Journalism is all about civic engagement, as in the many coming together to engage each other over issues of some consequence for and to the whole. It is why we call the press a public forum and our free press a marketplace of ideas. The hope is that the best of the conversation will rise to the top. It also means that mean someone has to be in a position to recognize the best.
It is why when I read the McCormick Foundation’s “Protocol for Free & Responsible Student News Media,” I wonder what happened to make our public discourse the battleground that it is. The “Protocol” is “a process and a framework for making good decisions.” If this is something that is happening in high schools, then one would think its impact would be felt in the larger society, and our discourse reflect that framework and better decisions.
The quick answer is that, like many of our best ideas, “Protocol” is a suggestion. And suggestions get lost in the sea of voices, that cacophony of noise that operates under the guise of discourse. One cannot help but get swept up in it. And when it comes to the state of journalism, journalism is only a creature of its environment: it reports back and becomes what it reports.
“Protocol represents a logical next step for the Civic Program in our work to further the cause of civic education in Illinois,” Shawn Healy, Director of Education, writes in the forward. But it does more. “Protocol” offers an opportunity to slow things down and examine two fundamental rights for all Americans, and by extension if perhaps ideally speaking. The first right is to a free and responsible press. The second, to civic engagement.
And it does this in an appropriate setting: the high school. Every American attends high school. What better place to start a conversation about civic responsibilities and engagement than the high school? And what better subject than the nature of a free and responsible press? In the microcosm of the high school, a stand in for the larger society with its own corridors of power that must be navigated, students learn about how a free and responsible press operates in a democracy. They learn how to address ethical concerns, confront obstructionist thinking, and contribute to the democracy engagement.
There are plenty of other texts available to prod us along to a richer public discourse, namely Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. “Protocol,” however, aims at the heart of the situation because it recognizes a problem that our education system is positioned well and well equipped to address–but only if it takes the suggestions in “Protocol” to heart and puts them into practice.