Michelle Stack argues that journalism and academe have much in common, both being networks of knowledge that facilitate the noisy, messy process of democratic conversation.
WHERE IS MEDIA IN EDUCATIONAL POLICY RESEARCH?
Journalistic accounts of education influence the public’s perception of it and policy makers’ decisions about it.
Since higher education faces massive cuts and privatization throughout much of the world, academics have a responsibility to engage with many different audiences. Keeping publicly funded universities alive means academics need to be seen and heard in a variety of places.
There are many forms of public engagement available to academics, but I focus on academic-media engagement because it is a dominant player in portraying what is a “good” education and a “bad” education and what are “good” and “bad” education policy options.
And policy makers are sensitive to this. A former Ministry of Education communications director told me that while the media are never in the room when policy is discussed, they are nonetheless present because the people who are in the room have to consider how the media might report an educational policy, and these predictions influence how a policy is communicated and when it is made public. A provincial premier informed me that Mondays were his worst days because that’s when his caucus returned from their constituencies after a weekend of reading provincial and local newspapers, which had inspired demands from them for new policies and initiatives to bolster support—or dampen criticism.
Journalists and politicians have a complex relationship of mutual influence, albeit often an acrimonious one. Many journalists work with limited resources and time, so government press releases and go-to sources are essential for meeting deadlines. Government has vast resources but a small audience for its own websites and other PR material. Politicians know voters depend on media to learn what government policies mean to their lives. And while social media provide people new ways to challenge government messaging (as global events this year show), mainstream media, whether the CBC, Al Jazeera, or CNN, still have a central role as translators of blogs and tweets for their large, broad-based audiences.
So how do journalists judge the claims made by government and others about what makes for a good post-secondary education and what tax dollars should fund or not fund? What sources do journalists use to form their opinions?
Back in 2003, as a newly minted PhD, I wanted to know how journalists viewed academics as sources. The journalists I interviewed had mixed views. An editor-in-chief for a major newspaper, takes a “no prisoners” approach: “Let me talk about academics. They’re terrible to deal with! I used to run the editorial pages, and…I failed at getting academics to write op-ed pieces because they never met their deadlines.”
Some journalists I spoke with said they would like to talk more often to academics but because of lack of time they can’t. Others, on the other hand, have one or two sources they can talk to about any education story and who are easy to quote and who respond quickly to media requests.
Academics also differ in their interactions with journalists. Some have frequent contact with journalists, while others shy away. There are gendered and racialized dimensions about whom the media call as an expert source and who promote themselves as legitimate expert sources for media.
FRAMES OF REFERENCE
The word “journalist” comes from the French word “jour”, meaning journalism is the “today”. Accordingly, the job of journalism is to provide a useful account on a more or less daily basis; conversely, the job of the academy is work that is often seen as abstract and even impractical. Indeed, the term “academic” is often described by the metaphor “ivory tower”, a symbol of virginal purity. Over the last two centuries, the ivory tower metaphor has been used to attribute to the academy’s aloofness from and disdain for practical realities.
Words referring to journalism include “watchdog”, which brings to mind Cerberus, the three-headed hound in Greek and Roman literature. In the Harry Potter novels, a Cerberus look-alike, Fluffy, ”—was bought by Hagrid from a “Greek chappie” who, like Cerberus, was the guardian of the underworld. This fierce guardian watchdog metaphor speaks to journalists’ investigating the wrongdoings of people in power and not letting such miscreants escape accountability. A lapdog journalist, on the other hand, is like the pug, friendly and obedient to its masters—government and business—who provide rapid and regular meals (news), access, and money(advertising and favorable tax systems).
These metaphors are testimony to how much the two professions—academia and journalism—are constructed as opposites. The academic contemplates and is aloof, if not hostile, to the real world. An academic can also steal the stories and knowledge of others for gain. The journalist, conversely is not contemplating but, rather, is constantly doing, filing stories and reporting to the public what is important that present moment. These metaphors, however, are misleading in that they disregard important links between the two professions. Many academics engage in issues pertaining to the daily life of people and are often involved in advocacy work. Many journalists are painstaking in their research and deeply reflective about what they do. The new digital networks, moreover, have changed how academics and journalists both work and interact. A daily deadline is a thing of the past for many journalists, who must now files stories many times on many separate media. Academics, too, are under more pressure to be internationally known and funded, which requires understanding new networks of scholarly recognition and collaboration, as well as using search engines and media outlet to communicate their work.
