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Is education what journalists do?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Originally published on May 24th, 2011 at my old blog.

We had a great discussion this afternoon on Twitter, about the way journalists strenuously deny they have an educational role, while everyone else sees them as essential pieces of the educational ecosystem: sources of information and explanation missing from schools, or for information that is too new for older people to have seen in school when they were young. Also as sources of judgement in disputes over facts.

While journalists strongly deny their educational role, as part of their false objectivity and ‘savvy’, everyone else perceives them as educators – people who should know and then tell, what is true and what is false, who is lying and who is not. People rely, as they cannot be in school all their lives, on the media for continuing education, especially on topics that are new. And people are then disappointed when, as usually happens, journalists fail in that role by indulging in false balance, He-Said-She-Said reporting, passionately avoiding to assign the truth-value to any statement, or self-indulgent enjoyment of their own “skill with words” in place of explaining the facts.

Fortunately for you all, you do not have to wade through all the tweets to see the entire discussion, as Adrian Ebsary has collected it all using Storify – read the whole thing (keep clicking “Load more” on the bottom of the page until you get to the end):

As you can see, while there is some snark and oversimplification here and there due to short format, the discussion was pretty interesting and constructive. This is also a demonstration that useful discussions can be had on Twitter.

Whenever someone says “you cannot say anything in 140 characters” I respond with “who ever said that you only have 140 characters?”. To their quizzical look, I add “You are not limited to one tweet per lifetime – if you need 14,000 characters, you can write 100 tweets”. But, by writing 100 tweets, and making sure that each tweet – not just the collection of 100 – makes sense, has punch to it, and is hard to misunderstand or misquote out of context, one has to write and edit each tweet with great care. Twitter does not allow for sloppy writing!

Picking a theme for a few hours or days, and tweeting a whole lot about it during that period, is usually called ‘mindcasting‘. But it is even better when a bunch of other people join in and mindcast together – everyone learns something from the experience.

Now read the Storify and, if you have time and energy, respond with an essay on your own blog, as a continuation of the mindcasting process.

And the first responses are in::

Whose Job is Public Science Education?

Are Journalists Educators? Does It Even Matter?

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. toohardforscience 10:19 am 10/12/2011

    I do think that journalists being part of the educational ecosystem does not necessarily mean they are educators, any more than being a farmer makes one a chef, or being a bovine source of fertilizer makes you a gardener. And while people might get educated by journalism, people can get educated by watching a traffic accident as well; that doesn’t make traffic victims educators: Just because A then C and B then C doesn’t mean A = B.

    Link to this
  2. 2. collettedesmaris 3:54 am 10/13/2011

    It seems to me as thought you’ve initiated an apples to oranges comparison here, Mr. Zivkovic; so it follows that the answer is simply, “No.” To support what I say, I shall respectfully explain the reasoning behind it. I find it imperative to state that the only Journalist that has an entitlement to bear that name, is a Professional Journalist. The question you ask in your title infers one’s duty – “education” is what Teachers do. Conversely, Journalists do something quite different.

    The “Society of Professional Journalists” states that:
    “It is the duty of the Journalist to seek truth and provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. A Journalist who is ethical and conscientious
    strives to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional and personal integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. They clarify & explain news coverage as they abide by high standards in presenting it accurately. Journalists should be honest, fair, courageous, and diligent in
    gathering, interpreting, and reporting information. It is critical that they test the accuracy of info from all sources prior to publishing it, and they should always – without exception – exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. It is a given that a
    professional journalist never purposefully prints information that is inaccurate – deliberate distortion is NEVER permissible. They should not oversimplify or
    highlight incidents out of context.”

    The Society outlines many additional guidelines, but I think this is adequate to convey in a general way, some of what a Journalist does. Certainly if one is reading an article written by a reputable Journalist that writes solely reliable content, any person who has access to the article may gain knowledge from reading the article; but the choice to “educate” lies with the individual who picks up the article and reads it for the purpose of gaining knowledge for himself. The duty of the Journalist is to inform; it is the duty of the individual to self-educate; or to seek education from a Teacher at a school; but one does not need to attend a school to educate oneself.

    I am of the opinion that a true Professional Journalist who follows the parameters as stated in the Society’s Code of Ethics, would think of doing nothing less than that. They are a rare commodity in the times we live in now; with all of the public writing going on nowadays. I have observed a glaring trend for individuals to put themselves out there in the public eye; professing to be a “Journalist” – and publishing articles that contain such an alarming amount of inaccuracies …. and I find it so appalling that it stuns me. As well, the really amazing aspect of it is that they state the information with such authority; which is a very dangerous and extraordinary thing to do – because they are providing wrong information with a strategy behind it; so the result we have here is a large part of the reading public becomes misinformed – and some of the issues I’ve observed this disturbing trend in are serious issues. The Media is in a position of power, and to purposefully deliver erroneous information is reprehensible; to say the very least. I venture to say that this type of individual is clearly fully unaware of any code of ethics; much less the Journalist’s Code of Ethics.
    Definition: “Educate”:
    1) To develop the faculties and powers of (a person)by
    teaching, instruction, or schooling.
    2) To qualify by instruction or training for a particular calling, practice, etc.; train: to educate someone for law.
    3) To provide schooling or training for; send to school.
    Mr. Zivkovic, you made a statement that I am compelled
    to comment on specifically. You said:

    “… journalists strenuously deny they have an educational role, while everyone else sees them as essential pieces of the educational ecosystem: sources of information and explanation missing from schools, or for information that is too new for older people to have seen in school when they were young.”

    As we’ve already learned in the first part of my comment (above), you are on target when you claim that Journalists deny being educators – because they’re not!
    However, you also say that “everyone else” thinks otherwise. To speak for all others by saying “everyone else” is a bold assumption. Because, I don’t think otherwise; and I find it fairly offensive to be categorized in a group I don’t agree with!

    Then, you finish that sentence with:
    ” …explanation missing from schools, or for information that is too new for older people to have seen in school when they were young.”

    My response to that is, WTF??!!! “Too new for older people to have seen in school when they were young”??!
    Forgive me, Sir, but that whole sentence just comes across really screwy to me; and is hardly an explanation for a Journalist’s duty or responsibility.
    What were you thinking?

    Sincerely, Collette

    Link to this
  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 8:30 pm 10/13/2011

    Of course the society of professional journalists will say that – they are the voice of people who think of themselves as professional journalists. They deny they are educators, both officially and unofficially. A great way to abrogate one’s duty to the society, to save one’s ass when doing lazy reportin: “we report, you decide”.

    Others – non-journalists – do not see it that way. They don’t want a quote from here, a quote from there, and then “we’ll leave it there”. They want to hear the Truth-value of the statements, how much what person A and person B said actually aligns with reality. An instant Truth-o-meter next to each statement.

    It would be good for “professional journalists” (whatever that 20th century term even means in the 21st century) to listen to what the audience is saying, to take that seriously. THIS is the key cause for the precipitous decline in people’s trust in the media. This. Once people could find actual experts online dissect the media coverage, people realized they have been mis-served all along. They demand to be informed (and yes, taught, when needed), and not just given quotes and left to their own devices to figure out what is the truth. That IS education, no matter what some musky old dictionary says.

    Link to this

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