Zenger keynote address by Jacqueline Sharkey - October 2012


Jacqueline Sharkey

Jacqueline Sharkey, who served as head of the UA journalism program from 2000 to 2011, offered the following keynote address at the Zenger Awards Dinner Oct. 12.



It is an honor to be here after the presentation of this award to Ms. Gallegos and Ms. Rodríguez. What they stand for – what their courage represents – is what everyone in this room should aspire to, as a journalist and as a citizen.

The presentation of this year’s Zenger award to these two women is especially significant for two reasons.

The first is because of the reality of the incredible dangers that they and their colleagues face every day, and the importance of the information that they are bringing to the public. If you ever wanted to see journalists who represent what many people think of as abstract ideals about freedom of expression and the need for a free press that will bring information to the public about its government and government policies, these women show you the reality of the importance of our role and the work that we do. 

The second reason it is so important to honor the work of Ms. Gallegos and Ms. Rodríguez is because of what their struggle represents. They literally are on the front lines in the current battle about freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. We are in the midst of a global war over who will control information. This is one of the most important battles of the 21st century, because freedom of information is the foundation of all other freedoms in a democratic society. This war has many fronts. Some involve the physical attacks and threats that our colleagues from Mexico are encountering. Others involve legal, political and economic confrontations. All of these are designed to intimidate individual journalists or to have a chilling effect on news organizations’ efforts to gather and report news on the local, national or international level.

The intensity and complexities of this battle are reflections of the crucial role that the press is supposed to play in a democracy, and of the importance of educating the next generation of journalists so they can meet the challenges confronting the news media in a global information age. These challenges are unprecedented at a time when the revolution in communication technology has made it possible to transmit information instantaneously to millions of people around the world.

Tonight’s Zenger ceremony is a fitting time to examine the status of journalism education at the University of Arizona. It’s an appropriate time for us to look back on what we have accomplished during the past 60 years, and to explore ideas for the next 60, when the battle over freedom of information is sure to escalate.

State of the News Media

To put the successes of our journalism program and the challenges it faces into context, it is necessary to look at the state of the U.S. news media today. One crucial issue that has been alluded to tonight is that there is a perception that interest in the news is waning – that the importance of the press is declining, that the news media are dying in the wake of the revolution in digital communication technology. In fact, the opposite is true.

The most important fact to keep in mind as we examine this issue is that journalism is in the midst of a phase transition that is similar to what the transportation industry went through when we moved from horse-drawn carriages to cars. The horse-and-buggy industry has indeed faded away, but no one would say that transportation has. Or, to use a more recent analogy, this transition is similar to what the telephone industry is going through as people switch from landlines to cell phones. It is almost impossible today to find a working phone booth on a public street, but no one is saying telephony is dead.

There is no question that the news media are going through a difficult transition. This is especially true in regard to many newspapers. The number of newspapers, and the number of traditional readers who want the ink-on-paper product, has fallen precipitously in the past 30 years. Part of what we need to do in order to move forward is to acknowledge the loss – to the news industry; to the individual journalists who worked for organizations that have downsized or closed; and to the communities and the public, which no longer have the newspapers that provided information about cities and towns and their governments. These communities include Phoenix and Tucson.

But these losses, as great as they have been, are not the entire story. One key development is that the readership of newspaper websites – and the sites of other online news operations – has been rising dramatically for years. For example, The New York Times, despite instituting a pay wall, was drawing 33 million unique visitors a month to its website as of June 2012. The Times now has more than 500,000 customers paying for online access.

There is no question that the news media are confronting very serious issues as they search for a new economic model at a time of very rapid technological change. But the online sites of some news media are profitable, and experiments are being conducted around the country. More organizations are charging for content, and mobile devices are leading to new opportunities for revenue.

So it is not correct to think that journalism is fading away, when tens of millions of people around the world are visiting the websites of the U.S. press. Interest in news and its impact is greater than it has ever been.

Another reason why journalism continues to be vitally important is that its role has not changed, as the work of Ms. Gallegos and Ms. Rodríguez makes eminently clear. The responsibility of the press to provide comprehensive, accurate information to the public, so people can make informed decisions about policy and policy makers, remains the same. The fact that this role is absolutely fundamental to a democratic system also has not changed.

