10/20/2014 01:44 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

The Case for Mandatory J-101


I get puzzled looks whenever I proclaim that Journalism 101 should be a mandatory part of school curriculum. These perplexed stares even come from my journalist friends, whose numbers dwindle each year (that is, they're still my friends, just no longer working journalists).

I realize my case for J-101 isn't an easy one to make, given journalism's echoing death rattle. I live in L.A., where the Los Angeles Times has undergone some 20 rounds of layoffs in the last few years. The once-thick paper that would land on the doormat with a thud now has the heft of a take-out menu. It's the same doleful scenario in most cities. A prescient technology reporter, Paul Gillin, started a website in early 2007 called Newspaper Death Watch, after his op-ed warning of the collapse of the newspaper industry was rejected by several editors as being "implausible." The RIP list of newspapers on his site continues to grow.

But this is precisely what makes J-101 even more pertinent. Journalism is not dying because it's a lost art. It's dying in large part because it's an unappreciated skill. The tragedy is that people no longer know how to distinguish solid reporting from speculation, from regurgitation or, frankly, from just plain drivel. If more people knew how to recognize good journalism, they would know it was worth supporting -- and worth paying for.

What's Real Journalism?
A couple of years ago, producers of the award-winning radio show This American Life found themselves in a journalistic debacle. They'd devoted an episode to first-time contributor Mike Daisey, who described his experience visiting Foxconn, the Chinese factory that manufactures Apple products, such as iPhones and iPads. Daisey felt he had a story to tell about abhorrent working conditions there, and he told it in the way he knew how -- onstage in Washington, D.C., then other cities, in a monologue entitled "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." This American Life broadcast an excerpt in what would become the series' most downloaded episode up until that point. It's just that, although what Daisey presented sounded an awful lot like it could be journalism, it wasn't.

Two months later, This American Life devoted an entire episode to a retraction, explaining how Daisey's piece mistakenly passed the check points of high journalistic standards typically in place. Creator and host Ira Glass repented, "Many dedicated reporters and editors -- our friends and colleagues -- have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It's trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards."

And that's the point: in real journalism, practiced by trained journalists, there are self-imposed high journalistic standards in place to safeguard unbiased veracity. Ethical journalists -- just like ethical physicians, teachers, scientists and all those who present information to the world for the purpose of discovery and education -- hold these principles dear. Look no further than the sobering Journalists Memorial in Washington's Newseum, which recognizes over 2,200 journalists who died while on assignment or as a result of their reporting. Or, look to the journalists who went to jail rather than divulge the identity of their anonymous sources.

The Mike Daisey scenario provides a valid lesson: Daisey says his sole motive was his frustration with the factory working conditions. He says he wanted to shine a light on the plight of the workers. On the retraction episode, he tells Ira Glass:

"My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it's not journalism. It's theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc ... and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes -- has made -- other people delve."

On that same episode, Glass later contrasts Daisey's goals with those of Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist Charles Duhigg, who also visited and wrote about the harsh conditions at the Foxconn factory. "So, it's not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not, right?" Duhigg explained. "I'm a reporter for The New York Times, my job is to find facts and essentially let you make a decision on your own."

Apply this to so much of what's coming at us, particularly over cable news and the Internet. Trying to evoke a specific emotional response is persuasion, not reporting. These days, we are tested at every turn, especially on the Internet, where even reputable news sites rely on ad revenue. This is certainly not a new model for news delivery. But what is new -- and a slippery slope -- is that advertisers can measure the views and clicks and likes and shares, making it practically mandatory for each article to go viral in order to keeps things in the black. It's become the article's responsibility to entice the reader, and then to hold the reader's attention, and to generate some type of emotional response so the reader will forward or post or rant or "like."

No wonder we are bombarded by provocative headlines and tweets and sound bites and even full-length articles that seem to be news, or newsy, or kinda news-ish, but in actuality aren't journalism. Stephen Colbert nailed it when he set the bar at "truthiness."

Talking My Own Game
I first took an introductory journalism class in high school and then was accepted into the journalism program at University of Maryland, where journalism classes were only for majors. Not that, I suppose, there were many students in other disciplines clamoring to take a journalism class. Case in point: Emory University's well-respected Journalism Program was open to all undergraduates, and it just shuttered its doors after spending the last two years phasing out the degree.

And that's the problem. On one hand, journalism is seen as a specialized niche, a trade studied only by a self-selecting bunch who want to become journalists. On the other hand, the Internet has expanded the playing field so wide that anyone who can write what resembles an article can be -- at best -- mistaken for and -- at worst -- considered a journalist.
No one is automatically a journalist because she can post snarky reports with catchy headlines. Journalism requires training and has rules of conduct and a strict code of ethics.

