants ? contained no information on what he or she had accomplished, Medsger explained.
“Journalists were presenting flimsy evidence about themselves . . . I thought this was mysterious,” she stated. “Why would someone who loves collecting evidence, presenting proof that convinces a reader of the credibility of a story . . . pay so little attention to preparation of the document that will convince people to hire him or her?”
Medsger advised journalists applying for teaching positions: “Enter the academy with a full description of yourself instead of network assumptions and a roadmap of where you’ve been, and your chances of being respected ? and truly understood ? improve a great deal.”
At the same time, Medsger faulted journalism educators for failing to explain to the university hierarchy the nature and mission of journalism, how a journalist works and the goals of journalism education.
“It’s no wonder perhaps that we are not understood within the academy,” she commented.
Medsger recently left San Francisco State, becoming a freelance writer and journalism education consultant. Currently, she is conducting a national study of journalism education for the Freedom Forum.
She opined that the public also should be taught to place a higher value on journalism, particularly “in this season of dumping on journalists.”
What should be impressed on both academia and the public, she urged, is that journalists perform “very sophisticated work that requires a set of skills and values that, when used properly and wisely, deserve self-respect, respect from the general community and the academic community” to the point that journalism education is given “membership” in the university structure.
Medsger cited the prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer series, “America: What Went Wrong” by Don Barlett and Jim Steele as an example of outstanding research and reporting that makes a case for the relevance and impact of journalism.
“We journalists call that one hell of a story,” she remarked.
“We in the university call that the development of new knowledge,” she added.
Medsger also called for more continuing education for journalists to heighten their image and professionalism, complaining that hairdressers participate in more professional development than journalists.
She lauded the Orange County Register and Contra Costa Times in Northern California for their in-house training for staffers in journalism and non-journalism subjects. Noting that a few newspapers are introducing such programs, she asked: “Why has it taken so long? I wonder if it didn’t have something to do with how we view ourselves ? just a trade.”
Newsroom burnout, she speculated, may be reduced by continuing retooling and professional development.
Finally, Medsger asked editors and other journalists to talk to university administrators about the contributions of journalism to the academy and society as a means of halting the assault on journalism programs that has occurred at the universities of Washington, Michigan, Arizona and Oregon State, among others.
“If you do,” she pleaded, “please don’t tell the university president that journalism is just a trade.”
In other conference business, CSNE’s Bill Farr Freedom of Information Award went this year, not to a journalist, but to a lawyer, Robert Corry of Sacramento.
As a third-year law student at Stanford, Corry led a victorious legal battle to abolish Stanford’s speech code as being unconstitutional.
The late Bill Farr of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Los Angeles Times spent nearly 50 days in jail rather than reveal a confidential source.