Another aspect of our role that often isn’t discussed is its impact on other fields, such as political science, and especially history. Many reference books in these fields cite news reports as sources. This underscores the importance of journalists being able to distinguish between facts and myth, misinformation and propaganda, because how is it possible to have a truly democratic society if history itself is a lie?

Some discussions of the role of the press are dismissed as naïve rhetoric or political platitudes, but they are not, as the efforts of Ms. Gallegos and Ms. Rodríguez have shown. Analyses of news coverage of major issues during the past 10 years – and the effects of such coverage (or lack of it) on public opinion and policy formation – provide a clear and sometimes alarming illustration of just how crucial our role is. Examples can be found in how the U.S. public depends on the press to cover the Middle East and the issues involved with what the U.S. role is or should be in that region. Another example: At a time when there is debate about the extent to which political campaigns should be concerned with facts and fact-checkers, the importance of the responsibility of the press to provide the public with in-depth information about candidates’ policy positions and truthfulness is very evident.

Technology Creates New Issues

Meanwhile, the technological revolution of the past 20 years has presented journalists and journalism educators with new opportunities and questions. 

The Internet and other technological advances have made it possible for the information provided by U.S. news media to be available to more people, and potentially to have more impact, than at any time in history. These advances have heightened the awareness of, and interest in, the importance of news. They have enabled news organizations to have a different and more interactive relationship with the public. However, this communication revolution also has given rise to unprecedented challenges and threats to the content and flow of information. There is tremendous confusion today, for example, about who is – or should be – considered a journalist. The fact that the Internet gives the power of the press to anyone with access to a computer and an Internet connection has led to a flood of websites purporting to provide news.

Because the Internet enables information on one website to look very similar to information on others, it is increasingly difficult for the public to distinguish among misinformation, disinformation and news. Journalism educators have the responsibility to find ways to train the next generation to address these issues. We have to enable students to acquire the critical thinking skills, the understanding of the role and history of the press, and the professional and technical knowledge that they are going to need to take a leading role in confronting what are challenges not just to the profession, but to the democratic principles that provide the foundation for everything that we do.

Overview of the School of Journalism


These challenges are why the single most important subject that we teach in the University of Arizona School of Journalism is critical thinking. Our primary emphasis is on helping students learn not only how to gather information, but also how to evaluate it at a time when so much information – and propaganda and misinformation and disinformation – looks alike.

In the School of Journalism we are enabling students to learn how to make judgments about information and the sources who provide it. Training students to make judgments may sound antithetical, given that objectivity – as it has traditionally been defined – has long been such a treasured value. But in fact, judgments lie at the heart of what we do. Journalists decide which events and issues seem worthy of coverage, and which do not. We decide which sources to use, and which to exclude, which data to utilize, and which to omit. As the late New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger put it, “You’re not buying news when you buy The New York Times. You’re buying judgment."

Mr. Sulzberger himself made one of the most important judgments in the history of the U.S. press in 1971, when he decided that The New York Times should publish the Pentagon Papers. These papers comprised a classified government history of the Vietnam War, which, in a recent Times article, was described as detailing “Washington’s legacy of deceit and evasion as it stumbled through an unpopular war.” The Nixon administration’s effort to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers on national security grounds resulted in a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding freedom of the press.

The University of Arizona School of Journalism gave The New York Times the 1971 Zenger award in recognition of the newspaper’s contributions to the Pentagon Papers case.

Today in the School of Journalism, we are helping students learn to be critical thinkers by combining seminars and required courses on law and ethics with applied classes that turn our classrooms into newsrooms. We teach students about multimedia technologies – how to produce visual and audio reports for online sites, along with traditional new stories and still photos – but the principal thing that we do is teach students that technology is a tool, not an end in itself. Our classes remain focused on basic journalistic principles, and the ways in which technology can help us utilize them more effectively to carry out our role of informing the public.

We keep students current on news media law through classes that are taught by faculty members who are journalists with law degrees. They teach students about the latest legislation and court decisions involving the Internet, copyright, privacy, defamation. But above all, they focus on how technology has affected journalistic practices, so students can learn to think about these issues as the legal and ethical framework for the news media evolves.

