Attacks on journalism education are an attack on press freedom

By Alexandra Wake, JERAA President


Statement from the JERAA President on World Press Freedom Day:

On World Press Freedom Day 2021 I’d like us to focus on how attacks on journalism education and research, including on individual academics, have a real impact on press freedom in Australia. I call on all those who want quality journalism in Australia to flourish, to support our work within the academy.

In the past year we have seen the cost of journalism degrees increase by 110%, universities ditching journalism programs, headlines about job losses encouraging our best and brightest students to choose other courses of study, and some parts of the media continuing their attacks on universities and individual academics.

However, it is within Australia’s universities that much world-leading research is happening, seeking out answers for our ailing industry, not just around financial viability, but also around important social issues – from the need for greater diversity, equity and inclusion to ethics and artificial intelligence, misinformation and regional security issues.

It is also within our universities that budding journalists are trained in all the skills of journalism: from fact checking and verification to data analysis and analytics, while still learning to write and broadcast news stories which ask the tough questions of the rich and powerful.

Journalist watchdogs, like all other professionals, must be trained. They do not learn their skills by osmosis in understaffed news organisations, stripped of senior staff. At universities we not only teach new recruits to be watchdogs, we ask them to consider themselves as guide dogs showing audiences which issues are worth the investment of their time, and even therapy dogs to help build and rebuild communities.

Journalists within the university system work in all kinds of roles, sometimes in traditional modes, with others experimenting with new styles and theories of journalism. In fact, some of the highest quality journalism currently taking place is produced by students and academics. It is often under the guidance of academic staff, most of whom were long-time journos, that students have won the highest local, national and even international journalism awards.

Journalism programs clearly don’t just result in jobs in journalism. But such a course of study does give students the opportunity to develop their critical thinking skills, to build their knowledge of the world, and it gives them the time to think deeply about the issues that need changing in the world. Many of our graduates have thanked us for their training in journalism even those who later choose careers in medicine, engineering, politics and international development. Undergraduate journalism degrees certainly give students vital life-long skills of media literacy, while graduate diploma and masters programs in journalism result in highly-skilled and deep thinking journalists.

I do not claim that all of Australia’s journalism programs are perfect, but all those who work in journalism within the academy are constantly reviewing curricula and upskilling for the current and future industry requirements. Journalism programs aren’t stuck in what some newsroom leaders learned in the 1980s, or 2000s. Today’s classes are filled with tools and skills to debunk ‘deep fakes’ and edit incredible sound. Industry professionals are brought in to ensure the students know what is expected in the modern workforce.

But with so many newsrooms now devoid of senior staff with the time to guide younger recruits, in many cases, that role has reverted to their former academic teachers and mentors. More than ever before new journalists find that the only people available to support them, particularly when they are under siege as freelancers, or are within an unwelcoming newsroom is their former lecturer.

Although this year I am raising concerns about a lack of support for journalism education and research as a key press freedom issue for Australia, I do not overlook the serious issues faced by Australian journalists working on the front line of Covid19, under the gaze of an unsympathetic public. We also remain concerned about the Australians who are in jail in China (Cheng Lei) and the UK (Julian Assange), the very difficult work conditions faced by women, particularly Indigenous women, women of colour and those with disabilities. These are issues which fill our classrooms and conversations with students and all have been heighted during Covid.

As Covid19 continues to wreak havoc around the world, I’d like to call on all those who support excellent journalism – university leaders, newsroom bosses,  parents, and philanthropists – to be more vocal in their support of journalism education and research, the overlooked but vital supplier of current and future talent, ideas and solutions.

Alexandra Wake, President of Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia.
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