The incredible shrinking journalist

Stephen J.A. Ward

Stephen WardAs we move towards a new year, I’ve been reflecting on the trajectory of journalism and how we teach it.  

In such moments, it is natural to think about the sagging economic prospects for newspapers and the depressing layoffs in newsrooms.

However, there are two different trends that also pose a stiff challenge to quality journalism and journalism education.

One trend is what I call the “incredible shrinking journalist” Journalism is becoming a smaller and smaller part of a chaotic, expanding universe of media. The other trend is the blurring of the line between journalism and other forms of communication.

I recently observed both the “shrinking” and the “blurring” at a media conference in Barcelona. Some 800 professors and scholars buzzed around me. I didn’t hear a lot about journalism. And everything from journalism to social networking was called “media”.

These trends have been at work for some time. But we have reached a tipping point. In the next couple of years, these trends will have a serious, possibly damaging, impact on journalism education.

My view is that journalism educators need to actively respond to these trends by developing a clear conception of the distinct nature and overriding social value of journalism in a digital democracy.


Because I expect university deans and others to increasingly challenge the stand-alone nature of schools of journalism. The argument will be that today many people, and many disciplines, are in the business of media and communication. Since journalism apparently lacks a clear identity, why not merge schools into larger units? Perhaps journalism belongs in something called The Department of Digital and Media Culture.

Mergers of academic units can be good or bad. My fear is that many of these mergers will not benefit journalism if journalists cannot put forward a clear notion of their profession and its distinct social role. Journalism may get lost in the transition and journalism studies (and education) may decline as a field.

I also expect increasing tensions between journalism and non-journalism units on campus. If people think that anyone can be a journalist, then why shouldn’t other departments teach their own communication courses? For example, a life sciences center may start offering courses in science journalism.

Journalists and educators should address these trends head-on by advancing a journalism that is worth teaching, studying and practicing. I don’t think that educators should spend a lot of time trying to define journalism per se. The term is too flabby. Historically, anyone who commented on public affairs in almost any way has been called a journalist.

Instead, we should argue that journalism education is in the business of teaching the complex skills and knowledge required for a certain distinct form of journalism. What type of journalism? I propose that we advance the notion of democratic journalism, or journalism in the public interest.

When we focus on journalism in the public interest we shift the focus of debate. The issue is not whether we need language police to decide who can call themselves a journalist. The issue is how we distinguish good from bad journalism; how we distinguish ranters from informed commentators; skilled investigators from unskilled, passive reporters.

When we focus on journalism in the public interest the issue is how we distinguish critical, knowledge-based journalists from narrow stenographers of fact. It is about how we distinguish journalists who care about ethics from those who are irresponsible.

If asked for a definition of journalism in the public interest, I would say this: A journalist in the public interest is a free and independent communicator on essential public issues who uses substantial knowledge and critical skills and reliable methods of verification. This journalist is motivated by truth-telling for the public from the public’s perspective.

My point is not that this is a perfect definition. Far from it. Rather, my point is that this concept of democratic journalism can be developed to include a set of demanding and distinctive attitudes, knowledge, skills and aims. It is journalism worthy to be taught and practiced. It is a journalism that sets itself apart from both bad journalism and many other forms of communication.

Yet democratic journalism does not set itself against new media, social media or other trends in communication. To the contrary, the exciting challenge is to learn how to use new media to do this sort of journalism. Democratic journalism is open to new forms of story-telling and reporting.

A conception of journalism can not solve all of its problems. And advancing democratic journalism will not stop the “shrinking” of journalism. But a good conception can be a first, vital step in stopping the blurring of journalism.

This ethical conception of journalism, of what democratic journalism should be, is an idea around which a core of committed public journalists and educators can find common ground.

It is —or could be — a much-needed anchor for the ship of journalism on the roiling seas of a media revolution.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of  UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.