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One Heresy for Every Verity: What if Columbia's Team of Journalism All-Stars Went to School?
Cole C. Campbell

Columbia President Lee Bollinger's 30-member all-star task force is an impressive body. It is filled with men and women of brains, talent and nonstop accomplishment. The professional members are masters of the world of journalism. But their world is in real trouble, (we might say they haven't mastered it) especially in the eyes of the young and disenfranchised, and increasingly in the eyes of mainstream readers, listeners, viewers and browsers.

Many of these people, normal Americans who believe in a free press, feel alienated from work that still strikes journalists as the right work to be doing. This is a problem, especially if you're training smart people to do good work. What if the accomplished pros brought together by Bollinger moved beyond the problems they know about in order to discover what no one knows: How do we transform journalism — and journalism education-so that it better serves citizens and communities, the Republic as a whole?

Journalism needs far more than the enshrinement of best practices and the emulation of newsroom gods. It needs new relationships with the people who are drifting away from journalism — and the people who stick with it only grudgingly. (Know anyone in that group?) I think the task force succeeds or fails by how well it conducts a robust discussion of the wider world that journalism operates in and serves. That means thinking about the people who are not journalists. And who don't think like journalism, the established social practice, "thinks."

I think the task force succeeds or fails by how well it conducts a robust discussion of the wider world that journalism operates in and serves. That means thinking about the people who are not journalists.

The task force would have benefited from the inclusion of some deviants and heretics. Deviants and heretics — not masters of the domain — produce breakthrough ideas. But the Bollinger group can make a substantial contribution nonetheless if its members see themselves as learners — students placed before a giant puzzle. The temptation will be to serve as the Guardian Class, or possibly as heralds, conservators or curators. I would love to see a final report that says ,"This is what we have learned" more often than, "This is what we know." And I would love to see it take seriously one heresy for every verity embraced.
Some possible couples:

A journalism school should expose students to the best practices of the profession — and a journalism school should challenge the profession to elevate its practices.

As long as Columbia is home to the Pulitzer Prizes, Alfred I. duPont Awards, Online Journalism Awards, National Magazine Awards and other professional prizes, it will be closely associated with journalism's best practices. Now it can aspire to challenge the profession to elevate its practices, much the way scholars at law schools and business schools articulate new ways of applying the law or running businesses. Catherine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan's law school, for example, created a body of scholarly writings on discrimination law that laid the groundwork for the legal profession — and the courts — to take up sexual harassment as a legal doctrine. You may like or not like the results. But when has Columbia's journalism school done anything like that?

A journalism school should teach students sound professional judgment — and a journalism school should teach students how to help citizens reach public judgment.

Journalism's discipline is judgment. Within the newsroom (and the classroom), journalists need to develop and hone their judgment in selecting, pursuing, crafting and presenting coverage or commentary. Beyond the newsroom, citizens need journalism that helps them develop and hone their own judgment in making all kinds of public and personal choices. Why is it important to know what's going on in the world? So you can judge when you have to.

Citizens especially need journalism that helps them reach what Daniel Yankelovich, the public opinion research pioneer, calls public judgment. Public judgment involves thoughtfully weighing the alternatives and assorted factors before making any fateful decision. It emphasizes the ethical and moral choices inherent in decisions that can never be settled by having all the facts. People reach public judgment by paying attention to what really matters, working through a range of possible responses, using their civic imaginations, and resolving their differences somehow, in order to act. Journalism well thought out and well executed can help people take these steps.

News judgment matters because in a democracy the quality of public judgment matters. Any quality J-school should be thinking about that

A journalism school should define journalism as information gathering — and a journalism school should define journalism as public inquiry.

We need to conceive of journalism not just as an exercise in information — a commodity that can be mined from public events and repackaged as "news" — but also, and more importantly, as an exercise in inquiry: the struggle to understand and respond effectively to public issues. There's a reason gaming has exploded as a cultural form. Gaming allows people to work through and learn from their experience with challenges, not simply learn about them. But it is private experience, not primarily engaged with the public arena. Journalism needs to help people learn from their own and other people's experience of the world, rather than take in events and issues vicariously.

Deviants and heretics--not masters of the domain--produce breakthrough ideas.

The problems of democracy are seldom problems of ungotten information. They are instead problems of political will and matters of public judgment that can only be resolved only through public action and public inquiry. Reading, watching or listening to news and information is not enough, which means having an audience "out there" is not enough. If journalism is to serve democracy, its essential work is not providing information and leaving it at that, but sustaining inquiry, feeding discussion that can lead to action — helping citizens sort out the contested facts, frames, claims and values that shape public judgment and political will.

So a graduate education in journalism ought to focus on transforming practices, honing professional and public judgment and pursuing journalism as a public inquiry. This requires grappling with outside-in questions: How do people come to understand the world and act on their understanding? How does democracy — through its public institutions — try to translate understanding into action? How do public knowledge and decision-making improve when journalists improve their work? What can journalists adapt from other forms of public inquiry, and other means of engaging people? And what kind of journalism best serves the democracy we seem to have now?

The Bollinger task force has the experience and intelligence to tackle these questions. But does it want to go to school?

Cole C. Campbell, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Virginian-Pilot, is the editor, with Roy Peter Clark, of The Values and Craft of American Journalism: Essays from the Poynter Institute (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002).

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