Accepting an award from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School for Journalism & Mass Communication several months ago, former PBS NewsHour host Robert McNeil called journalism education probably “the best general education that an American citizen can get” today.

Perhaps he was playing to his audience, at least to a degree. Many other kinds of undergraduate degree programs could lay claim to a similar value; a strong liberal arts degree, no matter what the major, has great value. Still, there’s no doubt that a journalism degree, done right, is an excellent foundation for a student’s future.

Even if McNeil overstated the case, however, his words should inspire journalism educators to ponder their role in a world where these programs’ traditional reason for being is increasingly murky.

Our raison d’etre is open to question largely because the employment pipeline of the past, a progression leading from school to jobs in media and related industries, is (at best) in jeopardy. Yet journalism education could and should have a long and even prosperous life ahead — if its practitioners make some fundamental shifts.

Some of the shifts are already under way, especially in how journalism educators do their jobs. The Cronkite School, where I’m teaching, is one of many journalism programs aiming to be part of the 21st Century. The school understands at its core that digital technology has transformed the practice, though we hope not the principles, of the craft. This is welcome, if overdue; if newspapers have adapted fitfully to the collision of technology and media, journalism schools as a group may have been even slower.

But that recognition, while valuable, isn’t nearly enough. Journalism educators should be in the vanguard of an absolutely essential shift for society at large: helping our students, and people in our larger communities, to navigate and manage the myriad information streams of a media-saturated world.

We need to help them understand why they need to become activists as consumers — by taking more responsibility for the quality of what they consume, in large part by becoming more critical thinkers. And they need to understand their emerging role as creators of media.

In both cases, as consumers and creators, we start with principles.

For media consumers:

• Be Skeptical
• Exercise Judgement
• Open Your Mind
• Keep Asking Questions
• Learn Media Techniques

For media creators (after incorporating the above):

• Be Thorough
• Get it Right
• Insist on Fairness
• Think Independently
• Be Transparent, Demand Transparency

(See this recent paper, part of the Media Re:public project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where I’m a Fellow, for a fairly lengthy description of the principles and an explanation of why I believe they’re important.)

The principles underpin everything I believe about modern media consumption in general — entertainment being the major exception — and journalism in particular. Especially for the creators of media, they add up to being honorable.

If the principles are the foundation, the practices and tactics are an evolving superstructure. Journalism education needs to deal with both.

This applies not just to students studying the practice of journalism. The same issues are roiling public relations and advertising, the teaching of which is often housed in schools of journalism and communications. Not surprisingly, because modern commerce has been so much about selling things, those industries have been considerably more innovative, in the professional ranks, than journalism in recent years. Key leaders in advertising and PR are surely making their needs clear to educators, and one suspects getting results.

As noted above, journalism schools are starting to embrace digital technologies in their work with students who plan to enter traditional media. Too few are helping students understand that they may well have to invent their own jobs, however, much less helping them do so.

Still, the experiments are growing in number, in scope and in potential. What’s more, they’re involving not just newcomers to the journalism education ranks, but faculty members who’ve been on the job for some time. The News21 Initiative, funded by two major foundations, is an example. We’re working on entrepreneurship as a core mission, and so is Jeff Jarvis at City University of New York, among others. Rich Gordon at Northwestern University’s Medill School is helping computer science students understand the value of journalism, and how they can help create tomorrow’s version. And so on.

But I keep coming back to the issue(s) that should trouble anyone who cares about the future of self-governed societies. We’re not turning out the critical thinkers we need in a time when that skill has never been so important, particularly when the avalanche of data — some of it bogus and much of it irrelevant — has never been so difficult to handle.

One experiment, at State University of New York’s Stony Book campus, is notable. Howard Schneider is leading another foundation-funded program (so many of these are, raising an interesting question that I won’t go into here) that aims to make better news consumers and critical thinkers of all students, not just those enrolled in journalism courses. This goes only part of the way to what I’d like to see in journalism education, but it’s a very useful start.

Where would I take it, if I ran a journalism school? I’d start, again, with the principles listed above, and rework the how-to part of the curriculum to be more digital (that is, media-agnostic) and entrepreneurially focused.

I’d also direct the alumni relations director to find out who attended the journalism program and then went onto great things in non-journalistic fields. To the extent that McNeil is correct about our offering such a useful program for students of all kinds, surely we’ll find plenty of accomplished graduates in other professions and crafts. Take a look at the Cronkite School’s “Alumni Hall of Fame” — a listing, begun in 1993, largely comprised of former students who are now employed by traditional media organizations. They are all worthy honorees. Sixteen years from now, I hope, this list will offer a much broader cross-section of affiliations.

Then, tackling the media activism challenge, my colleagues and I would:

  • Persuade the president of the university that every student on the campus should learn them before graduating, preferably during freshman year.
  • Create a program for people in the community, starting with teachers. We should be seeing every student take a basic media activist course at every level of education — not just college, but also grade, middle, and high school.
  • Offer that program to concerned parents who feel overwhelmed by the media deluge themselves. Children especially need to learn to be independent thinkers and not take for granted that what they see, hear, or read is necessarily true or real.
  • Provide for-fee training to communicators who work in major local institutions, such as PR and marketing folks from private companies, governmental organizations and others. If they could be persuaded that the principles matter, they might offer the public less BS and more reality, and they’d be better off for the exercise.
  • Try to enlist another vital player in this effort: local media. The traditional journalism organizations should be making this a core part of their missions, but haven’t yet realized why, namely that their own trust in the community would almost certainly rise if they helped people understand these principles — not to mention the enormous value of truly engaging the audience in the journalism itself. New media entrants would benefit, too, if they embraced the principles of media activism to produce higher quality work and deepen their own conversations with their communities of geography and interest.

Community efforts would, of course, include training of citizen journalists to understand and apply the principles and best practices, and helping new entrants in local media find business models. Sometimes the business models will be for-profit; others will be not-for-profit.

That will likely mean partnering with other parts of campuses — business schools, engineering/computer science, design and more — to be an essential community-wide resource for the future of local media. Ambitious? Sure, but imagine what we could all accomplish.

All this suggests a considerably broader mission for journalism schools and programs than the one they’ve had in the past. We’re not the only ones who can do this, but we may be among the best equipped. If we don’t, someone else will.