Fri, Mar 07, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Journalism and serving the public trust

When Joseph Pulitzer proposed setting up a journalism school at Columbia University he would not have believed that 100 years later the US press would be in the hands of a handful of giant corporations

By William F. Woo


The relentless acquisition and independent presentation of news is the way the press serves the public trust. Journalism programs, departments and schools need to become the places where such concepts are nurtured, protected and ceaselessly advocated.

In 1892, the visionary Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, offered Columbia University the money to create the world's first school of journalism. At the time, what journalism education there was in the US and elsewhere consisted of experienced editors and reporters passing along the rules and tools of the craft. Pulitzer's idea seemed farfetched.

Why, people wondered, would any university want to train journalists? They were mere ink-stained wretches who practiced what at best was a craft, learned on the job. The idea that journalists belonged in a community of humanists and scientists seemed laughable.

Columbia's trustees rejected the offer. Pulitzer, whose name is associated today with US journalism's highest award, the Pulitzer Prizes, persevered. In 1904, he published an article titled The College of Journalism in The North American Review. In it, he laid out his case for journalism education.

Preserving public virtue

"Our republic and its press will rise or fall together," Pulitzer wrote. "An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations."

Columbia accepted Pulitzer's money, but by the time it got around to opening a journalism school in 1912 and naming it after him, he was dead and the University of Missouri already had started the first school of journalism. Today journalism education is taken for granted. In the US alone there are more than 450 programs, departments and schools of journalism and mass communication. In a typical year, these produce close to 40,000 recipients of bachelor's and master's degrees.

In this article, I shall put forward three themes. The first addresses the development and state of journalism education. The second examines some profound changes in journalism that raise troubling questions about its future. The third takes another look at Joseph Pulitzer's vision and argues that it is of paramount importance today to both journalists and journalism education.

When Missouri began its journalism school in 1908, it found that it had to invent a faculty. So from the start, the university emphasized practical experience. That remains its focus, though like most modern journalism schools today, it also teaches history, theory, research and a broad array of other subjects. The original emphasis on practical experience, however, became the model for other universities.

In time, schools understood it was not enough to teach reporting and writing. They needed educators with advanced degrees, who could conduct research and develop theories of journalism. They needed a faculty skilled in pedagogy. Increasingly, journalism came to be thought of as a subset of communication. Practitioners and academics often found themselves on opposite sides of a growing and contentious rift. Some practitioners looked with disdain upon their academically-inclined colleagues, with their doctorate degrees and social science methods and jargon as more suited for ivory towers than the "real world" of journalism. Some academics came to regard the practitioners as mere trades people and the "real world" of journalism as the crude industrial moorings from which academic institutions ought to divest themselves.

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