Are j-profs losin' their religion?

ManAngelThat man Jay Rosen, a veteran professor at New York University's Department of Journalism, is at it again -- digging into the religious structures beneath the cathedrals of journalism. A long, long time ago, a Sojourners essay took a stab at describing the links between religion and journalism, saying that journalists turn over the rock to reveal the dirt and ministers shovel off the dirt to reveal the rock. This is the same territory that Rosen covered in one of those essays that I hope every GetReligion reader has read -- "Journalism Is Itself a Religion." Note that this link takes you to the The Revealer, where it is stored as one of that blog's statements of core doctrine.

If you want an update on some of those themes, check out Rosen's "Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion," which dissects the role that the Watergate Myth played in the idealism of a whole generation of journalism leaders. Here's the readout from the top of that essay: "Watergate is the great redemptive story believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers -- and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism -- is a big question. Whether it should is another question."

Now, if any of that interests you, you are ready for the Rosen report from the recent AEJMC convention in San Antonia (tmatt asks: Great summer climate. Was hell booked up?) where some veteran journalism professors had a chance to testify -- in the Bible Belt sense of that word -- during a panel discussion called "Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe." It seems that the old-time religion just isn't converting a new generation. As a journalism professor myself, I feel their pain.

It's impossible to miss the faith language in the San Antonio remarks. Here is a clip or two from Rosen's report:

First up was Carl Sessions Stepp, a contributing writer to American Journalism Review, a former national correspondent and editor for the Charlotte Observer and USA Today, and a professor at the University of Maryland’s J-School. He said that most of what he believed when he began teaching in 1983 he still believed, with one big exception.

Then he would have said that nearly all journalists employed in the field were people “on a mission.” They saw their work as a noble public service, and shared a sense of duty that helped them define what the service was amid a hectic news environment. Students quickly picked up on this creed, and newsoom culture supported it.

That was then. Now, he said, the sense of mission is not the same. He didn’t say it was gone; plenty of journalists still heard the call. And young people still showed up in his classes ready to believe. But changes in the news business and “workplace culture” have turned the mission into a fairy tale much of the time. There is no universal sense of calling any more, Stepp declared. Journalism as a whole isn’t “on a mission,” but journalists as individuals still can be.

The obvious question: What is the nature of this secular "calling"? As a Christian who works in mainstream journalism, I have always struggled with that word for the simple reason that many people hear it and link it directly to the work of ordained ministers. The traditional Christian doctrine, however, is that people are called to a wide variety of professions and God does not rank them -- from rock & roll guitarists to airplane pilots, from (gulp) lawyers to painters. In that sense, one can be "called" to be a journalist, working in this industry to the best of one's ability and following the rules of the craft.

Rosen argues that many journalists are actually semi-ordained evangelists in a church of journalism. They are on a mission from the gods and the gods have names such as Woodward and Bernstein, who produced The Good Book that inspired young believers to make personal professions of faith and walk the true path.

So what does it mean if young people don't want to do "mission" work in modern newsrooms? What is the modern j-student seeking?

Back to Rosen's report:

Next was Dianne Lynch, dean of the School of Communications at Ithaca College, a journalist, and former executive director of the Online News Association. She told us a startling story about an exceptional student who gave up a four-year scholarship worth over $200,000, including tuition, room and board, even travel money. The student came to the dean’s office to let Lynch know that she was quitting journalism and switching to sociology. “I decided that I just can’t be in such a terrible profession,” the student said, adding that it did not seem to her a field where a young person could “make a difference.”

There was a slight gasp in the room at that. This was because the phrase used, “make a difference,” though tedious and vague, was once the very thing that identified to journalists their own idealism. You didn’t do it for the money, and it wasn’t the wonderful working conditions, or a chance for advancement. For a certain generation (whose mortality was lurking about the panel, way under the laughs) journalism, at its best, was all about “making a difference.” Speaking truth to power, and all that.

And so forth and so on, world without end. Amen.

So do modern j-students want to preach, as in pour out their beliefs in secular sermons in openly partisan publications? Are we facing the rise of the new, New Journalists? Is the goal to do unto the bloggers what the bloggers want to do unto you?

These are interesting times and Rosen is must reading, no matter what church you have joined.

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