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American Journalism Review
The Death of the Masses? No, but.  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   May 1996

The Death of the Masses? No, but.   

Journalism is more than ever a matter of content, not vehicles.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


Nomenclature, like symbols, can be very important. What is journalism now? What is mass communication? We frame thoughts in shorthand. Names make a difference. These terms need a new look.

Academic people, more than journalists and others in communications fields, use the term "mass communication." Throughout the 1970s and since, many departments and schools added these words to their names or substituted them for "journalism."

Actually, it was by no means a clean sweep. More than half of the accredited units are still "journalism," period. But the national accrediting committees and membership organizations became "JMC." Among about 90 accredited departments and schools, almost a fourth are "journalism and mass communication(s)." A few are simply "mass communication."

Adding "mass communication" seemed reasonable. Many of these departments and schools include specializations in public relations, advertising or other fields, which might be considered (though of course this is always a point of dispute all the way around) an extension of journalism, or closely related to it.

Then, too, "mass communication" seemed crudely useful in identifying this kind of stuff as opposed to interpersonal communication, as in speech departments.

In the mid-1990s, though, technology has ripped this rough fabric. Now "mass" often has turned into a niche. The niche may be so small and specialized that it cannot be considered "mass" at all. It can be a zine, a Web site, an online service, with a few listserve members or paid subscribers. (Maybe "partakers" will replace subscribers.)

"Journalism" actually may become the more all-embracing word if we see a continued shredding of the "mass." No doubt this would dismay not only journalists but also professionals in the (purportedly?) related fields. But it refers to substance, not to the vehicles. Content. Content providers are "in." But let's don't have a School of Content Providers.

So what is a journalist? The best hope is that a journalist will be quite identifiable apart from the transmission belt used, or the scale of the audience. Even with those distinctions, though, is someone who puts out information on the Web a journalist?

Surely not in the case of an Internet user who recently "reported" on a controversial issue at a Midwestern university. Aping news style, or standard wire service style, he colored his report throughout with a strongly biased viewpoint. This has gotten to be a regular plague. One could say no one is objective, etc., etc. But carefully crafted misinformation about a news event, in news style, can be especially dismaying.

Would that professor be called a journalist? He probably wouldn't call himself one. Was he engaged in journalism? Maybe, though badly.

"Mass communication" can still be a useful term in certain contexts, but it can no longer be thought of as the wave of the future in academic nomenclature. Besides, there were never any jobs for "mass communicators." And if such critters ever existed, they had to be retooled for the workplace: for journalism, or public relations, or advertising, and now for niches as well as masses.

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