Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I am in Nis, Serbia. Last night, I was the featured speaker for a group of journalism students at University of Nis. The journalism program is about five years old. While enrollment is strong--250+ students--facilities and faculty could be improved. I was invited to talk about journalism and media from the U.S. perspective. I felt some dread because I increasingly find the quality of journalism in decline. Newspapers are shrinking in number and edition size. Reporters seem to be less experienced than ever. Television focuses all too much on visual stories at the expense of important stories that don't always have accompanying visuals. Worst of all, until the financial crisis, we seemed to be shifting increasingly away from issues of substance and toward shallow subjects. If anything positive comes from this crisis, perhaps it will be a slap in the face reminder that conspicuous consumption is not the goal of life.

As we started the discussion, there were 75 to 80 students in the room, I discussed a free press as one of the essential elements of a democracy. The other two elements are competition in elections and the marketplace, and participation in government and society. Journalism, strictly speaking, is part of the third element--civil and political freedom, which includes free speech and free press. I laid the old trap that I've often set for my students in the U.S. They agreed that some journalists are not responsible in their reporting and that wages are too low. They also agreed that they want to be professionals, just like doctors and lawyers are professionals. I snapped the trap shut by telling them that a regulated press, with professional standards--minimum education standards, perhaps licensing--is no longer a free press. What is important, however, is a press that strives to be professional--responsible, fair and accurate in conveying the news. My goal for the thousands of students I have taught is to help them learn to gather, evaluate and convey information. I owe Russ Shain, my former dean, with helping me understand this when I was a new member of his faculty nearly 20 years ago.

My comments were translated and this added to the length of the presentation. After about 40 minutes, we took questions. And, my were the questions great. I realize they used an encounter with a foreigner to get some answers they might not ordinarily hear. It's just like the class speaker in my class who could repeat my previous lecture but would have so much more credibility.

I wonder whether my students would have been able to engage a visiting journalist from Serbia or even the U.K. I'd like to think so but I struggle to find students who are inquisitive about news events. One of the best questions came from a 4th year student who asked how journalists avoided endorsing or manufacturing consent for government actions. While he was thinking about U.S. media failures to question intelligence estimates of WMDs in Iraq (weapons of mass destruction--have we forgotten that acronym?), I also discussed President Obama's efforts to secure media and public support for his economic policies.

It was an enjoyable event.

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