the journalism educators.
Response to: "Journalism and cultural literacy: an exploration towards a model of training journalism students," by George Claassen, Communicatio, vol 21 (1) 1995. (published in Communicatio, vol 22, no. 2
by Guy Berger,1996
In the first place, his article is based on a hugely unproven claim: that there is a "growing cultural illiteracy in our society" (1995:15). (See also the remark: "Various studies in America have confirmed the trend of a growing cultural illiteracy, a phenomenon also very much part of South Africa" (ibid: 16)".
This assertion is largely an echo of similar claims in the USA (quoted extensively by Claassen), but in neither case is there clear and hard evidence that "cultural literacy" is on the decline. To make out such a case, two things are necessary. First, one has to define "cultural literacy" in a manner that makes sense for different historical periods. For instance, the ability to read and follow the complex, quick and simultaneous visual cues of a video game or music video was not an issue ten years ago - as a result, this is not a useful standard of comparison. It's apples and pears. This is not even at this stage to touch on the controversy about what constitutes "cultural literacy" - high culture, low culture, etc.
Secondly, once one has defined a common standard and set of criteria for "cultural literacy" (which exercise is absent from the Claassen article), one then has to cite hard comparative evidence between two historical periods to show any change in levels. It helps not at all for Claassen to quote a 1986 study showing student ignorance of world geography, without contrasting this to similar studies before and after. There is no substantial basis then for the thrust of the article that "cultural literacy" is on the decline.
But my gripe extends much beyond the methodological flaws logic of Prof Claassen's contribution. My major counterpoint is his uncritical and inappropriate application of American writing to the South African context. Even supposing the American claims about growing "cultural illiteracy" in the USa were true, what is the situation in South Africa?
The one example cited by Claassen about poor "cultural literacy" in journalism students in South Africa comes from a 1986 study he conducted. This is put forward in his Communicatio article without any reference as to whether the fact the subjects interviewed were racially representative of South Africa. If not, it is extremely problematic to make sweeping generalisations about "our society" (sic) on the basis of a limited sample of a small section of the entire population.
This is not just a conceptual matter, however. It has policy implications. On the basis of a putative lowering of "cultural literacy", Claassen recommends tightening up admissions criteria for journalism training. This comes at a time when society and the media industry are crying out for journalists to be more reflective of South African demographics. Claassen's proposal could be implemented in such a way, however, as to make it even more difficult for black students to study journalism. Whether he realises this is unclear: it seems unlikely, given his article's field of vision. This restricting field lies at the heart of the problem in my view, and its foundation is an American model of journalism and journalism training, rather than the needs of South Africa and its media in 1996.
Another major problem with the article is its championing of culturally-restricted values and nostalgic romanticism. These which make it dangerously misplaced as regards journalism training in this country. Way back, Claassen would have us believe, standards were standards, and, by heck, students of yore knew their global geography and who was who. Ah for those good old days! But did those same students know their local geography I wonder? Did they know the names (let alone the insides) of South African townships? Did they know the names of black leaders beyond Archbishop Tutu? How "culturally literate" were they in fact?
Part of Claassen's hankering after the past is rooted in what appears to be an outdated prejudice against television. Ah for a bygone era, when young people read good books, were educated rather than entertained. Again, we need to come back to South Africa today. What has television meant for the majority of South Africans - historically deprived of decent language recognition, literacy, culturally-relevant reading materials, access to English, etc. over many generations? In addition to (ineffective) apartheid propaganda, TV has meant access, at last, to a wealth of languages, to global news and to a vision of a less racist culture than likely exists even in South Africa today. And if any one medium teaches lifeskills, and Claassen's "metaskills" of problem-solving, confidence, responsibility, etc, - to both black and white in South Africa, it surely is television. Television journalism is not without limitations - but it is going too far to imply, as his article does, that the press is the only respectable medium for journalism. The point is that there is good television journalism and bad print journalism: the medium is less the issue than what gets conveyed.
Nonetheless, as regards print - let us agree that its permanence and portability gives it a special place in the media panorama. It is a major factor in "cultural literacy" (possibly a negative one even: arguably the white South African press previously kept its readers culturally illiterate about their own country; likewise the British tabloids do not do much service to a culture of respect for individual privacy).
Print can be a powerful thing for or against "cultural literacy". Whichever, the point is that written text is not antithetical to television (or radio), it is not a case of one or the other, as Claassen's article implies. In fact, I would suggest that there are fine prospects for print. With increasing literacy, wealthy and appropriate publications on the horizon, there could well be a massive growth in reading by black South Africans, (and not a little stimulated by television consumption). In the information age, man (and woman, and teenager and child) cannot live by TV alone!
Even in the American context, it can be plausibly argued - though admittedly research is needed to assess this - that young people have not so much given up reading per se as much as reading the daily papers. True, they may consume much television time, but they also devour tons of quality youth-oriented freesheets, magazines and books. Increasingly, they read - and write - on the Internet and e-mail, and no wonder seeing that they can make it relevant to themselves and their generation through the medium's interactive and selective possibilities. In the USA, then, the dailies are in trouble, the written word is not.
