Can objective journalism endure, after Cronkite?

Editor’s note: Larry’s thoughts on Walter Cronkite provide us an opportunity to talk about what journalism is, and might be, in the Internet era. I’ll follow Larry’s piece with a comment of my own, and I invite you to do the same.

As a journalism professor, the death of Walter Cronkite is a reminder of what journalism was and may never be again.

When my college students ask me who I think the best journalists in the business were, my first answer would always be Walter Cronkite. Like most young people, most of my students tend to get their news from local television, the Internet, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Most of them do not read newspapers. Very few of them were familiar with Cronkite.

“Walter Cronkite was and always will be the gold standard,” ABC News anchor Charles Gibson told the Associated Press. “His objectivity, his evenhandedness, his news judgment are all great examples.”

Walter Cronkite was everything a journalist was supposed to be. He was truly fair and balanced; not in the Fox News sense. He was thorough and prepared and he asked the tough questions that needed to be asked of politicians and government officials, whether they were liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican.

Back in 1972, Cronkite was voted as the most trusted person in America. Since then, the public’s trust of journalists has eroded over the years due to various scandals and controversies involving plagiarism and fabrication, including Jayson Blair, Steven Glass, Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley, the emergence of doctoring photos through Photoshop, and the 60 Minutes’ use of an allegedly forged document.

The emergence of advocacy journalism, while it serves a purpose, has also harmed objective journalism. Most bloggers tend to only give one opinionated perspective and viewpoint on a certain issue and rarely conduct thorough investigative journalism. Fox News has become a joke and a parody of itself; just look at the Presidential campaign where one host implied that Michelle Obama’s fist tap with her husband was a terrorist fist bump, another host joked about Obama being assassinated, while one Fox News segment referred to Michelle Obama as Barack’s “baby mama.”

As Cronkite told Larry King a few years ago regarding objectivity in journalism, “We all have prejudices, but we also understand how to set them aside when we do the job.”

Each semester, I do an exercise with my students, in which I have them watch the network news, a liberal news show such as Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and a conservative news show such as Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly. I have the students compare the ways in which the news is reported and the biases that the hosts display. When I first did this exercise, I expected the students to prefer the shows where the hosts expressed their opinions, since they resembled the strong voices displayed on the Internet and blogs. To my surprise, most of my students indicated that they preferred the straightforward, non-biased approaches provided in the network news broadcasts.

This exercise gives me hope that there will still be a place for the type of objective, straightforward reporting that Cronkite embodied. While there is a place for opinionated blogs, websites, newspaper editorials, talk radio, and cable TV news programs that are biased and entertaining, there still is a desire for thorough reporting and straightforward information that people can trust.

Many young journalists are unaware that good reporting and research goes beyond Wikipedia and Google. I cite Cronkite to my students as a model of how preparation, fact-checking, research, and objectivity are essential to the practice of journalism.

Journalism is supposed to be about discovering the truth. That was what Walter Cronkite did. When he signed off each night saying, “That’s the way it is,” the viewers could believe it.

Don't dismiss journalism schools just because newspapers are in trouble

Larry Atkins teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University.

In light of the decline of newspapers, you would think that college students would be staying away from the field of journalism in droves. Thus far, that’s not the case. But will university journalism schools change their approach in the way they teach future journalists?

According to Inside Higher Ed, applications to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism have gone up around 40 percent higher than last year. Applications to Temple University’s Department of Journalism have remained steady over the last few years. In March, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported that due to student interest and potential demand, the University of Pennsylvania is working to propose a journalism minor.

But how are the Journalism schools and departments accommodating this interest to the changing realities of the journalism profession?

According to Dr. Andrew Mendelson, Chair of Temple University’s Journalism Department, “In some ways, we anticipated the new reality. Six years ago, we changed the curriculum to add more multimedia exposure. We require students to do reporting in all types of areas—print, Web, audio and video. In addition to this cross-platform format, students specialize in newspapers, magazines or photojournalism.”

“In addition, we recently added an elective in Entrepreneurial Journalism, started by Professor George Miller, in which we teach students how to become their own business model by freelancing or starting their own websites.”

“We’re also doing more career workshops. Some are with the Career Center and deal with networking and preparing resumes. We also have business practices workshops, which deal with legal issues, contracts, and how to market yourself.”

