What Should Be Taught in Journalism Schools?
An aspiring reporter ‘doesn’t need to learn how—he needs to learn what.’
The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University is famed for its use of New York City as a laboratory for training students to become working journalists. But the university president challenged this teaching approach by contending that such “skills” training is “clearly insufficient in this new world and within the setting of a great university.” He wants, he said, “a more reflective, more comprehensive education” to be offered by the school, one that is “more intellectually based.” Skills training, he said, should be left to the workplace.
Though directed at the Columbia journalism program, Bollinger’s remarks have been taken to apply to journalism education in general, and once again journalism educators feel called upon to defend the content and the value of their work and address a recurring issue in academe—whether journalism education is a university discipline.
Bollinger’s assessment of journalism skills training is consistent with an academic line of attack that has diluted or killed several programs. And, given the altered direction some journalism programs have taken in recent years, the defense might well be unconvincing. If it is, worthwhile programs might suffer along with weaker ones.
At the University of Michigan, the journalism program was abandoned a few years before Bollinger became president there. “The issue was whether or not a vocational program had a home in the arts and sciences,” says Michael Traugott, the chairman of the Department of Communication Studies. The department now offers a B.A. in communication studies and a Ph.D. in mass communications. No skills courses are offered.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the mass communications program is “geared more toward the intellectual and theoretical side of the profession,” reports The Chronicle of Higher Education in its article about Columbia. Sharon Dunwoody, the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is quoted: “If students want more skills-based training, we refer them to Medill. Or, in the old days, Columbia. There, there’s no bones about it—it’s skills training.”
This distinction between journalism and communication education is fairly new. For a while, the green-eyeshade instructors and the chi-square Ph.D.’s managed to co-exist. The newsroom types taught reporting and writing, and the credentialed faculty taught the history of journalism and similar courses. The programs trained students to work for print and broadcast.
With the explosive growth of the media, the study of communications became an attractive discipline for students and scholars. Journalism no longer defined the area of study. The Association for Education in Journalism renamed itself, becoming the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC), and its journals underwent similar name changes. At one point, an attempt was made to drop the word journalism from the association’s title, but this was short-lived when it was pointed out that much of the organization’s funding came from the newspaper industry.
As the newsroom veterans on the faculty retired, they were replaced by instructors with advanced degrees, some with print and broadcast experience. But experience was not essential; degrees were. A recent newsletter of the AEJMC lists 48 job openings; 27 require the Ph.D., and 12 prefer it. Once hired, the instructor knows that promotion and tenure require research that can be published in refereed journals. Journalistic writing counts little.
A degreed and published faculty helps to keep at bay the suspicious liberal arts faculty and budget-cutting administrators. The former harbors doubts about journalism education as a discipline; the latter is eager to lop off departments whose demise would cause little or no public reaction. Indeed, following Bollinger’s criticism of the Columbia program as too skills-based, his words found enthusiastic support in columns in The Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine.
The deputy features editor at The Wall Street Journal described the Columbia journalism school as a “one-dimensional ‘trade school.’” That epithet, along with “vocational education” and “skills training,” hound journalism educators, some of whom have helped in their own denigration. Their emphasis on technology and technique has crowded out too much substantive content in course work. Endless hours spent with computers and cameras, a fascination with the digital documentary, storytelling and first-person narrative techniques, instruction on how to write a story for multimedia (convergence journalism) come at the expense of instruction in the subject matter of journalism—how the courts work, the sociology of the police department, the clash of service-demanding constituencies with real estate interests in setting the municipal budget, how the property tax discriminates against school children in rural areas and inner- city school districts, the correlation between mortality rates and race and class.
Teaching Craft Through Content
Good journalism programs blend theory with practice, craft with substance. Their faculties realize that before the technology can be utilized and writing techniques applied, the reporter needs to be able to put the statement and the event in some context. Good programs teach the craft through content.
Most programs allow journalism majors to roam through the college catalogue to take courses that please them. The journalism accrediting council used to require three-fourths of the major’s hours to be liberal arts courses. Under pressure to loosen this general requirement, the council now requires 80 hours of general education, 65 of which must be in the liberal arts and sciences. The permissible hours in journalism courses have been increased from 32 to 40.
This is regressive. The direction should be toward a required core curriculum that provides students with the general knowledge that helps the student see the patterns and relationships that underlie events, a set of courses that help the student understand the utility of Irving Kristol’s remark, “A person doesn’t know what he has seen unless he knows what he is looking for.” Such course work provides the background that allows reporters to make useful hypotheses that guide their reporting. As the American philosopher John Dewey put it, “We cannot lay hold of the new, we cannot even keep it on our minds, much less understand it, save by the use of ideas and knowledge we already possess.” Among the required courses possible are a foreign language, U.S. history, a physical and a social science, introduction to philosophy, municipal government, and college mathematics.
The application of background knowledge to a specific situation marks the fully functioning practitioner. This is a skill we count on when we ask our lawyer to draw up a contract, visit the dentist for root canal, or ask the doctor to set a daughter’s ankle broken on the soccer field. It is no less important to the journalist.
I asked a few journalism instructors why their work is so suspect, why it is held in such low esteem, why the instruction in skills in other professional schools is respected but is scorned in journalism programs. “I think some of it has to do with money,” said the head of one program, “and therefore class. There is inherently nothing more noble or more challenging in a career in law than there is in journalism. Yet colleges yearn for law schools. The day that the average reporter in White Plains earns what the average lawyer in White Plains earns, journalism will look a whole lot purer to academia.”
Another said that there is an element of insecurity among journalism instructors “caused by the din of criticism of the media among the professorate. These people dislike their newspapers, hate broadcast news. So how can preparation for such a tawdry enterprise be a legitimate discipline? We live with this every day, and we are put on the defensive.”
But another demurred. He said his students are eagerly sought by instructors in other subjects, that they are welcome as curious, hard-working, and thoughtful. His program demands a B average of applicants for admission.
Some years ago, the Nieman Fellows were asked about journalism education. Hoke M. Harris, editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, said, “The major emphasis should not be, I think, on how to write but on what to write, lest the prospective reporter become an empty flask, all form and no content.” The student with talent, he continued, “doesn’t need to learn how—he needs to learn what.”
Melvin Mencher, a 1953 Nieman Fellow, is professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, where he taught for 28 years. He worked for the United Press and newspapers in New Mexico and California and covered Central America for The Christian Science Monitor. He is the author of the widely used textbook “News Reporting and Writing,” now in its ninth edition.