Editorial note: In Venezuela, the exercise of journalism as a profession, and the privilege of being referred to as a “journalist,” is limited to those who have graduated from institutes of higher education with a journalism degree. Those who do not possess the educational qualifications are not identified as journalists. This is the context in which Clodovaldo Hernández writes the piece below.
By Clodovaldo Hernández – Feb 4, 2023
This week we are again faced with one of those typical situations in which it’s hard to tell if the storm is really coming or if the neighbor is just shaken up [si la tormenta se avecina o la vecina se atormenta], as was once said in El Chavo del Ocho. What happened was that the National Institute for Socialist Training and Education (INCES) recently announced that there would be short courses to train to be a reporter. All hell broke loose.
Many people came out, both from the opposition and revolutionary side, to question this academic self-confidence that insults those who, such as social communications graduates, were hunkered down for five years or more in a university.
Several colleagues and friends approached me, some to ask me for my opinion in good faith, and others to challenge me with statements such as the following: “Aha, and what do you think of that, ah, ah, ah? Say, dare them! ” Well, here is what I think. Forgive me for my ramblings.
Reflection on a crisis
The fact that someone in an institution dedicated to technical training believes that a few months are enough to become a reporter is a reflection of the deep existential crisis that is shaking journalism. And I am not only referring to us, the Venezuelans, but to this profession on global scale.
This crisis is like several simultaneous earthquakes, with various epicenters and intensities, and many similar cases. On the one hand, the Internet and social media have shattered the conventional business model of the press, in which news was printed on paper or broadcast in the form of news via radio and television. Everything is obsolete now, thrown into the metaphorical garbage dump. But if that happened to the business, what can be expected to happen to the entrepreneurs and workers of this branch in a world stamped by capitalism?
Communication activities after this mutation have become the absolute and direct property of the great corporations which drive the world economy with their weapons, energy, food, medicines, or online commerce, never mind the extralegal sectors of the economy. They are not interested in journalism, but the voracious profitability of their businesses. These companies handle what remains of the conventional media industry and have also taken over the platforms that hegemonize the new communication platforms. For these operations, the work of many people is required. But let’s be sincere. They don’t need the type of training required during the second half of the20th century and the first years of the 21st. What these corporations require are IT specialists, algorithm manipulators, social networks influencers, Youtubers, Instagrammers and Tiktokers, trades that do not require university degrees in social communications, for example, since these are skills that young people today carry as congenital brain programming. While some, not so young individuals, seem to have acquired them through practice or almost by osmosis.
Our own fault
Another reason why the university profession of journalism has been degraded ostensibly must be attributed to journalists. Professors of journalism have continuously waged a war on the trade. We should be kicking ourselves over it then.
Both in the large centers of media power in the United States and Europe, and in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America, many journalists—including the stars of the profession—have trampled ethical norms and even common sense itself. Flagrant lies, half truths, misrepresentations, manipulations, ideology and selective silences have been the daily routine of a field once characterized by a good level of prestige and rigor. Then, the audiences of these outlets and people who have not studied journalism (which are the overwhelming majority of society) have begun to make the following reflection without thinking twice: if the expert university graduates of this career spew out these barbarities, do we even need them? And they start asking: why not have lay people do this work? It is not unreasonable to wonder if anyone could do at least an equally poor job.
Let’s try to understand the situation: it is as if the doctors of a town stopped working their magic, their patients die or become sicker, and the people stop trusting them. Then some bold types start proscribing cures without having the faintest idea of anatomy or biochemistry. What is the most serious thing that could happen? Well, the patients would continue to die, or get worse. More of the same, nothing that wasn’t happening already in the first place.
Lets be honest with ourselves, first of all: with what moral authority can university journalists claim exclusivity over the management of mass information, if a good part of the better known figures of the trade have become mercenaries of the news, or mere propagandists? How can we sustain the idea that to be a journalist, a long theoretical and deontological training is required, if they themselves have acted without scruples, outside of theory and ethics? It would be very difficult indeed.
