Jessica Johnson’s BMS Course Eyes Future of Journalism

A brief moment in Jessica Johnson’s The Future of Journalism class offers a powerful example of how different that future looks for young adults.

Johnson, a noted Canadian writer and editor, includes a photo of Adrienne Arsenault and Ian Hanomansing, anchors of The National, CBC’s flagship television newscast, in a PowerPoint presentation she shares with her students. When she asks her class of 30 or so if anyone can identify them, no one volunteers a response.

Jessica Johnson

But you would be wrong to think that Johnson’s students are not engaged with journalism or that they are unaware of critical issues in the world, as well as the challenges and opportunities in modern media. The incident underlines Johnson’s desire to demonstrate the rapidly changing face of media today.

Much of the structure and content of The Future of Journalism is based on her experience while teaching #MeToo and the Media with the late Anne Kingston in 2019, a class that looked at the media’s – and particularly social media’s – role in the social movement that stemmed from reports of predatory sexual behaviour on the part of powerful, high-profile men.

Lucas Sousa

A few moments later, St. Mike’s student Lucas Sousa offers a succinct explanation of Bill C-18, or the Online News Act, legislation that was designed to see news outlets paid for work shared on social media platforms but which has resulted in news being blocked on Facebook and Instagram. He follows up by identifying an image of Catherine Tait, president and CEO of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who recently oversaw significant job cuts at the federal broadcaster.                                               

In the ensuing discussion, Sousa and his classmates demonstrate that while today’s young adults may not sit down promptly at 10 p.m. each night to watch a newscast their parents grew up on, they are knowledgeable consumers eager to learn more about fruitful engagement with authentic media. And that, says Johnson, was one of her goals in creating the course.

“What Anne and I found was that what we needed to teach how the media works, the role of social media, the industry’s business models,” she says. “The Future of Journalism is the story of media: what is journalism, its issues and practices, questions surrounding EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) and who has a voice. We are talking about what the landscape is like, and students are sharing their thoughts on what journalism is and how they want to do it.”

The result is the Thursday morning survey class, which falls under Book & Media Studies, one of St. Michael’s four sponsored programs. According to the syllabus, by the end of the course, “student will acquire an overview of the current state of journalism, along with exposure to journalism practices and current issues.” Participants, it adds, will have gained confidence in public speaking, as well as in meeting deadlines and producing work that reflects their own original ideas.

Since the class includes both those interested in journalism from an academic perspective as well as those who hope to build a career as journalists, lectures and discussions are geared to both, looking at the theory of journalism – for example, the media and democracy – as well as offering practical discussions on how to pitch a story to editors how to use the fundamentals of journalism to build “engaging, successful stories.”

Young people want to change the world, Johnson notes, and journalism is a place where they can still do that, so she spent time while building the course pondering what they need to hear.

One challenge is learning the difference between journalism and advocacy, allowing the power of facts speaking for themselves, she says, adding that there are occasional exceptions to that dividing line, citing as an example The Narwahl, the much-lauded non-profit Canadian publication that does investigative work into environmental issues.

Because the media landscape is changing so rapidly, Johnson re-thought the content and shape of the course more than once. When she began to think about what she wanted to teach she was focused on issues such as the impact of artificial intelligence but now the world faces two major wars, the United States is in an election year and it could end up an election year for Canada, too.

“Today we see suspicion and mistrust of media. While confidence is still relatively high in Canada, it is dropping,” she observes. Part of the problem, she says, is the decline in local media, as cost-cutting continues to eliminate local outlets. Instead of smalltown newspapers and radio stations covering important local stories, for example, that news is being reported on by people unfamiliar with local issues, or not at all aware.

“If you have stories that are being told by strangers rather than reporters you see in the street, with the two-way discourse that comes from being out and about all the time, you lose key insights and context.”

There are also emerging conversations on what is truth and how differentiating factors of that truth can be identified, information critical for astute media consumer, she says. It’s a topic of increasing importance as it comes at a time when fewer and fewer publications rely on fact checkers, who confirm the content of a story, noting that The Walrus, the Canadian magazine where she served as Editor in Chief from 2017 to earlier this year is, along with The New Yorker, one of the few periodicals still relying on the role.

For her students pondering a career in journalism, Johnson will address questions surrounding the changing business models of the industry and the impact that has on quality, as well as the ways in which young people entering the field need to be entrepreneurial to find their own space.

Whether students are in the course for the love of reading news or the hopes of reporting it, Johnson sees a key goal being to support her students, and especially those who show promise.

“I love teaching and I have a lot of respect for full-time profs. It takes a great deal of time to think about what students need to know now,” she says.

“I want to help students have a vision of themselves,” she says, citing a high school teacher and a couple of university professors who spoke positively to her about her writing. Voicing that feedback may make all the difference, she says. “That may be the only person in your life to who says, “You’re a good writer. You’re allowed to proceed.”

For student Lucas Sousa, enrolling in The Future of Journalism is helping him decide what he wants to do when he graduates.

“I’m in this class because I want to see the future of journalism,” he says, adding that writing for The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, has given him insights into some of the topics—and challenges—discussed in class. “This course is helping me to understand things in a better way and it’s allowing me to fall back in love with journalism.”