These days, everybody is concerned about the future of journalism. So why is it important to look at the past? Findings editor David Secko and Elyse Amend tackles the question, with the help of one Columbia professor’s findings.

In a time when most are concerned about the future of journalism, why is it important to look at its past? This is one question Andie Tucher, an associate professor at Columbia’s Journalism School,has tackled over the past three years in conducting a graduate-level course in journalism history at Columbia.

“It is undeniable: students who come to a school of journalism tend to be much more attuned to seconds and minutes than to centuries, much more interested in today than in say, 25 September 1690,” writes Tucher in her latest paper “Teaching Journalism History to Journalists” (Journalism Practice 5(5), 2011).

“So why on earth would the students at the Columbia Journalism School spend class time reading a 320-year-old rag?”

Tucher confesses it can be a tough case to make. This is clear in her noting that a 2008 survey by the American Journalism Historians Association (AJHA) found that of 192 U.S. schools with graduate programs in mass communication only 52 had one history course.

Still, Tucher sees worthwhile practical and intellectual challenges in teaching journalism history. In her latest article, she reflects on and explains an approach to trying to get students who are more concerned with gaining hands-on, practical journalism training to care about an elective course in journalism history.  The article is largely a personal account of developing this course, where Tucher focuses on 'snapshot' examples of how the class works or doesn't.

For Tucher, journalism history is often not taught very well. Courses, she argues, can take on a “triumphalist tone” while focusing too narrowly on the press simply being an agent of democracy and an archive of public intelligence. The past approach is one of seeing journalism as a top-down information system and not as a “dynamically created cultural text”.

Tucher’s approach to developing a journalism history course was different: journalism was viewed as a participant in its culture and product of its culture. If accepted, Tucher contends that the study and teaching of journalism history shifts to the study of the changing ways societies have told themselves the stories they considered important and true. To make her journalism history class relevant to skills-oriented students, three goals emerged:

  1. To introduce students to some of the most “important, enlightening, or eloquent” journalism of the past;
  2. To ask students to do away with their preconceived notions of what journalism is or ought to be today – or at least realize that they have these assumptions about the field;
  3. To lead students to ponder the social relationships, professional assumptions, technological constraints, and cultural contexts that have shaped journalism over time, and also affect their current work in the present.

It appears that one of the key moments in deciding these goals was a report by a task force at Columbia University looking at journalism education, chaired by Nicholas Lemann, who would later become Dean of Columbia’s Journalism School. In this report, the task force suggested that Columbia’s Journalism School could work to “try to teach their students ‘how tothink’, in ways that are distinctive to the profession and that will be useful for many years, rather than simply teaching them entry-level job skills”.

Tucher explains that a number of decisions had to be made to design a course this way. As the seven-week course is too limited cover all of journalism’s history, choices had to be made about what to leave in and what to leave out. It was decided that students would engage with “direct encounters” of historical journalistic work rather than reading secondary sources that wrote about this journalism.

These direct encounters were organized into major themes, such as objectivity and balance, journalists and their publics, technology, and so on. Students were expected to prepare a brief commentary on something they found interesting in the required readings and present it to class, with about eight to 10 students presenting their commentaries every week.

Tucher writes that this has led to provocative in-class discussions, such as a conversation on Susan Brownmiller’s 1971 Village Voice piece entitled “On Goosing” that opened both the students and instructor’s eyes about the impact of historical context on journalistic work, ultimately moving the course closer to its goals of illuminating assumptions about journalism.

Ultimately, to succeed in trying to make journalism history relevant to her students, Tucher points out it was vital to choose historical journalistic works that “directly challenged the conventions and understandings that most of us bring to our engagement with present-day journalism,” for example the 1770 unsigned Boston Gazette letter describing the Boston massacre, which challenged the historical notions – and existence – of objectivity in journalism.

Tucher argues that, three years on, one of the greatest challenges is being met: the course is allowing students to recognize the present isn’t always better than the past, and understand journalism as a social instrument and a participant in and product of its culture.

(Tucher offers readers an example of the course syllabus in the article, for those interested.)