Should journalism education conquer the world?

Africans with a sense of history will thank South Africa for the honour done to the continent by the successful hosting of the World Cup.

This interesting remark was attributed to the columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo in this weekend’s Sunday Times. The newspaper got it right — this is how he assessed the football experience.

But the man being quoted was also incorrectly described by the Sunday Times as being editor of Uganda’s Monitor newspaper. That’s wrong. He is a former editor of that paper. He left as long ago as 2002. Now an executive editor for the Nation Media Group, Onyango-Obbo is amongst the leading journalists in Africa and he really ought to be known as such by Sunday Times journalists.

It isn’t a terrible mistake for the paper to make. But it does signal ignorance about who’s who in African journalism, and it points to shoddy research. It prompts the question: what else might be inaccurate in the Sunday Times?

This little cameo of problematic journalism occurs within a week of the World Journalism Education Congress (WJEC) that took place in South Africa in tandem with the Highway Africa conference.

The point of the WJEC was to bring the world’s teachers and trainers of journalists together in an African-flavoured context — aiming to strengthen their impact on journalism in general — and on the coverage of this continent.

About half the 350 delegates were journalism educators from around Africa, while the others came from places as diverse as China, India, Brazil, Europe, the United States and Australasia.

Their increasing importance to society was the underlying theme of the gathering. Journalism today is done by countless people, including many bloggers, without any connection to journalism education. For others, perhaps like the Sunday Times error-makers, it was a long time ago that they graduated from j-school.

How relevant, then, is journalism education? In very general terms, those who do journalism with the help of specialised education should be able to add more value than those without. It follows that, contrary to the doubters, journalism education has a valuable and ongoing role to play.

For its part, the success of the WJEC helped to affirm the confidence and identity of journalism teachers and trainers, and even more importantly it also deepened their knowledge and skills about their craft.

These outcomes are especially relevant at a time of radical change and especially in global mass communication.

One WJEC conference workshop, for example, set out guidelines for teaching the reporting of climate change. Other sessions examined how education could contribute to entrepreneurial journalism, improve the coverage of conflict and war, and promote strategic engagement with social media like Twitter.

Many spoke about training that could avoid the misleading ease of internet research — which was probably the source of the Sunday Times‘ mistake. Covering Africa in an informed way, with sensitivity to all the nuances, was also a key topic.

A host of leading lights in the field — people like Dan Gillmor, Rosental Alves and Mindy McAdams — made time to attend the congress. They encouraged and empowered participants to embrace new teaching methods, and to update course curriculums.

African luminaries also travelled to Grahamstown to show the WJEC that journalism education is worth taking seriously.

Besides for Archbishop Tutu, there was also Pansy Tlakula — the African Union’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. Also in attendance was John Kufour, the retired Ghanaian president whose country tops the continent’s list of states with a free press (trumping South Africa in the process).

African media scholars at WJEC included Kwame Karikari, Herman Wasserman and Fackson Banda (now working for UNESCO) and author of a model syllabus on Reporting Africa.

The calibre of all these participants helped to underline recognition for the role of journalism educators. If the teachers and trainers now capitalise on the learning and momentum of WJEC, they can certainly make a bigger mark in improving both journalism in general, and the reportage of Africa in particular.

They might also consider an idea put to me by Dan Gillmor. His thinking recognises that ordinary people today increasingly have the tools to produce journalism, and also that everyone needs to be a literate news consumer in the context of the Information Age.

Ergo, journalism education should therefore be part of general education. From marginal status, events like the WJEC are already moving journalism education more into the mainstream. Gillmor’s point is that the practice is important enough to be promoted to be a central current within that mainstream.

In short, it’s not only the Sunday Times‘ accuracy and credibility, but also the wider society as a stakeholder. All stand to benefit from direct and ongoing exposure to journalism education – and not least about the reporting of Africa.

* This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author. Disclosure: the author is head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University which hosted the WJEC.

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