Students are on the street from the first reporting class they take as sophomores, talking to people about events and issues. Every student is required to work for one of the news media produced by the school to serve real communities. These include El Independiente, a bilingual publication covering multicultural issues in Southern Arizona; The Tombstone Epitaph, a newspaper and website for that historic city; Arizona Cat’s Eye, which provides news programs for Arizona Public Media, the PBS affiliate on campus; and the Arizona-Sonora News Service, which enables students to produce in-depth reports that are made available to news media around the state and the country.

The school offers students internship opportunities with dozens of print, television and online news organizations, including national and international organizations such as The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and CNN.

We developed an apprenticeship program with the Arizona Daily Star, which combines lectures, class discussions and research projects with supervised work in the Star newsroom. We have a partnership with The New York Times, which includes internship opportunities with the Phoenix bureau. Our students have provided reporting and photography assistance for major stories in Southern Arizona, including the terrible events of January 8, 2011. Our school is one of two sites in the country for the Times’ national student journalism institute, which enables some of the country’s top students to work with Times staffers to produce a newspaper and website.

During the past decade, the school has developed two specialized programs that are of crucial importance to the profession and the public: International Journalism and Science Journalism. These programs build on the expertise of our faculty, who have extensive professional and academic experience in other countries, and whose news reports and peer-reviewed research have earned national and international awards.

International Journalism Program


After the tragedy of 9/11, and the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, people in this country developed a greater understanding of how important it is for journalists to know the historical background, and the political and economic systems of other nations, so they can provide us with facts and context about why and how what happens in other countries can have such profound effects on our own.

The International Journalism initiative is a collaboration among the School of Journalism and other university units focused on Latin America and the Middle East. The program enables undergraduate and graduate students to combine journalism training with classes about the cultures and languages of the regions they are going to cover.

Students have the opportunity to work in other countries with faculty members who have spent decades covering international issues. During the past four years, our students have gained experience in Afghanistan, Argentina, Costa Rica and Egypt. Students also are doing extensive work on the U.S.-Mexico border, building on the school’s decades of leadership in border reporting. For example, the School of Journalism was the first school in the country to provide border safety training for faculty and students who would be working in the region.

On the graduate level, our school is one of the very few to offer dual master’s degrees in Journalism-Latin American Studies, and Journalism and Middle Eastern and North African Studies. The school’s international outreach includes partnerships with professional and educational institutions, and work with the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma and the Gannett Foundation on factors that affect border reporting. We also are working with Nangarhar University in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where the faculty is developing a journalism curriculum. The latter project has been funded through a three-year, $1 million grant.

Science Journalism Program


Our Science Journalism emphasizes the environmental sciences. The public increasingly is aware that science has a significant impact on our values and institutions. For this reason, our curriculum provides specialized training not only for journalism majors, but also for science students. Our courses include a seminar in Principles of Science Journalism, which examines the nexus among news coverage, public opinion and science policy, and a class titled Issues in Covering the Environment, which explores factors that influence the science news agenda around the globe.

When we talk about science journalism, the definition of science itself is very important to understanding why this is such a crucial area for news coverage. The most eloquent definition that I have heard is from a physicist who wrote the following: “The domain of science is what can be observed or measured. This idea is the line between science and belief.” As journalists, we also have a responsibility to make this distinction when we are covering science issues. At a time when U.S. Representative Paul Broun, a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, says that evolution and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” the need to distinguish between science and belief is extremely important.

This is not to say that all science stories involve issues that have been settled, or that reporting on science controversies should not be done. But within this context, there are facts. The earth is not flat. It is not 6,000 years old, as at least one Arizona legislator believes, or about 9,000 years old, as Representative Broun believes. Evolution is not a “theory,” in the everyday meaning of that word; it is an established scientific principle. So in this field of science journalism, as in the field of international journalism, critical thinking skills – and the ability to evaluate information and to make judgments about how much space or time to give different types of information – are crucial.

