So what am I doing here?

I love that scene in the film of ‘The Commitments’ when Jimmy Rabitte has the band members – all good white Dubliners – repeating the phrase ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ as he tries to instil some soul into their music.

At BCU, my colleague Diane Kemp and I have often done something similar with our postgraduate broadcast journalism students shortly before they leave us to enter the world of work. In our case the mantra is ‘I’m a freelance broadcast journalist’ as we help them make the mental switch from student to working journalist.

Now, following an interesting summer and on the point of welcoming the latest batch of Pg Dip BJs to our new state of the art media centre, I’ve been wondering just what ‘I’m a journalist’ means. It’s not that I’m having any kind of crisis of faith or conscience simply that I’ve been mulling over a number of thoughts that arose during the World Journalism Education Congress at Mechelen in Belgium last month.

First there were the firm assertions of the always interesting Jeff Jarvis (every conference should have someone like him, bold, free thinking and ready to challenge the audience’s perception of itself). “Journalism,” he said “is not a content business – it’s a service.” The success of a service, he added, is measured in different ways from the manufacture of a product. There are no masses in the world of services, only individuals. “We are in the relationship business,” he said. Significantly, too, Jarvis dismissed all the discussions around who is and who isn’t a journalist. I’ll paraphrase (he has an excellent way with an expletive) but his point was: “I’m sick of the debate about who’s a journalist, what’s a blogger. It doesn’t matter!”

Next came time spent in syndicate sessions under the title ‘Role, Perceptions and Professional Values Worldwide’ aimed at answering the question: ‘What is the new role of the journalist in our changing society?’ It did – miraculously, given the diverse make up of each of the two groups chewing over the same topic – come up with some conclusions. Key among them was that ‘the role of journalists and the function of journalism in society should be taught and researched as a central element in journalism education taking into account the cultural and societal contexts.’  No surprise, I suppose, that a bunch of (mostly) academics and researchers should call for more research……but it’s interesting that at a conference billed as ‘renewing journalism through education’ we should have gone back to basics. What has happened that has changed to any real extent what a journalist does?

The starting point for the discussions was a paper based on the work of the Media and Democracy project which interviewed 131 journalists in Germany, the UK, Italy, Sweden and the USA about their perceptions of their role. Taking on that work, the German researcher Thomas Hanitzsch in his ‘Worlds of Journalism Study’ came up with ‘four distinct professional milieus of journalists’ – populist disseminator, detached watchdog, critical change agent and opportunist facilitator.

None of those is a ‘milieu’ I’ve ever heard journalists talking about in a real newsroom or over a pint after work but I’m all for the idea of more thinking in this whole area. I’ll be asking my incoming students for their views and maybe putting some questions to past students now employed across the news industry. I have no idea what their responses will be but, with huge respect to Jeff Jarvis, as a working journalist and editor, I know content matters and I’ll be saying so in classes as I help prepare young journalists to produce it. They may see themselves as being in a service industry but it will be one that serves up interesting content, imaginatively presented and with an audience in mind.