By Julie Posetti
An Australian journalism professor has started an online academic journal with a twist: It publishes journalism, rather than just studies of journalists and their work.
The fledgling journal — believed to be the first of its kind in the world — is called Research Journalism and it’s the initiative of Edith Cowan University journalism lecturer Dr. Kayt Davies.
“I would like it to become a vibrant publication that regularly breaks big stories [and] I would like it to enable academic journalists to be practicing what they preach and really leading their classes by example and involving their classes in research projects,” Davies told me. “[But] most importantly I would like it to make a real contribution to Australian civic life by examining corporate and government behavior and bringing problems and potential solutions to light.”
The journal publishes journalism as an academic exercise. Authors are required to apply for university ethics clearance for their journalism projects, and submitted articles are subjected to triple-blind peer review.
In the U.S., the craft of journalism has academic status in many journalism schools and many professors continue to work as journalists after entering the classroom. But in Australia, journalism professors often struggle to maintain their professional practice when they join academia.
One reason for this is the structure of Australian universities and their dependence on research funding, which has historically discriminated against journalism research. Another is a traditional disregard for published journalism as a legitimate form of journalism research — in the way that art and literature have long been accepted as creative research outputs.
Both of these factors have mitigated the practice of journalism by Australian journalism professors. It’s also due to the demands of traditional academic research requirements, which typically include the study of journalists and journalism through the disciplines of cultural studies, mass communications, and journalism studies but not the academic publication of works of journalism. Then there’s the heavy teaching loads. While there are some notable exceptions including collaborations between the online alternative news outlet Crikey and two journalism schools, most Australian journalism professors eschew journalism practice in favor of traditional academic publication in highly ranked, peer-reviewed journals.
A sense of frustration with this reality was one of Davies’ main motivations for starting the journal.
“It was a crying shame to be preventing academic journalists from doing journalism,” she said. “In many ways, with our skills honed by teaching and without the time and other constraints of commercial newsroom employment, I had a sense that we could be doing remarkable work.”
I know from experience that it’s essential to continue practicing as a professional journalist in order to be an effective and up-to-date journalism educator. But in an academic environment like Australia’s, it can be difficult to sustain. In addition to building traditional academic publication profiles, journalism educators in my country are increasingly required to obtain PhDs, regardless of career achievements. They are also expected to win significant research grants; undertake labor-intensive teaching and innovate in the classroom; keep track of massive industry change; offer career guidance for students (past and present); and coordinate student publications.
Nevertheless, continuing professional practice after becoming a journalism professor is increasingly necessary, according to Davies.
“Staying in the game and continuing to do it is the best way to [keep] abreast of the changes in the industry, and by that I don’t only mean that news is going online,” she said. “I also mean the way corporate and government departments duck and weave and spin, the FOI [freedom of Information] rules, sensitivities about privacy, all kinds of changes.”
As Davies pointed out, “It is … the best way to motivate a class. When you stand up in front of them and air your frustration at receiving bland motherhood statements in response to specific questions, they arc up and understand that journalism requires determination and tenacity and it isn’t just about placidly churning whatever is handed to them.”
If the system in Australia that discourages active journalism practice by journalism educators is to change, then academics, universities and the Australian Research Council need to start recognizing published works of journalism as research and/or back Davies’ approach of publishing a peer-reviewed journal of academic journalism.
Some Australian journalism schools are starting to make progress in this regard, with limited agreement to count journalism as research and recognition by one university of the professional code of ethics for Australian journalists as a suitable replacement for cumbersome ethics clearance processes.
“The main difference [between U.S. and Australian journalism professors] is that U.S. academics are not bound by the ethics committee red tape that is effectively gagging Australian journalism academics,” Davies said.
This can cause journalism projects to be refused ethics clearance by university committees because these committees interpret the rules of academic research as prohibiting the naming of sources and the broadcast of recorded interviews if the interviewees are identifiable, for example.
While the process of reform in Australia has begun, it is likely to be a long and difficult struggle against overlapping bureaucratic processes. Davies sees her journal as an alternative route to supporting professional journalism practice among Australian journalism professors, while working within existing structures.
Davies will accept submissions of all forms of journalism — from text to audio, video and multimedia — and she is keen to receive international submissions. She has informal agreements in place with Fairfax Digital and Crikey to co-publish content for mainstream consumption. But what distinguishes the journal from standard journalism publications, aside from the academic ethics clearance process and peer review requirements, is the publication of an accompanying reflective commentary by each author that outlines the journalistic methodologies and processes adopted in the production of the piece of journalism. In academic terms, this equates to an exegesis.
“I think this will make the journal a useful tool in actually tracking contemporary best practice,” Davies said.
Unlike most other academic journals, Research Journalism will publish its content online, and without a pay wall. This fits with Davies’ general approach to digital media.
“Media is changing and, unless we want to be teaching something as outdated as blacksmithing and smocking, we need to be across the shifts,” she said. “This doesn’t mean we should abandon teaching grammar and thinking skills and devote all our time to learning software, but it does mean we have to be paying attention and preparing our grads for the world they’ll be working in.”
Davies hopes the journal will evolve to incorporate an interactive element. She has established a WordPress site that operates in conjunction with the journal and accommodates comments and limited social bookmarking. But at this stage, she isn’t planning to experiment with crowdsourcing peer review, preferring instead to pursue traditionally recognized processes. Her immediate goal is to publish another 11 submissions in order to apply to have the journal formally rated via the system of scholarly publication rankings.
One challenge is already hampering the progress of Research Journalism that may prove fatal: the failure of journalism academics to follow through on enthusiastic promises to submit content. So far, the only peer-reviewed article published on the site (which was launched nearly a year ago) is by Davies herself. (It’s an excellent piece on conflict in a West Australian Indigenous community which was also published as a Crikey series).
“I am surprised that it has been so slow,” Davies said. “Every time I speak about it to a group of journalism academics I get a flurry of promises and declarations of support but the promises are yet to manifest as submissions.”
She said this is likely because of workload and cumbersome university ethics committee clearance processes, which can be viewed as hostile to journalism and incompatible with deadlines. But it’s also likely to be a product of the reluctance of ladder-climbing academics to publish in lowly ranked or unranked academic journals. This is a Catch-22 that infuriates Davies.
“I can’t apply for ranking until I have two editions out, and so if people are holding out for this reason then they are killing it before it can walk,” she said. “My wish is that people would be a bit more generous, bold and proactive so that we can get something going that will be good for all of us.”
Confession: I’m one of the academics who’s so far failed to follow through on a promise to submit an article. But I am in the process of writing a piece for Davies on the controversy surrounding five tweets I sent from a journalism education conference in Sydney last November. The tweets will represent the journalistic output, while the exegesis will examine my experience of the international debate and the legal threats that the tweets triggered.
Research Journalism deserves the opportunity to make a global impact on contemporary journalism research and education — and I encourage you to hold me to my commitment to help kick it along.
Photo of Dr. Kayt Davies by Floyd Holmes
Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She’s been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on journalism and social media, talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She is writing a PhD on “The Twitterisation of Journalism” and she consults on social media for contentgroup. Posetti blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.
This article was originally published on PBS Mediashift. J-Source and Mediashift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audiences of both sites.
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