To enhance the training of science journalists, the school encourages students to attend science conferences and to obtain internships with publications such as Science News. The school is exploring the establishment of dual master’s degrees with science units on campus. The first dual-degree program began last year with the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science. The school also offers a Ph.D. minor in Science Journalism for students in science doctoral programs.

Our faculty members have a strong background in science journalism, as they do in international journalism. They have done news reports for The Associated Press and National Public Radio, television documentaries with the BBC, and books that have covered issues such as water scarcity, environmental problems in Africa and the decline of the Pacific fisheries.

School of Journalism Successes


As we look at the history of the UA journalism program, we find many ways to assess its success. One is through the accomplishments of the faculty, many of whom worked for news organizations before earning advanced degrees and entering the academy to teach the next generation. Faculty members have won major journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and top honors from the Society of Professional Journalists. They also have won the highest research and teaching awards presented by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Another way to measure success is through the national accreditation process. The School of Journalism has been continuously accredited by the Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications for more than 45 years. This has ensured that our program meets the highest standards of teaching, research, curriculum development, advising and mentoring, and outreach to the community and the profession.

Still another indicator of success involves the number of students attracted to our program, and their accomplishments. The school currently has nearly 500 undergraduate majors and premajors, and 18 graduate students. They, too, have won national recognition for their journalistic and academic work.

One final way to assess the quality of the journalism program is through the success of our alumni. They have gone to work for top news organizations around the world, from NBC News to Reuters to The Washington Post. Their work has changed state and federal laws and policies in areas such as business, criminal justice, health, military affairs and transportation. Our alumni have won nearly every major award in journalism, including several Pulitzer Prizes. In summary, our alumni have been dedicated to providing the information that people need to be informed citizens in a democratic system, and to participate effectively in their own governance.

Blueprint for the Future


Our blueprint for the future builds on the strong foundation constructed in the past. Our research, teaching and service will continue to explore the principles and practices that arise from the First Amendment, and the factors that influence the relationship among the press, the public and the government.

The school is taking several steps to accomplish this. We are expanding our partnerships with news organizations. We are exploring ways to expand our science journalism program, by enabling students to learn more about the scientific method and research standards through course work and internships. We are looking for ways to create additional dual master’s degree programs with other science units on campus.

We are examining how to expand our international journalism program. We are looking forward to establishing a global journalism center, which will foster research about legal and political threats to press freedom at a time when many news reports cross national boundaries. This center also will support international teaching and reporting collaborations, based on the models that we have established on the U.S.-Mexico border and in Afghanistan.  Furthermore, we envision the center as a sanctuary for refugee journalists – reporters, editors and photographers who have had to flee their homes because of threats to their safety and their families’ safety. We hope the school will become a place where these journalists can rest, study and continue their work, so their voices will not be silenced.

Challenges for Journalism Education and the Profession


Journalism education and the profession are facing enormous challenges.

One is the fact that so much international news is now local. The work of Ms. Gallegos and Ms. Rodríguez illustrates how what happens in Mexico affects communities in the United States. For example, people in Tucson are very familiar with the violence that has spilled over the border because of drug trafficking. Journalism educators need to look at what we can do to make sure that students view all news in a multicultural, multinational context. Arizona is a perfect place to develop the education and training that is necessary for students to learn how to approach information this way, because of the state’s history and geographic ties to Mexico, and because we are on the front lines of so many issues that have this kind of context, from immigration to the demographic shifts that are changing the political landscape in the state and the country.

Another issue that we have to prepare our students to confront involves the international information environment. As news reports continue to be part of global data flow, what are we going to do about the fact that other countries – other democracies – have restrictive laws that curtail freedom of the press and access to government information? Many journalists in this room know how to use the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and state laws that permit access to government documents. But now we must learn how to deal with laws in other countries, and the chilling effect that these can have on the free flow of information. We are not talking only about repressive dictatorships. We also are talking about democracies, places such s Mexico, Brazil, Canada, England. We sometimes forget that the First Amendment grew out of the repressive policies of the British Crown, whose seditious libel laws made it a crime in the colonies to tell the truth about the government, and the greater the truth, the greater the punishment. That was the essence of the case against John Peter Zenger.

