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10 January 2012

Monsters v Aliens

Beneath the surface in the teaching of journalism in higher education is a long running and unresolved philosophical conflict between the 'trainers' and the 'educators'.

In fact, an impartial observer would note very quickly that it's bizarre how Britain's universities have ended up training the majority of new journalists, given that the cultures of the newsroom and of the senior common room are poles apart.

Trainers (of which I'm one) believe the absolute priority for an individual embarking on a course in journalism is to get a job actually working as a journalist.

Such trainers have little patience with the lecture hall. They can't wait to get a class 'hands on' in a live (or, failing that, at least realistic) newsroom environment.

There are a range of legal, writing and technical skills which need to be learned, tested and applied, often under severe pressure, before trainees are safe and ready to be let loose in the outside world. We aim to give them those skills, and then to use all the means at our disposal to help our graduates find a niche in the industry. Turning out skilled newsgatherers and processors who meet the requirements of the employer is paramount.

Educators, on the other hand consider the stuff of news to require critical examination.

Preferably from a distance, and with tweezers.

Their prime concern is 'what journalism ought to be'; and you can rest assured that what newsrooms are doing now isn't good enough. Value judgements permeate their world. Public service good - commercial bad. Guardian good - Murdoch bad. They've brought buzzwords into the language - 'dumbing down' and 'churnalism' being two prime examples. Employers are regarded with suspicion.

The two worlds are not however mutually exclusive, and I would never suggest they are. Like the circles in a Venn diagram there are areas of overlap.

The educators would applaud correct use of spelling and grammar, good levels in audio, and a clear grasp of the laws of libel and contempt.

Trainers readily appreciate that in a post-Gilligan, post-Leveson world all journalists are under scrutiny like never before and that it's important to learn from past failings. We need to avoid sloppy practices and short cuts which, when the audience learns what's been done, result in entirely justified outrage. In other words, we need to apply the professional standards which are at the core of any vocational training worthy of the name.  

Universities are of course the educators' natural habitat. Critical reflection, research and scholarship thrive on campuses, and long may that be so.

Trainers are often less comfortable in such an environment.

In news, words fight for their place in output. On campus, words proliferate. Editorial conferences are short, to the point, and often bloody. Faculty meetings take all afternoon, ramble, and are often bloody boring. In the real world of newsgathering, deadlines are absolute  In academia, all too often a deadline means next week - or the week after, if you can't quite manage it.

Working editors accept only one standard, in radio that being broadcast standard.

In HE there's the concept of 'work that's good enough for a student', which results in former professionals recruited as tutors feeling obliged to say something nice about the efforts produced by their charges. And then give them a pass mark. Such condonement of the mediocre helps no-one, and can be exceptionally cruel to impressionable students, who may then nurture false hope of a career as a professional in broadcast news.

In the final analysis, both tribes need each other.

A journalism course without the rigour and discipline of newsroom practice, lacking tutors with real experience of producing news under the conflicting pressures of accuracy and speed,  experienced hacks who've had to make (and maybe regret) split-second ethical judgements isn't a journalism course in any real sense.

It's Media Studies 2.0.

Likewise a training course without space for critical reflection, no opportunity for a time out in which to examine the implications of pressing the live button on a story, risks turning out efficient but robotic individuals.

Ultimately, Monsters need Aliens. Probably. And Aliens certainly need Monsters.

It's getting the balance right which is often problematic.

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