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J-Schools and “Happy Amateurism”

I’ve been writing quite a bit lately about journalists in the mainstream media who write about beer yet appear to know virtually nothing about the subject. I’ve had a few of my own theories about this phenomenon but I recently came across another one that I hadn’t considered in a book I happened to be reading. The book was 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World by John Tirman. Number 99 on Tirman’s list is “‘Professional’ Schools, by which he means medical schools, law schools and the one that caught my attention — journalism schools. Here’s his general take on J-schools:

And journalism schools — what is it exactly they teach? What is it that one can learn that will improve skills as an investigator or writer that other disciplines cannot provide? Journalism schools do not and cannot teach problem-solving skills — critical thinking — as well as the social sciences or humanities or natural sciences.

Okay, I think it’s pretty clear he’s no fan of modern journalism. But it was the next sentiments Tirman expressed that really got me thinking about this issue. I hadn’t considered it before, but it makes a lot of sense. Here’s his analysis of the problem:

More than half of the new hires in newsrooms hold undergraduate degrees in journalism. There is an ethic among many in this field of “happy amateurism” — that one can report on anything using certain standard methods. You need not know anything about the covered topic, which means you’ll be at the mercy of people purporting to know — usually the well-heeled who can afford fancy P.R. operations.

That’s exactly the way beer is reported in many instances. A lot of stories originate with press releases from the big breweries, the ones with large marketing budgets. A reporter is then assigned to write the story who appears to know little, if anything at all, about the subject and often seems to do no discernible research. I have always suspected that the way beer is reported extends to other subjects, too, but since I don’t know much about those other disciplines I have no way of knowing. Because if they’ll assign reporters with no knowledge of one subject, why wouldn’t they do the same thing for other topics. So it makes a lot of sense that the problem is the process itself. I mean, it would be simple-minded and ridiculous to suggest there was a conspiracy against beer so this theory goes a long way in explaining why beer is so poorly covered by the media.

Happy amateurism may not explain everything but it seems a very viable start. Unfortunately, if Tirman’s assertion that this is a trend that’s essentially growing as older reporters retire and are replaced by J-school graduates then this problem is only going to get worse unless we can collectively figure out a way to get beer the respect in the media we think it deserves.

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