Some people in this room have dealt directly with restrictive regulations about what the press should and should not be permitted to do in countries such as Mexico, which now has moved toward greater transparency, but for many years obstructed reporters trying to obtain government documents.

Or we could talk about the situation in Brazil, where a journalist in this room faced government sanctions for telling the truth about an incompetent air traffic control system that led to a horrible mid-air collision that caused many deaths. The penalty for telling the truth? Civil and criminal actions against him in this democracy south of our border.

As we think about these issues, we need to be aware that the United States is a permeable membrane when it comes to ideas about the free flow of information. The concepts embodied by the First Amendment flow out to other countries. But other ideas about press regulation flow into the United States. At a time when so many news reports are part of cross-border data flow, other countries try to invoke these laws as a way to control the U.S. press. People in powerful political and corporate positions in these nations claim that we are subject to these laws because our stories can be read on the Internet or seen on television in their countries. This is a very serious threat to press freedom.

A point made by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th Century is relevant to this discussion. In a work titled, Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote: “…if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.” As we look into the abyss of press laws and regulations around the world – which we have to understand in an international information age, because of efforts to apply them to us – how should we deal with the questions that these laws and regulations raise about our own journalistic principles?

Another issue that we must enable our students to deal with involves the economic and cultural ramifications of the continual evolution of information technology. This is not a new phenomenon; technology has been evolving since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th Century. But some challenges are new. For example, what do we do about the extent to which technology intermediaries are in a position to control the future of news? The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, in its State of the News Media 2012 report, has identified this as one of the fundamental challenges facing our profession. The report states “that the gap between the news and technology industries is widening,” and that this has contributed to the news industry becoming “more a follower than leader” in shaping the future of our profession. The report states that the problem is intensifying as the largest technology companies expand their operations to cover all aspects of the digital world, while mobile platforms and social media mean that the news media must deal with another layer of technology.

Our responsibility is to educate students to become news media leaders who can think about how technology is evolving; how it is going to shape the ways in which we gather, evaluate and disseminate information; and how it will change the ways in which the public perceives and utilizes this information. Such thinkers are necessary to ensure that news in the future will be based on the relationship that the First Amendment establishes between the public and the press.

Another issue is: How do we repair our relationship with the public, which has so much antagonism toward the news media? After the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein led the reporting effort that resulted in the resignation of President Nixon, the press was one of the most trusted institutions in America. In September 2012, a Gallup Poll showed that 60 percent of respondents have little or no confidence that the press will report the truth fully, accurately and fairly. This is the highest level of mistrust since Gallup began tracking the issue in 1997.

We need to look at the reasons for this profound disillusionment with our institution. How do we ensure that our students, who are our future colleagues, understand that the First Amendment sets up an implied reciprocal relationship between the news media and the American people? In this relationship, the press is granted legal protections and privileges so it can carry out its responsibility of informing the people about government policy and policy makers. The people have their own responsibility, to support these protections and privileges against government encroachment, so the press will be able to gather information and tell them the truth about what their government is doing. But this relationship has to work both ways, and both parties need to believe that the other is operating in good faith.

Commitment to the Battle Over Who Will Control Information

These issues are why our faculty and staff are so committed to the battle over who will control information. As stated earlier, this is a battle with many fronts. Some are in newsrooms, where Ms. Gallegos, Ms. Rodríguez and their colleagues face daily risks of great harm. Some of these fights are in boardrooms and courtrooms, where news executives, editors and media attorneys confront economic, political and legal challenges. Some of them are in classrooms, where journalism educators work to find and fund the most effective journalism education for the next generation.

We are fully committed to this battle because it is a fight about fundamental democratic values. It is about whether the bond between the people and the press that was established by the First Amendment will be strengthened, or will be controlled or manipulated to the point that it no longer is relevant. This is a battle about whether we will have a citizenry that has the information it needs to create a government of the people, by the people, for the people. This is a battle about our history – about the depth and accuracy of the record that journalists will leave about events and issues, and the impact that this record will have on our values and institutions.

We are committed to this battle because ultimately, it is about the truth: Who has the right to learn it - and then to print it and show it and speak it – and who has the right to hear it. And the truth is worth fighting for. As Ms. Gallegos said, “Not one step back.

Thank you.


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