A recent trend of journalism programs is getting students out of the classroom to cover events and issues in the community. Five years ago, Temple established MURL, the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, in which journalism students work in a newsroom setting where they experience all aspects of news production, including print, broadcast, Web and digital media. MURL’s mission is to tell stories of the multicultural, diverse voices in the under-covered urban Philadelphia neighborhoods. MURL students concentrate their news coverage in a targeted neighborhood, then service it with targeted information.

La Salle University will launch a capstone course in community journalism next fall, in which students will be doing multi-media reporting about community issues in Germantown.

As Huntly Collins, a La Salle Journalism Professor and former Inquirer reporter, says, “Ironically, this comes at a time when Germantown has lost its community newspaper [The Germantown Courier] and when nearby Mt. Airy has also lost its paper, the Mt. Airy Express. I would love to see our students help fill the vacuum, perhaps with financial backing from a non-profit organization.”

Another emerging trend is that journalism schools are starting to teach social media. As reported by Vadim Lavrusik in Mashable, The Social Media Guide on June 19, 2009, journalism professors are teaching how social media like Facebook and Twitter can be applied to aid in reporting and producing the news. Among the approaches being taught include promoting and distributing content, interviewing, news gathering and research, crowdsourcing, building community and developing a personal brand.

Other emerging trends in teaching journalism include global journalism and interactivity. Drexel offers a BA in Global Journalism, where students are taught journalism skills they can use on a global level. Arcadia University, which emphasizes study abroad programs, recently started a Visual Culture in India Project, where communications students travel to India and then create multimedia projects that are posted on a website. Villanova launched “The Zone,” which is an interactive portal run through the Communications Department and also broadcasts live streaming radio shows created by students in the Radio Production class.

Jody Ross, English Professor at Villanova University and Advisor to the Villanovan student newspaper says, “We have not changed our program; in fact, more students than ever seem interested in studying journalism. I love to teach the subject because, regardless of whether or not our students will find jobs as newspaper reporters, they learn to be informed consumers of news and they become advocates for newspapers. They learn to think, report and write accurately and fairly to distinguish fact from opinion and to carry the sensations they see, hear, smell, touch or taste directly to the reader without adding assumptions or conclusions. Best of all, they learn to write well. Journalists are the most passionate aficionados of grammar and usage and accurate phrasing the world–more even than college English professors or attorneys. Whether our students become news writers, public relations professionals, business executives, doctors, teachers or lawyers, their journalism training always pays off. Dozens of them stay in touch with me, and their passion for journalism never wanes.”

Will Bunch, a Philadelphia Daily News reporter who writes the popular blog Attytood, believes that journalism schools need to continue teaching the traditional core values of reporting, but that they need to emphasize the concepts of audience involvement and entrepreneurship. “You can look at it two ways,” Bunch says. “The core values of journalism aren’t really changing. You have to understand what makes a good story, how to report it, and how to report fairly and with integrity. It was the exact same with Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper 150 years ago or with newfangled websites. That hasn’t changed.”

“What is radically different are important secondary things that schools have to account for. Journalists today need to understand that news is now a two way conversation between you and the audience. Don’t talk down to the audience. Audience members are active participants—they comment on stories, participate as sources, and provide information and tips. Schools can maintain their core values and work on that.”

“Schools also need to teach that journalists need to think as entrepreneurs. You don’t just write a story; you have to find an audience for it. That’s been ignored by many journalists, and it’s critical today.”

So what career advice are university journalism and writing professors giving their students?

Mendelson says, “I encourage students to do multiple internships and diverse types of internships in which they learn a lot of different things. You need expertise and strengths, but don’t follow just one path. Getting experience with newspapers, websites, television and radio will strengthen your resume. It’s a scary, but exciting time. The paths are not clear and obvious, so you have to create your own paths.”

Al Filreis, Director of Penn’s Kelly Writers House says, “Young writers often ask me about which genre of their interest – journalism, novel-writing, poetry, screenwriting, etc. – is the one they should follow. The journalists still want to report on their stories, make their short deadlines and all that, but they seem to know, first, that the jobs are fewer than before and, second, that print journalism is a dead end. There’s a revival of interest in the traditionally unrenumerative genres of writing, fiction and poetry. This has its own other causes, but one cause is surely that journalism, which seemed a salaried avenue, no longer guarantees anything. Writers, even young ones, sense intuitively that the bad market frees them to do anyway what they really want to do. This is purely anecdotal, but I see a lot of students who want to be full-time writers and the seem actually happier.”

