Passing the Torch to My Journalism Student

In my last column, I discussed some fundamental rules that remain in place even as journalism is changing before our eyes. But as the role of journalism changes, we are still bringing new generations of journalists into the fold--and I happen to have one in my own house.

My daughter is in the midst of taking Journalism 201, and we've been having some compelling discussions as of late. It got me thinking about how we need to train the next generation to operate in this shifting media landscape. The good news is that the professor seems to recognize this and has structured the class accordingly.

One of the primary teaching tools for the class involves maintaining a WordPress blog on current events-writing a weekly post on what students believe is the most important story of the week-then responding to comments from classmates, while commenting on others' posts. It's an assignment that, as a modern journalist, I see as relevant and important, and I'm pleased to see that journalism training is catching up with the reality of what our jobs have become in 2012.

And my daughter has had an intriguing reaction to the posts she has seen on the class blog. In some instances she thinks people have a warped view of what's "important," while in others she complained that all the blogger did was write a couple of paragraphs and link back to some stories. That is a trick used by bloggers who aggregate a lot of content for readers, but she's right that it's probably not delivering the spirit of the assignment.

Interestingly, she sees her role as having more depth than that-and in fact, she has taken to writing more of a straight news story approach to the assignment. I have tried to encourage her to use the blog format to stretch beyond conventional journalism, but as a beginning journalism student, I can't complain about a youngster who sees fundamentals as important. Once young people understand the basics of news writing, then they will be better equipped to stretch out and take liberties with the format.

They are also discussing the changing role of journalists and what we perceive as publications, the very types of issues we cover here in Media Redux. Her latest assignment involved WikiLeaks and whether it stepped over the line when it released top secret files. I showed her my March 2011 Media Redux column: "Is WikiLeaks ‘The Press'?" as a means of stimulating the discussion. I had, after all, brought up many of the issues the teacher was trying to address.

I tried to give her some historical perspective by explaining Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the seminal 1972 case that gave newspapers the right to print classified documents even if they were acquired by a third party through illegal means. I tried to tie that to Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks service, which I explained was nothing more than an electronic drop box where people could leave files anonymously.

I acknowledged that it was difficult-even for an experienced writer such as me-to understand where the lines of propriety were and how this all fit together. We all struggle with this, but I stressed to her that the people's right to know trumped national security, which was often used as a smoke screen to cover up wrongdoing.

I emphasized that the role of the press is to act as a check on power. As a person who came of age during Watergate and who, as a 13-year-old watching the Watergate hearings live in my history class, I was influenced by those abuses of government power to become a journalist. I have grown to take that perspective for granted.

Even after all these years, after seeing newspapers crushed under the weight of the internet and watching once-proud news networks such as CBS be reduced to running the next season of Survivor as the lead story on the evening news, I was surprised that I still hold an idealistic view of the role of the journalist.
For now, as I sit back and watch my child learn the craft with which I have made my living, I can't help but be proud and have hope for the future of journalism-because there are young people out there still debating the big questions and trying to build an understanding of their role as journalists in the 21st century. And the beat goes on.