Controlling the message
Here, we can even take stock of the basic element of journalistic work: language. We need not look far: in the case of the average university journalist, can it be said that the graduates of this career are examples to be followed by their readers, listeners or viewers in terms of quality writing and orating? To me—this is a thing of the past, I admit it—it seems that it was so in another era, but not anymore, no offence.
In my experience, while at several newspapers and magazines I always ran into colleagues who presented various levels of disability with regards to putting subject, verb, and predicate in a more or less comprehensible order. Infrequently, some were reputed to be excellent journalists (and they were convinced that they were). The bosses, editors, writing secretaries, and style correctors even used to make salty jokes about how these people had gotten their university degrees, and the most common joke was that they had come out of an Ace box, because for a while, powder detergent companies tried to ramp up their sales by offering surprises in the packaging.
Then, to make matters worse, if a person without journalistic training reads a string of attacks against the grammar of a graduate in that field, what must they think?
And here I will take the opportunity to move on to another controversial point about the training of journalists in recent years, especially in the ’90s and the first decade of the 2000s, when the career “became fashionable” and schools opened in several private universities, where they produced graduates like churros—the saying is spot on.
In those years, I met several colleagues, who were professors at some of those schools, who, at the outset, expressed some remorse, not because they had recently graduated (that is not the point), but because not everyone there had the necessary qualifications to practice journalism and, therefore, much less so to pretend to teach others how it was done. Some were good prospects, even if they were still in training, yet they had notable deficiencies. They were still lacking in the bread-and-butter issues of the profession (even with regards to spelling, especially in certain cases), yet they undertook the task of training others. What could go wrong?
But apart from that, these professors said they had classes of more than 100 students! And they gave class to two or three of those groups. They were asked what kind of individual care they could give as teachers to each student if they were in charge of 200 or 300. The question, of course, was rhetorical, because it was more than clear that in such conditions it is almost impossible to cater to individual students in any way. Especially since professors in media studies (particularly in journalism, one of the axes of the career) must be coaches above all else; someone who reviews the work of each student in detail, corrects them, and offers specific suggestions.
It was in response to these training centers for the soldiers of the media war, i.e., the social communication schools of private universities, that the revolution proposed to train its own through the social communication training programs of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela and The Sucre mission.
For 10 years I participated in this effort, chasing the utopia (still very much alive) of a media studies program that has all the attributes and demands of the university level, but is at the same time alternative and popular in its philosophical and political approach. After a decade, I abandoned the classrooms for personal reasons, but now that they have been overcome, I have not been able to return because an of an existential crisis: I fear that the journalism that I would be able to teach almost no longer exists, and, above all, it is not applicable to the new media landscape; therefore, insisting on it would be like cheating students. I have not yet been able to overcome this problem.
The usual hypocrites
With regards to the coming storm and the neighbors who are tormented there were a few typical hypocrites which were captured by the acute and well-trained senses of my favorite political scientist, Prodigio Pérez.
These are the complaints of some journalists and managers of the “free press” (proclaimed independent, but financed by foreign agents) regarding the offer of the INCES to train reporters.
It turns out that several of these media outlets, associated with the infallible NGOs that defend freedom of expression (and are also subsidized by foreign governments), have been offering their own courses, for a long time, for what they have been calling “citizen reporters.”
There is no real difference between those citizen reporters and those that the INCES had in mind when they launched their ill-fated course (which, apparently, has already been removed from the didactic offer, incidentally).
Prodigio says that the true objective of the citizen reporters courses of the “free press” is to train people to work for free for the aforementioned media outlets, in an occupation halfway between journalism, the collection of gossip, intelligence operations and the infiltration of popular areas.
These people are fine with training their own “reporters”, but now that INCES has decided to do the same, well in that case they are undermining the university status of the profession of journalism. Contradictory, right?
