Future journalists need knowledge as well as skills 2

There has always been a view in the journalism industry that journalism educators should really be producing a better class of word technician. We heard a little of that at the Journalism Education conference , from some members of the industry panel who reckoned that what they needed was future journalists expert in the Dickensian skills of shorthand and writing news copy designed for the telegraph.

I have heard worse. I remember a celebrated JEA conference on the Gold Coast , when the cadet trainer, as he was styled, from the Brisbane Courier Mail got up before us and said he’d looked at all the university journalism courses and in his words, “they are all bullshit”!

“Why are they bullshit?” he asked.

“Because they don’t teach spelling and punctuation!”

Now I cut my teeth as a journalist at Queensland Newspapers during the seventies, when that state’s Premier Bjelke Petersen was preaching law and order while taking brown paper bags full of bribes and promoting corrupt police.

At that time, the Courier Mail always had good spelling and punctuation. In fact, if you judged  the Courier on that criterion, it would have been a world class newspaper. But there’s a bit more, I think, to good journalism than spelling skills, which explains why for a decade, the Courier Mail ignored the political corruption flourishing in Queensland, failing the obvious public interest.

So I was comforted yesterday to hear at least one industry speaker taking a wider view.  He praised the skills and knowledge of recent journalism graduates. “If industry was getting the wrong answers from entry level applicants, maybe it was asking the wrong questions!”

Martin Hirst, whose new book we launched today, has never been afraid to ask what he believes are the right questions; from back in his days covering politics when he realised that there was more to journalism than accurately reporting the daily press releases repeated ad nauseum by our national Punch and Judy show. Later he took the same approach as a journalism educator, resulting in the famous conference confrontation with the celebrated anti-journalist, John Hartley. As a distinguished cultural studies professor, John Hartley is not used to having his occasionally bizarre theories about what journalists do, questioned by journalists who have actually done it.

Martin, now Dr Martin Hirst, an Associate Professor of Journalism at Auckland University of Technology, is still seeking uncomfortable truths by asking the larger questions.

His new book, Journalism 2.0, asks whether journalism can survive the internet.  He notes the way that industry leaders like Rupert Murdoch have addressed the technological  challenges by treating news as a commodity to be sold from behind paywalls. Hirst judged that a journalism industry which demanded compliant word technicians to make short term solutions to protect long term profits, was not acting in the public interest.

Meanwhile ,  he was pragmatic enough to see the flaws behind the promise in citizen journalism. While the net allows almost everyone to twitter at will, not everybody has the skills, knowledge, integrity and guts to identify and try to answer the really difficult questions. Martin dismisses these well meaning people as what he calls, “ the digital optimists”.



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