Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


Seeking Insights In a Journalism School Controversy

By Published on .

In a smackdown at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, communications theory is taking quite a whack from the communications practice. The combatants ought to seek counseling. Only a happy marriage will serve the larger purpose for which we scribes ought to labor: entertaining enlightenment.

Columbia's new president, Lee C. Bollinger, has suspended the search for a new dean of the famed j-school to focus attention on redefining its mission. Columbia is one of the last bastions of a "trade" approach to journalism education, focused on craft at the expense of scholarly pursuits.

Craft vs. scholarship
His decision unleashed a furor in the profession. Few defend the j-school's "craft-ism," but many are attacking what they see as its enemy: scholarship. In The New York Observer, Ron Rosenbaum professed relief that the j-school's search committee "wouldn't involve something called 'communications studies.'" The New York Times' Clyde Haberman similarly cast a withering glance at "ethereal courses in communications theory and the like."

Without a credential to my name, I rise in defense of theory, and its importance to those who pursue communications professionally and value it in their lives. For the practice of mass communication and the industries formed around it are bound intimately to the study of communications theory.

Our understanding of public opinion derives from communications theorists. The Austrian emigre Paul Lazarsfeld, who taught at Columbia, developed the concept of the "two-step flow" of communications: the notion that media influence public opinion not directly but indirectly, through individual opinion leaders, who in turn shape beliefs within their community. Such research has been vastly influential in practice.

Speaking to subcultures
My own understanding of media and marketing would not have been possible absent the insights of theorists. James W. Carey, a godfather to U.S. media studies (who, not incidentally, was hired by Columbia to bring academic rigor to the j-school), developed a concept, the "ritual theory of communication," which led me to the conclusion that advertising seeks to persuade consumers only secondarily. For many ad practitioners, the primary goal is to communicate within a subculture (e.g., of "hot creative shops") through a set of implicit signs and codes (such as the use of hip production techniques).

Theorists continue to mold the progress of communications. Newspapers now routinely assess the content of political advertising in "Ad Watches," devices inspired by scholars who were studying political communications at Harvard and Penn in the 1970s and 1980s. The newspaper business itself has been roiled for several years by a debate over "community journalism" -- the perceived conflict between newspapers' historical mission to remain "objective" and their obligation to improve readers' lives -- that has been led by academics, such as New York University's Jay Rosen.

Why shouldn't journalists study such people and their research? To the degree that journalists must recognize and satisfy the needs of an audience, they should seek both to understand that audience -- how we receive, compute and use information -- and perfect their craft skills. That requires us to accept that the distinction between "theory" and "practice" in communications is a false dichotomy.

Columbia, I hope, will reconcile it, to the benefit of communicators and communicatees alike.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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