Last week at this time I was in Dayton, Ohio as part of a Journalism Educators Research Exchange group organized by the Kettering Foundation, which is headquartered in Dayton for a discussion about ensuring that college journalism students have a better grasp of how journalism contributes to democracy.
When I was in j-school more than three decades ago, it was an article of faith that effective journalism and functioning democracy went hand-in-glove. It was the post-Watergate era, and respect and recognition for journalists as the Fourth Estate (or sometimes, the “fourth branch” of government) was at its height.
The worlds of government and journalism both have changed dramatically since then, and what was once an article of faith is now seen as a point of derision. Journalists operate in the public interest, in service to democracy? Hah!
Which makes it all the more important that Kettering is working with journalism educators to reform the system in at least some small ways. About 20 of us were part of a wide-ranging discussion on that topic at the Kettering offices last week, in the third such set of conversations stretching back to last July. (Some of us have been part of all three; others just one or two of the sessions.)
I don’t think any of us are under any misconception that we can “repair” democracy or totally reform journalism education. I know I’m not.
But I think that we can, through application of our collective intelligence and creativity, develop some innovative ideas that bring about small but meaningful changes in journalism education. My hope is that these innovations can help students have a better understanding of how journalism can support civic action/engagement as defined by Kettering’s democratic practices, and be better practitioners of that journalism.
That part about “defined by Kettering” is what’s important to me. Kettering is an interesting organization, whose mission is to foster research about “making democracy work as it should.” But that process, according to the foundation, begins with people working together on solving shared community problems. Figuring out ways to foster and encourage such local collaboration is a far different task than revising or reforming a “broken” democracy at the mega-level.
Kettering staffers go to some length to point out that the foundation doesn’t seek any particular outcome from any of the research exchanges (such as ours) that it sponsors. Rather, it want to be a catalyst for groups that invent things and share them back to relevant audiences in a process of shared learning.
The task set before our group is daunting but not unmanageable. What makes it daunting are the ingrained cultures of both journalism and academic institutions.
What makes is manageable is the framework we are working within. Rather than looking at the macro-level of problems besetting governance, we instead are figuring out how to instruct students in journalism done for the purpose of helping people to recognize their shared problems and act on them.
In the Kettering model of fostering invention, that means the foundation is looking for us to invent new ways of teaching college students in service of that goal. Such “inventions” in pedagogy, curriculum and other areas can be a path toward fostering an improved democracy, and it’s an exciting thing to be involved with.