Thursday, June 22, 2006

Kerry’s Spelling Bee Win Could Spell Hope for Journalism Educators

When someone learns that the University of Albany has just created an undergraduate major in journalism, the first question to me as Director often is, “Why?” Katharine Close might help to make my job a little easier in trying to answer.

She is the New Jersey eighth grader called “Kerry” who thrilled many of an estimated 8 million viewers June 1 when she spelled “ursprache” to outlast 274 other young wordiacs and win the 79th Scripps National Spelling Bee. But I was even more delighted the next morning when Kerry remarked on “Good Morning America” that she wanted to become a journalist, and more specifically, to work on a newspaper.

I hope that her peers were paying attention.

It can be easy to assume that American youths, who equate traditional daily newspapers and other serious news media with their parents’ disco platform shoes, probably consider seeking media jobs as making as much sense as opting for a fast track to poverty, disrespect, and stress.

However, the latest Annual Report on journalism education statistics from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and 14 media sponsors, and other writings from scholars at the Grady College, suggest a more hopeful view, at least for a broad spectrum of media. More than 193,000 undergraduates are majoring in journalism, mass communications, and media programs, an growth of more than 50 percent in a decade. Freshmen enrollees increased for the 11th straight year. In addition, for the first time in five years the percentage of undergraduates with at least one job offer in media (including not only print journalism but broadcasting, public relations, advertising, online journalism, and photography, among others) actually rose.

But the figures also agitate for the need to be concerned about a dwindling number of students who want to pursue the sort of vital reporting and news writing that provides what the late, esteemed James Carey called the “curriculum” of news, opinion, and interpretation that we need, a journalism which does not mock the responsibility for contributing substantively to “our profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” in U. S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s words.

The most unsettling statistic shows that students studying “news-editorial,” the traditional journalism sequence, has fallen from nearly 22 percent in 1988 to 12.9 percent in 2004, the last year covered by the research. Now, perhaps more than ever in a media world of infotainment and the blogosphere and doublespeak, that downward spiral needs to be converted into a rising tide.

This is one reason why we can hope Kerry Close and many of her peers will choose true journalism, especially if they possess such reporterly traits as so many of the young spellers displayed: perseverance, a reverence for accuracy, a determination to solve problems, and the ability to perform under pressure. We cannot forget that we are talking about youths – our current students and those of Kerry’s generation – who as adults still will be active in defining our media in the year 2040, and beyond.

Kerry’s win also reminds us that technology provides astounding ways for accumulating and facilitating, but not necessarily for understanding or feeling or intuiting -- that is, for being human. Good reporters, media scholar G. Stuart Adam has observed, have the instinct needed to honor journalism as “the primary method of framing experience and forming the public consciousness of the here and now.” When I intentionally mistyped Kerry’s winning word as “ursprahe,” my spell checker responded with the suggestion, “unsprayed.” And when I changed the word to “ursprakhe,” the reply was: “no suggestion.” Kerry did not know the right spelling (or the definition or its etymology or its pronunciations) until she looked it up, just as any good reporter would have done.

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FACT-CHECKING CITATIONS:

The various facts on audience size and other details of the Spelling Bee are from various news reports from The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Albany Times Union, Friday-Sunday, June 2-4, and Kerry Close’s remark about becoming a journalist from my own viewing of ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday, June 2, 2006, and from The Asbury Park Press, June 3, 2006.

The statistics regarding journalism undergraduate degree recipients, enrollments, and related details come from Lee B. Becker, Tudor Vlad, Amy Jo Coffey, 2004 Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates, August 12, 2004, available at www.grady.uga/edu/annualreport, and Lee B. Becker, Tudor Vlad, Amy Jo Coffey, and Maria Tucker, “Enrollment Growth Rate Slows,” Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, Autumn 2005 (60:3), pp. 286-314.

The James Carey use of “curriculum” is in his essay, “The Dark Continent of American Journalism,” reprinted in G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter Clark, Journalism: the Democratic Craft (2006), p. 308.

Justice Brennan’s quote comes from his lead opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254 (1964).

The quote from G. Stuart Adam comes from his essay, “Notes Towards a Definition in Journalism,” reprinted in Adam and Roy Peter Clark, Journalism: The Democratic Craft (2006), p. 365.

A Good Point – From Mark Cuban, No Less

From The New York Times, June 17, 2006:

“In a recent post on his blog, Mark Cuban laments what he calls the loss of creativity, humor and spine in mainstream journalism. Young people aren't turning away from mainstream media because they don't care about current events, he writes, but because the media don't know how to connect with them. He adds that young people find traditional media boring with no ‘payoff’ like that offered by the pugnacious Mike Wallace or the ribald Howard Stern. ‘Even for a 21-year-old, it's not just about Paris Hilton, Bradgelina and the latest rap feud,’ he writes. ‘Kids want to learn. They want to know. Journalism matters.’”

This rings true, based on a significant number of students I deal with – they may not think of “journalism” in the same ways that all the Old School Traditionalists (I’m a card-carrying member) might, but they are interested in reporting, writing, commenting, interpreting on “the now,” and they do not feel bound to consider only conventional ways to do it – that is, newspapers and serious magazines.

On the other had, Cuban’s point implies a dilemma: exactly what sorts of “payoffs” are we willing to encourage, or tolerate, from journalists, young and old(er)? (For now, we will not even attempt to address the hot-button issue of trying to define just what a journalist is, given bloggers, citizen journalists . . .)