It isn't a stretch to take this one step further: Knowing the basic tenets of journalism shouldn't just apply to people hired to provide reportage for public consumption -- it should apply to all the people who consume it, too. Because there's no "certified journalist" label or licensure -- and never has been -- to prove a writer knows what he's talking about, it's solely up to the consumer to be the judge. Now more than ever, the need for consumer knowledge is imperative to be able to parse through what might as well be termed the "New Yellow Journalism."

Which is precisely why it shouldn't sound preposterous to say that the study of journalism should be held in the same esteem as the study of math or literature. Listen, I certainly wouldn't have taken Trigonometry had it not been mandatory. And not one single time since that TRIG class have I used or thought about using or wished I remembered how to use trigonometry.

But I do use J-101 skills daily, in all facets of life, and not just because I'm a journalist. I use these skills in every form of communication -- written and verbal, professional and personal. I use them in critical thinking, and in processing information. And I especially use these skills when I watch, read, listen to or discuss the news.

A Crash Course
So, what are all these fundamental and life-enhancing skills that make me sound like Dr. Oz touting some anti-aging supplement? Here's a brief rundown:

Inverted Pyramid: This is how a legitimate news story is most often written, with all imperative facts front-loaded into the first paragraph or two. The further down you go in the story, the less important the details become. Hard news stories are written this way so you can quickly digest all the vitals. Likewise, if a story has to be cut for length, editors can simply slash off the end without worrying about sacrificing crucial content. The inverted pyramid style works primarily because of the very specific, and most important, first paragraph, which, in print and broadcast journalism is called the lede (pronounced leed).

Five Ws and H: The lede should always contain the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the story. It's somewhat of an art form in and of itself to write a great lede. If a reporter doesn't hit you out of the gate with all five Ws and H, your eyebrows should start to raise -- Why isn't this story complete? What is the writer not telling me? Also, there shouldn't be a question mark in a lede. If a question is being asked in a lede -- "Are terrorist cells infiltrating America?" "Is your breakfast cereal killing you?" "Is this a reputable news station?"--it's not reporting. When you're reporting, you have the information, and you're presenting it as directly as possible -- there's no guessing. The lede is not for leading on.

Understanding Bias: What if I told you, "Last week, a 90-year-old driver plowed into my friend's car on the corner of 4th and Main"? You'd likely draw some quick conclusions and maybe spark a discussion about age limits on drivers, insurance rates, etc. But now, let's say I told you a different version of the story ... that is, the full story: "A 90-year-old driver plowed into my friend's car on the corner of 4th and Main ... after my friend blew a stop sign." Interesting, isn't it, how all the facts can change things?

This illustrates bias -- showing preference to one view and failing to present all sides of the story. But, like the example above, it isn't always easy to spot when there's an important component missing. It's a common failing we all share: We don't know what we don't know. And when facts are presented in a compelling way that seem to tell the whole story, it's easy to take things at face value. It requires some critical thinking skills to say, Wait a minute, is there another side to this? If education is supposed to teach students how to think, shouldn't it also teach students how to recognize a slanted story, a point of view, and bias?

Granted, we all get lazy sometimes and don't want to think so hard. Besides, hearing only the view I want to hear is so much more pleasant. But it ain't journalism.

There are so many more gems that Journalism 101 has to offer. Among them: citing sources, using original sources, fact checking, native advertising, understanding plagiarism (see: Jayson Blair), and recognizing it's not all that difficult to inadvertently plagiarize (see: Fareed Zakaria).

Can J-101 Save Us?
This may sound like a lofty musing, but I think our country would be less divided if introductory journalism was a mandatory part of high school curriculum, and J-101 was a mandatory college class. Think about it: What if we were taught to identify bias, if we knew to question reporting that didn't cover the full story, if we were crystal-clear on what's reporting versus what's editorializing, and if we recognized that opinions are different from facts -- and that we're entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts? If this were the case, if we as a nation armed ourselves with this knowledge, perhaps there could be some national conversation. Perhaps it would weaken the dogmatism of some so-called "news" networks while strengthening the community discussion at the corner diner.

Just as we learn to calculate all the sides of a triangle, shouldn't we learn to identify point of view? Just as we are taught Shakespeare, shouldn't we learn the value of long-form and investigative journalism?

This country was founded on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But part of that freedom includes protecting citizens from certain types of harmful speech, such as libel, slander and hate speech. What's more, we have relatively strong regulation for truth in advertising -- but why not for truth in reporting? If, these days, anyone's allowed to slap something on the Internet and call it news, or to masquerade unfounded claims as fact on news networks, then shouldn't we as citizens be armed with enough journalistic wherewithal to cry foul?

The free press is supposed to be the world's fierce watchdog. But this new press -- virtual and otherwise -- can hardly be deemed self regulating.

So, either no one cares anymore, or we all must.

Cari Lynn is a freelance journalist and the author of the nonfiction books, The Whistleblower, Leg the Spread, and the historical novel, Madam.