James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Curiosity and journalism

Posted by James McPherson on April 28, 2008

Journalists and professors (even professors of subjects other than journalism) have much in common, a theme that I expect to come back to from time to time. One of the most important commonalities may be how much they often differ from the very people (readers, audiences, students) that they try to serve–a dichotomy, by the way, that contributes to the idea and sometimes the reality that journalists and professors are elitists.

One of the biggest and most frustrating differences between “us” and “them” might be curiosity. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t do what we do, or at least we wouldn’t do it well. And perhaps that’s why we’re not doing it as well as we could–more on that below, thanks to a Poynter column by Amy Gahran. But a lot of people simply aren’t very curious. Just a few weeks from graduating, a lot of seniors don’t know what it is they want to do next in life, and I’m convinced that a lack of innate curiosity provides much of the explanation for it.

Ken Metzler, in his book Creative Interviewing, lists “a lack of enthusiasm and natural curiosity about people and the world at large” as one of the primary problems journalism students have in conducting meaningful interviews. In one of my favorite quotes from the book, Metzler suggests that such people, should they become journalists, “may be forever condemned to interviewing politicians and other garrulous zealots who are as insensitive to the niceties of human communicatin as the journalist themselves–a fate not undeserved.”

Derrick Jensen, in a book titled Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, blames public education for wringing the imagination out of people. I like the book, and Jenson (who now is on to other topics, most notably the end of civilization) describes common student apathy well, but I’m not sure he’s totally right about this one. I agree that overburdened public schools, set up to create a useful work force, often fall far short of inspiring creativity for most students. But most parents also fall short in the same area, and probably care less than Johnny’s teachers about his ability to think creatively.

Besides, most of the creative people I know were educated primarily through public institutions, while those who can afford fancy private prep schools and Ivy League colleges are the ones most likely to go on to become the lawyers, kings of capitalism and political leaders who do most of the damage to society. I’ve helped educate a lot of students who were home-schooled or who attended small private schools, and some of them have been among my best, most creative students. But others are too used to being given “right answers,” and struggle mightily with any exercise requiring creativity or that has ambiguity built in.

Gahran suggests that journalists may be having the same problem. She is highly critical of traditional journalists’ reticence to consider new media forms–the same forms, incidentally, that provide most of the information for our students (Remember them? The ones we complain don’t read newspapers.) She argues that new media offer journalism to continue doing good work while increasing its impact.

“Plus, new approaches to journalism can simply be more fun. As a group, journalists don’t seem to be having nearly enough fun,” Gahran writes. “And the process of learning anything new at all can also be a lot of fun. In fact, that basic craving for continual learning is what drew many of us to journalism in the first place. Remember that?”

She goes on to note: “Journalists (more so than most other professions) are supposed to be fundamentally curious and profoundly interested in what’s happening around them.” (emphasis hers) The same could be said about educators.

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