A Privilege Problem With Journalistic Education

Learning to be a  journalist is a little like living in a land of gaslit insanity. For the last four months I’ve been told that my opinions have no validity and every assertion I make has to be footnoted by wiser folk of letters, be they published, tenured or otherwise accredited by a system in which my lived experience has no authority. See, I’m studying for a Masters in Journalism at a university in Berlin–a city, it might be assumed, whose wartime history makes it friendly to the credibility of first-hand accounts.

Still again and again it’s been drummed into me, ‘don’t editorialize, you are an empty vessel.’ The traditional teaching is that the truth–whatever meaning that has–cannot be felt or known by me as a journalist. The stories I write can only believed, or not, as an objective narrative devised between data points supplied by others and then supported by quotes or alternatively, worthier, more academic opinions. Which means none of the data points I’ve accumulated over the course of forty-two years, in seven countries, one marriage, two children, three international degrees, four published books and fifteen years in corporate life can be referenced in my writing. If I’m to be a journalist, I’m not the expert on myself and the viability of my written narrative can only be determined by the audience. In my classes that’s mainly traditionally-educated, white, middle-class male professors. Those with privilege.

What I didn’t expect is how that would impact my self-esteem. Especially as a woman, I’ve always been taught that my opinion means very little and my reality has been written over by every conceivable authority. Religion told me what was right and wrong, my parents told me what I should like and shouldn’t like, society told me what was suitable for a girl or not. In a heavily criticised assignment during the last class of the term, my white male professor underlined the words ‘white male privilege’ and in the margin he wrote only, ‘Describe.’ What have I learned from his feedback? Only that the class is informative in teaching me what kind of journalist I don’t want to be. And of course I should have known my audience. I’ll do the paper the way he wants, because basically I have no desire to educate him in his own privilege.

My classmate–the outspoken and ardent feminist Anna–is of Polish descent but hails from South Africa. She’s got a knack for pithy lingo, it comes from working in advertising. Anna is also fed up with classes which teach “journalist strategies of jerking each other off at New York book week.” In reference to the teacher we all secretly mock she says,

“Older generations can’t come to terms with the fact that their prime is up, so they hold onto their last bit of power, which equates to self-relevance. He has no intent of educating.”

In an academic capacity, and where intersectional feminist critical thought is concerned, subjective identity and self-relevance is, well, highly relevant. An article in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization claims that highly self-confident subjects “process information in a self-serving way.” This indicates that the hierarchical authority granted to teachers, as well as their level of privilege will be reflected unduly in their preferences. Thus the intersectionality and diversity of professors employed to educate a new generation of journalists in how to write, is key.

The magazine where I’ve published my work for the six months prior to coming on the course, does not accept stories from those who have not lived the experience and who therefore cannot offer or declare a personal perspective. They are penned in the first person. It’s a fourth wave feminist publication, run by intersectional folk which ensures space is given to voices which have traditionally been erased by traditionally educated, white, middle-class cis-het men. My experience of trauma, womanhood, and identity has been suppressed by same society built by and for people like those professors who teach my course. It’s like living inside a logical fallacy where the argument can only be supported by experts and those experts are still grading postmodern millenial thinking using the same patriarchal attitudes which erased us.

Although in 2018 web based magazines are hugely popular, it’s still hard to make a living in formal journalism unless you have a qualification. Our professors believe they’re helping us earn money in the industry which still functions to a large exist to what they know as the status quo and that may well be true. Yet we’re in between two eras, where many of those teaching have been formatively educated in the objective journalism aka, the voice of God decades when their privilege had not yet been recognised. New journalist students are caught in a paradox where they are learning the way to make money in the past and have no guarantee this is how careers will be built in the future. Or even whether this is how we want our journalism world to look. Judging from the shift in reporting even in mainstream newspapers, subjective longreads compete on an even footing with ‘objective’ new items and application of intersectional theory, political analysis with doses of counterbalance to the-way-we’ve-always-done-it must be strived for, even if it cannot be fully applied yet. But our lessons are given by predominantly white, predominantly 50+, predominantly male teachers. They are after all the ones who are most qualified to teach.

Whilst the medium term effect of the lack of diversity will impact our grades, writing styles and careers, it also has a short term effect on the motivation of our student body. My class of twenty is female to male, three to one. It is also made up of Brazilian, Sudanese, German, Greek, English, French, Canadian, Mexican, Polish, South African, Libyan, American, Finnish and Italian nationalities. Cultural sensitivity, equality and privilege is high on our agenda. Only ten students bothered to show up to that same final class of the Christmas term. In a telling commentary, one male student who didn’t attend pinged me over messenger when I asked if he was okay,

“Seriously I didn’t even bother to move from the bed for him. I thought I should just send a Christmas card saying how much I don’t care about his closed-minded opinion.”

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