JOURNALISM and philosophy do not mix — that is what they say. And who are they? The whole lot of mankind — men, women, bureaucrats, professors and journalists themselves. It is certainly a rare occasion that one finds discussions favouring the interlocking dimension of journalism and philosophy.
Journalism schools in Malaysia and most parts of the world shy away from the literary, the historical and the philosophical. Journalists, journalism teachers and journalism students would denounce philosophy in the newsroom and in the classroom. Philosophy seems to be out of place. There is no space for the journalist to “think about philosophy”, “think philosophically”, “indulge in reflexivity” in his daily routine or in the routine of the journalism teacher in class. “The world out there” is important, so the sentiment goes. “Industry experience” for the student is glorified, and educators who have no “industry experience” are condescended upon.
The journalist works on truth claims, not truth in itself. And these are said to have their functions outside the classroom. When I was teaching journalism in the 1980s to about 2007, I was always mindful of journalists having a preconception of themselves, of the organisation, of the profession and of historical, social and intellectual landscape of the nation.
This is because journalists are not just chroniclers, not only — as they say — the first recorder of history, or the first to report an event. Journalists are interpreters, advocates and generators of opinion. The column is the journalist’s sword. The journalist must be conscious of his prose. And how that prose asserts a generalisation of phenomena, and limits or transcends the boundaries of words.
The journalist must be conscious of modes of thought, and his own thinking. The journalist must exist outside his cloistered cranium to see what goes on in his thought — its patterns, nodes, connections and interconnections, of what the mind sees and how it represents what it sees. The obnoxious reality. Or is it the fiction of the mind?
But there is also factuality and imagination, and how his prose meanders and oozes a new life, and a portent force, perhaps, distorting the very reality and truth claims that he initially captures and makes. I see the students that I taught as experiments to truth and truth claims of themselves and of what they write. I build that certain defiance to facts, to distrust knowledge and conventions, but to respect scepticism, and one’s own judgment.
Their first day in class would be greeted with a paradox to journalism education. I taught journalism, but assert that I would not hire them if I were the editor. I distrust the paradigm of journalism education. At the same time, I subscribe to it. Is there a methodology, a single assumption on teaching and studying journalism? Must you study journalism to aspire to be a journalist or are you expected to be one after such studies?
I ask Malaysian journalism schools this question. And I suspect that the question has never been asked in their almost five decades of existence. Is it necessary to teach, educate and train young men and women to be journalists? Isn’t a university education — in various diverse fields and disciplines, say from art history to nuclear physics or medicine — a good enough qualification to be a member of the profession, to indulge in the vocation?
Should we not assume that philosophy can enhance journalistic thinking — whatever we may mean by “journalistic”? I have written elsewhere in this newspaper that journalism is an intellectual pursuit, imperfected by popular constructs and ideological contortions. Journalism scholarship is rarely deliberated. The flawed epistemology remains, and continues to be so.
The journalistic product — be it news or the (journalistic) essay — is embedded in social and power relations, resonating the dialectics of reasoning. At one time, I tend to think that teaching a little of different subjects, by way of providing content, would make a better journalist. Or perhaps look at the study of journalism as interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. I was then thinking of significant components of literature, anthropology, history, sociology and geography as part of the journalism curriculum.
Most of the time, we assume that those components are content-related. They are not. Those disciplines provide structures of thought and methodological orientations. Philosophy as a subject in itself is the capstone. I would imagine that it can provide arguments on the structure of objectivity — not as an erroneous popular view of that word coming from journalists, journalism educators and journalism students. Ethics or code of ethics have been uttered with ignorance — a misdirected notion of conduct and what we call journalistic ethics.
And who should develop the curriculum, the syllabus and teach what has been laid out? What kinds of leadership do we expect in journalism teaching, study and research? And who are the people now tasked with journalism teaching, or who should they be?
Many may suggest doctorates in journalism. But I speculate that none would support those doctorates in philosophy or related areas, and perhaps many more would vouch that practitioners or former practitioners are the most qualified people. Many in journalism schools pronounce the value of critical thinking skills. In some systems, the journalist may not be too critical perhaps. Nevertheless, one of my main objectives in teaching students of journalism is to inculcate a habit of knowing about their profession, the ability to provide a critique of the craft, the occupation and the vocation. We may end up calling it a profession. It is a contradiction of labour and intellect, of public (and private) interests and truth, of media capital and the political economy.
But I always strive to emphasise that a journalist is an intellectual (of daily life), a populariser of arcane ideas, functioning as a philosopher. I tend to be Quixotic. But then, universities must rethink, reassess and reshape journalism education, and not, like in some universities here, regard it as a vocational subject, without a corpus, without a soul if you will. What is a medical or law school if not a vocational one? I am not defending the study of journalism, neither am I subjugating the study of medicine and law. But it will do society and the nation good to have a second look (at studying journalism). We are dealing with the study and teaching of an instrument of production and reproduction of ideas. Some, coming even from within the campuses, would dismiss it as popular writing, and hence not worthy of study and deliberation. No one wants to see journalism as a profession and as an institution, except perhaps the journalism academic, the scholar of sociology and political science, and the conscientious member of the vocation, and naively the student. And for purposes of regulation, the powers that be.
Cognisant of the complexities, and the unsettled notion of the function of the scribe, I was once deliberating a text for the course which I would teach for more than 10 years. The course was titled Principles of Journalism. It was not a writing course. It was an orientation to the subject — more of an introduction. I finally found Sophie’s World, a novel on the history of philosophy. My journalism students were given that honour to delve into and dwell on ideas and thoughts — their reproduction and their representations. Written by Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder, it first appeared in 1991 and was translated into English in 1995. It provides initial lessons in philosophy to the journalism student — the “Sophia” and the “Philo”.
**The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org