The Roar of the University

I managed to catch a few minutes of the end of the PBS special Dinosaur Wars the other night. The story is famous. Two brilliant paleontologists— Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh — over a three decade rivalry separately yet together created a vast collection of fossils and body of scientific work that formed the backbone of Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as our most beloved childhood monsters — dinosaurs.

In the final chapter of Dinosaur Wars, information was leaked to a journalist, whose coverage played out the story in dramatic headlines over a period of weeks. The story rose to a crescendo of partisan politics, erupted into a bleating Congressional squall and then eventually switch-backed, knocking the two great men on their respective professional behinds, where they steeped in their individual flavors of bitterness until they reached their miserly and sickly demises shortly thereafter. As a byproduct, their behavior created a cul de sac in advancing the scientific mission of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The PBS biography of these two men on PBS says:

While the feud between Cope and Marsh consumed the scientists’ lives and damaged their careers, the amount and quality of bones they each collected became the foundation of paleontology in America. Cope left behind 13,000 specimens, and Marsh’s comparable collection proved to be “the best support of the theory of evolution,” according to a personal letter from Charles Darwin himself.

Their work was inspired. Their feud a waste. And journalism was a pawn in their game.

Spin forward to today where different kinds of dinosaurs wander the land. Our industrial age institutions — governments, universities — look for green shoots in a knowledge age frontier. How will they scale their lumbering forms to this digital, media-steeped landscape? Will they understand that there are enough bones for all of them?

That brings me to the question David Cohn has asked us journalist/ bloggers to discuss in this revival of the Carnival of Journalism.

One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education… hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

I see today’s university as a place where ideas are researched, published and vetted in accordance with standards, and as a place where discourse and push-back from opposing points of view is encouraged, required, public and communicated through numerous media channels. As an active hub of journalism, the university is its own news room. Journalistic communicators working in the university newsroom showcase knowledge and ideas, host the conversation, and understand that the university’s contribution to the world is knowledge, not public relations.

So my point of view asks: What would Dinosaur Wars look like today if the two scientists had not been working in institutional silos? Cope and Marsh would still not have liked each other, but their academic differences would have been aired openly and the press would have been manipulated less.

Since I’ve been talking with entrepreneurs more than college kids these days, I asked Mike Reilley, Online Journalism Instructor at DePaul University, College of Communication, for his opinion of the media literacy issue.

“Universities move at a snail’s pace to adjust curriculums sometimes. They want to stay true to their foundational courses, which is fine, but it stunts growth and change,” Reilley replied in an email. “Technology has revolutionized communication at a core level, and we have to re-think teaching it. Not just to communications or journalism majors, but to everyone.”

In his classes at DePaul, Reilley embeds the use of Twitter, Foursquare, blogging and other digital tools as they emerge. He asks his students to think critically and to explore views on an issue and then justify their points of view. As part of their classwork, Reilley requires his students to build and report on a website, The Redline Project.

“Media literacy can be taught across any discipline in a college environment. Just as students are required to take core courses in their field of study or overall basics, a media literacy course could easily be integrated into a curriculum.”

“Twenty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate,” Reilley says, “such a course probably wasn’t necessary. But with the emergence of the web and cross-platform mediums, including the ability for anyone to publish, [students] require a new level of critical thinking skills.”

“Anyone with a Twitter account knows this. Should I retweet the link or not? Should I retweet what someone said? Is the information I’m forwarding or sharing credible. What to do?” Reilley says. “If technology gives everyone a voice, we at least need to teach them the fundamentals of using those tools correctly.”

I agree. I developed sea legs in the twitter and blog worlds by using these tools. That is the only way. But my personal radar that detects credible and high quality information has developed over a lifetime of reporting. How to teach that?