Are Journalists Educators? Does It Even Matter?

I missed a spirited debate on Twitter last night while I was off enjoying Spamalot. Bora Zikovic, science communicator and chief editor/community manager with Scientific American magazine, got things started with this tweet:

Nothing irks me more than when journos say “we are not here to educate”. What are you doing it for, then?

That spurred a flurry of tweets from others, and the discussion has been compiled into a Storify post. Zikovic has also followed it up with a post on his blog:

We had a great discussion this afternoon on Twitter, about the way journalists strenuously deny they have an educational role, while everyone else sees them as essential pieces of the educational ecosystem: sources of information and explanation missing from schools, or for information that is too new for older people to have seen in school when they were young. Also as sources of judgement in disputes over facts.

While journalists strongly deny their educational role, as part of their false objectivity and ‘savvy’, everyone else perceives them as educators – people who should know and then tell, what is true and what is false, who is lying and who is not. People rely, as they cannot be in school all their lives, on the media for continuing education, especially on topics that are new. And people are then disappointed when, as usually happens, journalists fail in that role by indulging in false balance, He-Said-She-Said reporting, passionately avoiding to assign the truth-value to any statement, or self-indulgent enjoyment of their own “skill with words” in place of explaining the facts.

Here’s where I agree with Zikovic:

  • The practice of false balance and he-said-she-said is BAD, BAD, BAD. It goes against the basic tenets of journalism.

Here’s where I disagree with Zikovic:

  • The assertion that “everyone else” perceives journalists as educators.
  • The idea that journalists deny their educational role as a way to absolve themselves of the responsibility to be accurate.
  • The notion that journalists must see themselves as “educators” so that they are bound by the responsibility to be accurate.

A Game of Definition

After reading the discussion, there were two questions that, for me, needed to be answered:

  • What does Zikovic mean when he says “educate”?
  • What do the journalists who say “I’m not here to educate” mean when they say “educate”?

Zikovic told us what he means by “educate” in some of his tweets during the discussion:

@mcshanahan @alicebell ‘education’ = helping people understand the world as it really is.

@alicebell telling people what is a lie and what isn’t is education.

@ktraphagen @alicebell @ejwillingham @caseyrentz @mcshanahan I do not think of education as http://bit.ly/jMxXHZ to be lecturing+testing.

What we do not know, however, is what the journalists mean by “educate.” Are they using the same definition as Zikovic? This is where the discussion runs into problems. Zikovic can go on and on about what he thinks “education” is and dismiss suggestions that maybe the journalists take it to mean something else by mocking them for thinking so, but his is far from a universally agreed-upon definition. Say “tree” to anyone and they immediately know what you are referring to, and if they say “tree” to you, you know exactly what object they are talking about. “Education”, however, is a different beast — a concept rather than an object — and as such means different things to different people, and sometimes even different things to the same person under different circumstances. My problem with Zikovic’s argument is that he is using a self-imposed definition of “educate” and assuming that’s what others who use the term mean, when there is no grounds to make that assumption.

No Dodging Responsibility

If you were to ask journalists the following two questions:

  • Do you consider yourself an educator?
  • Do you consider yourself someone whose job is to help people understand the world as it really is?

I suspect many more would answer “Yes” to the latter than to the former, because the latter is much more specific and clear, while the former concerns a murky label whose meaning shifts from person to person and whose connotation is strongly linked with a profession. That’s why I disagree with Zikovic’s opinion that saying they are not here to educate is the journalists’ way of absolving themselves of the responsibility to be accurate.

Fortunately, just because a journalist may not think of him or herself as an “educator”, by whatever definition they or someone else may apply to that term, it does not relieve him or her of the responsibility to accuracy and truth, because for journalists, that responsibility was never tied to “educate” in the first place. As someone who, you know, actually did the journalism school thing, I found Zikovic’s assertion that the avoidance of the responsibility to be accurate is “hammer in j-schools” to be utter horsesh*t. If anything was hammered into my brain during J-school, it was the responsibility to accuracy and truth. We may not necessarily have heard “educate” much in J-school, but you can bet “truth” and “accuracy” were constant companions. One of the few things I still remember from J-school was when my reporting professor told us, “If Senator X says Senator Y is a communist, you don’t just report ‘Senator X said Senator Y is a communist’ just because it’s something that happened. You verify Senator X’s claim.”

This is why this discussion over whether journalists “educate” or are “educators” is ultimately unnecessary for addressing Zikovic’s issues with bad journalism. We don’t need journalists to label what they do as “education” in order to hold them to a commitment to truth and accuracy. We don’t need journalists to say, “We’re here to educate,” as opposed to “We’re here to inform” or “We’re here to [fill in the blank]” in order to get them to call a lie a lie, to not set up false balance, and to not turn the concept of objectivity into its degenerate bastard child — he-said-she-said reporting. We simply need them to live up to the principles that form the bedrock of the identity and profession to which they all agree they belong. We simply need them to say, “We are here to practice journalism.”