Obituary We mourn Kenneth Starck (5 September 1934 - 8 January 2023)

On 8 January 2023, Professor Kenneth Starck, Ph.D., died in Iowa City aged 88 after long physical infirmity. Journalism around the world mourns the loss of a highly reputed colleague who combined scientific analysis and humane convictions with a steadfast commitment to journalism as a profession. His tenure at the University of Iowa included serving as ombudsman of the daily Gazette, published in Cedar Rapids, IA, which regularly published his insights and commentary on reader complaints.

After attending Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, where he graduated from the journalism program at the top of his class, he obtained a Master’s degree from the renowned journalism program at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO, and went on to work as a reporter in Memphis, TN. Some of his best known pieces include his interview with Elvis Presley when the singer played soccer with a high school team, and his 1963 account of the beating of a young Black man at the hands of a White police officer. He earned his Ph.D. in 1968 from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL, with a study on the press in Finland, where he had previously conducted research at the University of Tampere.

From 1971, he continued his academic career, beginning with a stint at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC. In 1974, he was appointed Director of the Institute of Journalism at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA, which was founded in 1924 and which counts George Gallup among its alumni and supporters. With brief interruptions, Starck led the Institute from 1975 to 1996. Under his leadership, the Institute successfully (re)gained major national accreditations.

In addition to stints as President of the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), another notable feature of his career was his interculturalism, a rare trait in a US scholar. He taught as a Fulbright professor at Chinese (1986/87) and Romanian (1994/95) universities. After his retirement, he served as Dean of the Faculty of Journalism at Zahed University in Dubai and Abu-Dhabi from 2002 to 2009. With his Finnish wife Raija, he co-authored a book about his year in China: The Dragon’s Pupils: A China Odyssey.

His many international commitments also included an eye-level collaboration with the comparatively small academic field of Journalism in Germany. In the context of this university partnership, he taught an enthusiastic audience of students at the Dortmund Institute of Journalism in the winter semester 1999/2000 and contributed to research projects. He also was a gracious host to Dortmund exchange students and guest lecturers in Iowa. This cooperation yielded several joint publications.[1]

He supported the founding of the bilingual German-English journal Journalism Research/Journalistik with a contribution on current issues with journalistic training in the USA. In this piece, he admonished:[2]

»What, after all, is the mission of education? What is the role of a university? Too often we avoid such fundamental questions, emphasizing, instead, practical knowledge at the expense of failing to educate the whole person. A journalism education blended with a liberal arts curriculum should provide opportunities that prepare men and women for lifetimes of personal and professional growth. Practical is okay. But there should be more. My experience suggests that too often we have not thought through the fundamental assumptions inherent in our beliefs and values, which, in turn, form the basis of our actions. We tend to focus on short term objectives or become preoccupied with the crisis of the day. […] Throughout its history, journalism education has stirred mixed and sometimes hostile reactions among practitioners and those who profess to prepare practitioners. The issues range all the way from whether journalism instruction should be housed in the academy to differences between professors and professionals about curriculum. The fact that journalism education has existed in the United States for more than a century suggests something more than a fad. It suggests that there are certain knowledge and skills required of journalists that are important to a self-governing society and that universities can provide.«

His wife shared that the day of his death fell on Elvis Presley’s birthday, whom Starck once interviewed, and who was one year his junior. In reminding us of this interview, she put a spotlight on Professor Ken Starck’s profoundly journalistic sense for the general audience.

Kenneth Starck deserves to be remembered with honor – not least in the field of journalism, which can learn valuable lessons from his exemplary professional ethos, both in journalism and academia.

The editors

Translation: Kerstin Trimble


1 Cf. for example: Pöttker, Horst; Starck, Kenneth (2003) Criss-crossing perspectives: Contrasting models of press self-regulation in Germany and the United States. In: Journalism Studies 4 (1), pp. 47-64.