Are the professors there to please the students or tell them the truth?
Alan Kay sent me the (below) linked article by Al Gore from Rolling Stone. While the article is about climate change, it’s using climate change as a backdrop for considering the role of news media in science reporting today. Is the role of the news media entertainment, where getting people to watch the show the goal? Or is the goal of the news media fairness, about getting a story out that the journalist believes is true and considers all reasonable positions? The article talks a good bit about the pervasiveness of television as a news source today (yeah, some people get news from the Internet, but many of the major Internet news sites are just the web-side of television media), and how big business directly manipulates television media. I didn’t know that Big Tobacco had paid actors to dress as doctors, to create ads contradicting the Surgeon General on smoking back in the 60′s.
There are critiques of this piece, based on the gap between Gore’s science (which is robust) and his policy recommendations (which have been less successful). But here’s why (I suspect) Alan sent me this piece. What’s our role as professors? Just as media are supposed to play a watchdog role in society, we as professors have a particular role to play in society. In fact, our role is similar to journalists (or so it’s been, historically), and runs into similar tensions. Is our goal to please the students-as-customers, to keep them happy, and give them what (they think) they want? Or maybe our goal is to please the industrial employer-as-customer, to teach their tools, and to give the what (they think) they want? Or is our goal to speak truth (as we see it), to teach what we believe is most fundamental, and thus, to give students and employers a new perspective? Is it more important to get seats in chairs, or to get educated students out of those chairs?
The answer isn’t simple. The new media need viewers to be economically sustainable, but they also need to be the truth-seekers in our society.We need more graduates, and we know that engaging them is the best way to get them to continue. So yes, we need kids in seats, and we need to them to be happy. But we also have a responsibility to educate, to teach students what we truly believe that they need, and to provide a deeper and more powerful perspective to industry.
The referee — in this analogy, the news media — seems confused about whether he is in the news business or the entertainment business. Is he responsible for ensuring a fair match? Or is he part of the show, selling tickets and building the audience? The referee certainly seems distracted: by Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, the latest reality show — the list of serial obsessions is too long to enumerate here.