Another hypocritical aspect that came to light is that highlighted by Luigino Bracci Roa, who, by the way, is a university graduate in computer science, but does more journalism than most media studies graduates put together. In a tweet, Luigino pointed out that when private or public media or the press department of a corporation or institution receives an intern or a rookie journalist, the bosses order him to become a one-man show: record sounds for the radio and podcasts; take photos for the portal or blog; make videos for television, YouTube and Tiktok; write notes for web pages and threads for Twitter; live stream on Instagram and even create memes for internal communications, that is, executing the work that several people should be doing (cameramen, operators, broadcasters, webmaster, just to list a few). This means that the intensive exploitative system that is being applied to journalists has led them to usurp the work of other professionals, that is, more or less the same thing that the reporters trained by INCES were going to do. They are curiosities of the metaverse.
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The earthquake in the trade
For those who do not know or have forgotten, limiting the formation of communicators to the acquisition of basic technical skills was the great dream of media moguls throughout the 20th century.
The most offensive approaches of that ultra-reactionary artifact called the Inter-American Press Society (SIP) and its local branch, the Venezuelan Press Block, were those aimed at destroying the guild of journalists and allowing any professional from another branch or anyone without any specific studies to exercise functions in newspapers and other media companies. Back then, these people had agreed with the INCES plan to train reporters, because they presumed that they would be cheaper than the university students and perhaps more docile to manipulation.
For years, the generations of media studies graduates which founded the National College of Journalists, and its first heirs, fought without support against their employer’s plan to dismantle the trade of journalism.
Then, the territory of the journalistic guilds was also ravaged by several earthquakes. After the political changes of 1999, the leaders of the CNP (and the National Union of Press Workers) have dedicated themselves to catering to the owners of the mainstream media, under the pretext of fighting the governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, whom both consider dictatorial and contrary to freedom of expression.
This coincidence has led to truly absurd situations, such as that, some years ago, when the CNP-Caracas managers agreed to endorse, in a public act (and with pompous mannerisms, as if it were a great achievement), the declaration of Chapultepec, the most anti-union document that the SIP has issued in its long history of struggles against the organization of university journalists.
Some of these figures came out in uncertain numbers last week to complain to the heavens about the INCES trainings. It is hard to tell if it was out of ignorance or impudence.
To close this long incursion of mine into the neighboring storm, I will point out that, apart from the express reporters trained by the INCES, by the “free press,” or by any other entity with edifying or destructive purposes (which will always depend on who judges it), the exercise of journalism by university graduates faces another threat that, clearly, seems more serious and global: ChatGPT.
We are talking about a chatbot type app, based on artificial intelligence, capable of writing academic documents, reports, and even stories, novels and poems, following the very general instructions provided by any user, and in record time.
The resource has already worried educators at all levels because Chatgpt can do the work and tasks of students without being accused of plagiarism, since in a strict sense, it produces original materials, that is, it doesn’t copy and paste, but investigates, “thinks,” and writes.
This fear of educators has also taken root in the field of journalism because the dream of so many entrepreneurs of the sector (and their counterparts, government officials) is of doing without annoying employees, pesky employees with too many questions, or women on maternity leave.
For years they have tried to robotize jobs in the media sector, to produce their notes, reports, interviews, and chronicles according to the precise instructions of the bosses, without caring if the cat has five legs. But now, with this kind of virtual reporter at their disposal, they can completely dispense with the almost always dirty minds of journalists.
As my friend, the former communist, said, things are never so bad that they can’t get worse. Or, to return to the phrase of El Chavo del Ocho: this is the coming storm and, at the same time, it is a good reason for the whole journalistic neighborhood to be shaken up.
Translation: Orinoco Tribune
Venezuelan journalist and writer. He writes regularly for La IguanaTV, Supuesto Negado, and Mision Verdad.
Clodovaldo Hernández#molongui-disabled-linkSeptember 4, 2022
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