Huntly Collins of La Salle says, “Over the past two years, we’ve had great success in placing journalism students in internships and jobs. How that will play out in the future, however, is an open question. I suspect the best student journalists will land jobs in the news industry, but they may have to move to growth areas of the country. For others, I think it’s going to be tough.

One advantage we have at La Salle, however, is that our students are broadly trained within the communication field, including public relations. So even if our journalism students can’t find jobs in the news business, they will have the background they need to get plum jobs in public relations.”

Bunch says, “I would advise students to go into journalism. If they have a passion for news reporting, by all means go for it. They just need to understand that the format is changing. But that’s always been true. Blogs didn’t exist for me when I graduated from college 28 years ago. It’s an even more rapid change now. But if you care about writing about news, there will be a place for you.”

Reading, 'riting… and revenue? Online publishing changes the 'three Rs' for college students

Sure, algebra, chemistry and English composition are important. But the most important basic skill and task that should be a prerequisite to graduating college is that students should create their own professional websites.

In today’s changing high-tech job market, students should be developing their own professional websites and blogs while they are in college and even high school. In addition to theoretical and analytical courses, colleges should teach real-world practical skills such as constructing a website. Schools should teach students that the Internet is more than a social networking tool or a way to research papers and projects.

I teach Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. At the beginning of each semester, I’m surprised at the small number of students who have developed their own professional-style websites. Everyone is on Facebook or MySpace, but only five or so of the approximately 400 students that I’ve taught over the last five years had their own website, which featured their writing samples, articles, or other work. I now emphasize to all my students that developing their own professional website while in college can be an effective marketing tool and a great way to get internships, part-time jobs, full-time jobs, exposure, and extra cash.

For example, one of my former students, Leah Kauffman, the voice and co-creator of the Obama Girl videos, was a Junior at Temple University when she collaborated with others to create She has been interviewed in many media outlets, including ABC News, Cosmopolitan, and MSNBC. Kauffman also created her own website, which has her bio, news articles in which she was quoted, and information about her singing career and appearances.

Walter Cherepinsky was a senior at Central High School in Philadelphia when he created, which is now recognized as one of the top NFL Draft sites in the country. Now 25 years old, he currently makes over $100,000 a year from advertising revenue from his site and his blog will be syndicated in USA Today.

Kauffman and Cherepinsky are examples of high school and college students who were able to launch successful web ventures that furthered their careers.

Bloggers and website creators are gaining increased respect and exposure in society and the mass media. Every time Jib Jab comes out with a new video, it gets played on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Ana Marie Cox cultivated a platform and an audience as the blogger “Wonkette” and is now writing regularly for Time Magazine and Radar. Bill Simmons, who writes “The Sports Guy” column for, started his “Boston’s Sports Guy” website when he was in his late twenties and developed into an Internet celebrity.

Unlike Facebook or MySpace, professional websites shouldn’t have pictures of you and your friends chugging beer while standing next to a keg. You can tailor your website to your interests and passions. If you love sports, create a website where you write your thoughts on the topic. If you love music, write music reviews of CDs and live performances. If you have a band, you can put your music on the site as well as where you’ll be playing. Creating a website can showcase your individual talents and skills.

I’ve attended writers’ conferences where panel members who are agents and book editors indicated that they check websites and blogs written by young people to try to discover new, unique voices.

In addition, many employers like to Google the names of their potential employees or interns. It would be much better if they discovered your professional website, as opposed to your Facebook or MySpace site, which could contain content that portrays you as being immature.

Another reason to create your own website during college is to earn money. According the, “There are legitimate ways for students to earn money for college online. One way to earn money online is to set up a website about your favorite topic and earn money by placing ads on the site with AdSense. Another way to make money online with your own website is by referring visitors to other online merchants, otherwise known as affiliate marketing.”

When creating your own website or blog, it’s usually best to focus on a specific topic that you passionately care about. You can create a static website with your resume, biography, and writing samples, or you can develop an interactive blog or website that you update frequently. To increase traffic to your site, try to trade links with other websites that deal with the same or similar topic. The more traffic and Web visits that your site gets, the more ad revenue you’ll make.

Hopefully, schools and individual teachers will require or at least strongly encourage students to create their own professional websites. The digital natives might seem restless about this at first, but they’ll warm up to the idea eventually.

Larry Atkins teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University.