Seeing academics and journalists as opposites creates the illusion of two distinct fields, each with its own set norms and standards of what is good journalism or good research. In reality, the boundaries between these two fields have been radically transformed over the last decade or so. The pressure for self-promotion in both academe and journalism creates a new dynamic that links one’s online presence with networks of power, such as media, politics, business, or higher education. For example, when I ask journalists how they conduct research, they usually say they start by looking at other journalists and then use Google. In this way, journalists find academics who might not be known in academic circles but are highly ranked on search engines, especially Google.
Sometimes journalistic research can be stronger than academic research, even academic research published in prestigious journals. For example, Professor Andrew Wakefield connected the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to autism. His discovery gained massive credibility by its publication in the well-respected medical journal, the Lancet, which provided Wakefield with the launching pad he needed to use the media to publicize his claims among the broader public. Even though the Lancet disputed some of the claims Wakefield later made to the media, by publishing him it had, unfortunately, given Wakefield credibility that allowed him to become a medical star. It was a journalist, Brian Deer, who brought to light the fraud, financial conflict of interest, and unethical treatment of children involved in the work that Wakefield had published in the Lancet. This is an example where a reporter did journalistic research to challenge flimsy academic research.
ACADEMICS AS PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS
The making of a public intellectual can happen in many ways. Noam Chomsky, for example, started off as a linguist. In 1967, he wrote an article for the New York Review of Books in which he attacked academic culture in the United States. He argued that academics were part of the status quo because they were legitimatizing American actions in Vietnam. Chomsky could have continued to write only for other academics, but for him to do so would have been counter to his desire to critique the academy. Such critiquing meant he had to engage political questions publicly. He challenged media and academic “objectivity” by asking what values and ideology they promulgated and how they affected how we understand the world and act within it. Even those who disagree with Chomsky would acknowledge that he used his academic research to create opportunities for understanding the values inherent in knowledge production.
Barbara Ehrenreich, a former academic, has used ethnographic techniques to expose the conditions, for example, endured by low-waged female workers. Ehrenreich had earned a PhD in cell biology, but she experienced a “personal transformation” when receiving prenatal care and realized that “PhDs were not immune from the vilest forms of sexism”. She quit her teaching job and became a full-time journalist.
Both are public intellectuals—using different genres/registers to be public intellectuals. While they trained as academics, Ehrenreich became a journalist and Chomsky became a media figure. Both are dealing with the daunting political issues of the day. They found ways to transcend the narrow definitions of journalism and academe in order to raise questions about knowledge and the public good. Their experience demonstrates that asking whether one is doing research as a journalist or academic is the wrong question to start with. A more fruitful way to generate insights into the multifaceted aspects of these fields is to ask what the values are that underpin them.
ACADEMICS AND JOURNALISTS AS PUBLIC EDUCATORS
Often, academics and journalists see themselves as having special roles to play in enlightening society.
The act of enlightening—whether it comes with terms such as knowledge production/mobilization/dissemination/exchange and transfer—is a powerful social and political act, so much so that journalists and academics can make people mere sidebars in their own lives as journalists and academics act as expert interpreters and informal policy advisors on public issues. Should banks be allowed to charge interest on student loans? Should low-income students be seen as “at-risk” of failure? Should institutions be responsible for changing structures that discriminate against indigenous people’s knowledge? Decisions by academics and journalists about how to interpret or advocate on behalf of social issues can have profound effects on people’s thinking about them.
Academics and journalists perform key public educator roles by determining what knowledge is meaningful and worth sharing. Through their work, they also influence which individuals and which constituencies get to participate in decision-making and which do not. Clay Shirky in a recent essay contends: “Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation”. Shirky draws on Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld’s classic study to remind us that media is not the only game in town. We do not consume media passively. We are social creatures. We talk to our family, friends, and colleagues about media, and these conversations, combined with our background experiences, form our opinions.
I propose we think about journalism and academe as being networks of knowledge that can provide spaces for public education, spaces where journalists and academics facilitate the messy and contested process of conversation and debate as part of a process of political, educational, social, and policy inclusion. This process is what helps us figure out what values are implicit in current debates and how we might want either to maintain or change those values.
Michelle Stack is an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Educational Studies, and a faculty associate for the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.