It may also be relevant to note that while daily newspaper circulations continue to fall in the OECD countries, there are substantial increases in countries like India, South Korea, Egypt (see Balding 1995). Which pattern will South Africa follow? Not necessarily the Western one.
The trick in South Africa is to produce, profitably, the written word in the right languages and with the right content, in such a way as to appeal to a mass audience thirsty for information, education and entertainment. And - here comes the punchline - the kind of cultural literate journalists who can do this are not necessarily those who can instantly identify George Bush, Desmond Tutu and Athol Fugard and say where India is on a map (things which Claassen feels important). This is not to say that these things are irrelevant, but on their own, they do not make journalists "culturally literate" about what ticks in the shantytowns and townships.
The point of all this is that both audio-visual and textual communications enrich a society, that text has a promising future, and that South African needs black journalists for its media potential to be fulfilled.
Back, now, to the question of "cultural illiteracy": it may be of interest to report, impressionistically, the experience we have encountered in training journalism students at Rhodes. Every term we run a news-awareness test, each counting one percent towards the end of year mark. Almost invariably, black students perform better than white students. Literacy in current affairs is a staple amongst black students - Claassen may be surprised how high this tends to be. If he rates this set of knowledge as the key component of "cultural literacy", his strict entry conditions could actually turn out to be an affirmative action practice regarding black students. But I fear that Claassen is focussing exclusively upon broader cultural and linguistic literacy criteria (including global historical knowledge), which would cut out people from different cultures, languages and disadvantaged education systems: precisely those needed in journalism today.
Many of the black journalism students at Rhodes may not know who painted the Mona Lisa, (nor for that matter do many of our white students), but they do know their communities. And - crucially - both black and white know their own age groups. I venture to suggest that both Claassen and I are massively "culturally illiterate" as regards the multi-layered 18 - 22 something generation in this new, wondrously open-ended South Africa. What do he and I know about this rising generation's views on music, sexuality, authority, crime, violence, Aids, cross-racial relationships, affirmative action, environmentalism, etc.? Not much I guess - despite the fact that we are trying to communicate with (teach) this very same grouping. A large dose of "cultural literacy" for us would probably not go amiss.
At Rhodes University's department of Journalism and Media Studies, we have to wean our white students away from an undiluted diet of You magazine and M-net movies towards including daily newspapers and news-bulletins in their concumption. We have to encourage our black students to consume more than "black" media. (A departmental survey of first year students' media consumption habits in 1995 revealed these preoccupations).
To become journalists, as Claassen states, all students need a broad and contemporary general knowledge as well as history. But to me, the more significant questions about journalism training in South Africa today revolve around issues of language and purpose. We teach and evaluate in English at Rhodes - but many of our students who struggle in this regard could star if they end up jobs in African language journalism. We teach students on the assumption (and hope) that many will get into the mass media and function there as independent communicators (or be media managers, trainers, researchers or policy-makers). The reality, though, is that many of our graduates spurn the salaries and superficial journalism characteristic of much of our mass media, and soon move cynically on to public relations positions. Increasingly also, students are getting jobs as media workers - as persuasive communicators for government, state, and NGOs where they play a development rather than a watchdog role.
Other important questions for journalism training in South Africa today also need attention. What about the incipient convergence of media and the Internet, and the implications of this for our teaching (cf Dennis, 1989). The global issue of much theory and how much practice, and the relationship between the two, plus the relationship between the academy and industry, (cf. French and Richards, 1994; Meadows, 1992), needs to worked out in terms of the most appropriate local balance. Likewise, the present mixes of journalism studies, media studies and communication studies needs scrutiny. Finally, we need to look for South African answers to the question of what kind of staff should do the teaching (academics, practioners, hybrid professionals?, see Medsger, 1990). How demographically representative should they be?
To begin to assess and then to tackle all these issues, however, is to start in a different place to Claassen: i.e. with the limits and possibilities conferred by the available jobs, and ultimately by the employers of our graduates outside our training. We need to match this reality with a seemingly mundane, but actually profound, question: what is the point of journalism training in South Africa today? We cannot take this training as a given, nor can we simply accept the market situation as unchanging or unchangeable. Because he does not pose this basic question, Claassen provides no answers here. Yet without such having answers, what informs and guides our work?
South Africa stands in the midst of major changes. The need to take stock and reassess our teaching in analagous to that experienced by our colleagues in the formerly Communist countries (see Fleiss, 1994). This reassessment is the focus of a conference on journalism education the Rhodes department intends to hold in February 1997. To adapt Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, we journalism educators need educating.
* Prof Guy Berger is head of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.
Balding, T. 1995. World Press Trends. Paris: International Federation of Newspaper Publishers.
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Dennis, E E. 1989. Technological Convergence and Communication Education. New York: Gannett Center for Media Studies, Columbia University.
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Medsger, B. 1990. A study of journalism education. Report sponsored by the Freedom Forum, San Francisco State University Department of Journalism.
Journalism education and training in South Africa needs to recognise the strengths of disadvantaged journalism students.