Reynolds institute to link journalists, public

Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The dean of the Missouri School of Journalism is not ashamed to admit journalism has gone astray from the public it is supposed to serve.

“One of the accusations is that we (journalists) might have become too arrogant in relation to our audience,” Dean Mills said Tuesday, a day after the Journalism School was given $31 million to establish the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, whose mission is to improve the practice of journalism in democracy.

Many in MU’s School of Journalism, which bills itself as the world’s best, admit something is broken in the craft. And the belief behind the creation of the institute, Mills said, is that the public can help fix it. Journalists, educators and citizens will come together to find ways of improving the practice in the institute, scheduled to open in 2007.

The institute will employ six Reynolds fellows — two MU faculty members and four visiting professors — 22 professionals and support staff and six research assistants. The gift includes more than $12 million to pay the staff over six years.

A national search for an executive director will begin soon, Mills said, and the position is expected to be filled this year. The institute’s staff will be a blend of in-residence MU faculty and visitors. Mills said there will be money flowing into the Columbia community through staff positions and research assistantships.

The institute will pursue two distinct avenues: bridging the gap between journalistic theory and practice and bringing citizens in to voice their opinions, said Esther Thorson, associate dean of the journalism graduate school and a researcher interested in audience response.

“Journalism in my opinion has developed its own idea of what people need to know,” Thorson said. “To a large extent that idea is correct — to a large extent the idea is totally lacking.”

Thorson said the institute will allow citizens from around the country to join the discussion and point out their interests and their expectations.

“They get to say to news professionals, ‘Here’s what I feel,’" she said.

With the exception of “public journalism,” Thorson added, the voice of the people is not heard in the process of journalism. Experts define public journalism as a strategy to engage people in an active news dialogue designed to improve democracy.

Leonard Witt, an expert in public journalism at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, said the profession still needs to find ways to improve public participation to produce “better and more thoughtful news.”

Witt used presidential candidate Howard Dean’s Internet campaign to illustrate how the public might better communicate with journalists. Dean tapped the Internet to drum up support from younger voters through his “Blog for America” Web site, an “interactive online journal” for information on the campaign.

“If Howard Dean can do that in an election campaign, how might media do that?” Witt said.

Witt said MU’s institute should figure out a way to gain insight into the public consciousness.

“If we can figure out a way of tapping into that collective mind out there, we can make better journalism than we’re making now instead of just talking to one or two experts,” he said.

Similar institutes around the country, such as the Poynter Institute in Florida and the American Press Institute in Virginia, see the value of MU’s plan. Connecting journalists with citizens is not explored at most journalism schools across the country, said Warren Watson, vice president of API.

“Sometimes, journalists will come together, and it’s like they’re preaching to the choir,” Watson said.

He said the public views journalism as an institution they can’t interact with — “a monolith,” Watson said. The Reynolds institute also will try to mend an internal professional debate that pits journalists against scholars researching the field.

“The practice of journalism is so complex and difficult that journalists have professionalized the activity so that it’s done according to certain rules,” Thorson said.

That same professionalism, she added, led to a stereotyping of the content. Thorson said research challenges the very rules media practitioners use.

Watson said most journalism schools today are falling short of integrating classroom theory with practical tools that prepare students for journalism careers.

The possibilities offered by the institute probably will attract better students, Mills said. He said he also hopes community members will participate in testing new devices and technologies for gathering and delivering the news.

Columbia is a journalism-savvy town — it has the reputation of being the most-covered city in America, with more reporters per capita than Washington, D.C. Local conventional wisdom says everyone in Columbia has been interviewed three or four times.

“They (Columbia residents) are probably the most experienced sources in the world,” Mills said.

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