When I tell people that I am the dean of a journalism and marketing communications school, I am often greeted with looks that border on bemusement and pity.
I get it. The news that most people hear about journalism and media is pretty dismal. Newspapers and magazines are folding at an alarming clip. Chicago’s two major dailies — the Tribune and Sun-Times — have drastically reduced their newsroom staffs through a series of layoffs and buyouts over the past 15 years. More than half the country does not trust the information they receive from legacy news outlets. Admittedly, it’s a somewhat dreary picture.
Yet, as the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications celebrates its centennial, I am incredibly bullish about the future of media and the school’s role in shaping that future. While the business model for the industries we serve is indeed in shambles, there are still plenty of reasons to be excited about the information age.
Technology enables us to tell stories and engage with readers, viewers and consumers in ways we never could have imagined when I was enrolled in Medill more than 40 years ago. Today, Medill students and faculty are at the forefront of this revolution in storytelling and marketing, using a wide variety of techniques and platforms — from artificial intelligence to data visualization to new media outlets for specific communities — to inform and influence audiences.
But this unlimited storytelling potential also brings new ethical and fact-checking challenges that rend the fabric of our fragile democracy, as recent events — including the contentious 2020 election, the global pandemic and social movements against racial injustice — have made clear. Medill’s role in this fraught and balkanized media landscape is not merely to train the next generation of media professionals and leaders. It is also to be the authors of and evangelists for the ethics and standards that should guide our industries in this brave new world. We also must reach beyond our student population to promote media literacy in the general public and help ensure that the body politic is composed of more discerning media consumers.
Moreover, I am excited about the role that Medill can and will play in the ongoing conversations about representation both in media coverage and marketing depictions, as well as in the composition of newsrooms and companies. We do this by teaching our students to build trust with various communities and preparing students from diverse backgrounds for careers in journalism, marketing and communications. As our industries try to come to grips with — and correct — past failings, Medill can move beyond providing lip service to diversity and champion a model of what covering and marketing to a diverse populace should look like.
Of course, this means getting our own house in order with an honest assessment of our past and reckoning with our shortcomings. I welcome the opportunity to hire diverse faculty and staff, recruit students from varied backgrounds and incorporate discussions of marginalized communities into our classrooms.
So contrary to popular belief, it is an amazing time to be leading Medill. With our combination of talented faculty and students, not to mention our cadre of influential alumni, I can think of no institution that is better positioned to help chart the course for the future of media over the next hundred years.
Charles Whitaker ’80, ’81 MS is dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.