Rethinking the education of journalists

A lot of j-schools are starting, or in the middle of, curriculum reform. Many of these efforts focus solely on integrating the “new” skills that we use to produce journalism for digital media and devices. I meet and talk with other journalism educators at conferences and conventions, and it seems like just about everyone is in motion.

Pat Thornton suggests we look beyond reforming curriculum. Re-examine the whole idea of wrapping journalism education in a four-year degree program, he says. If most of our courses emphasize hands-on skills, why is this program even in a university? Why not move journalism education to a trade school? (Pat’s not saying we need to do this — he’s just asking the question.)

With the turmoil in the journalism business today, you might ask why any students are majoring in journalism. I can tell you, they have a multitude of reasons, and for many of the students, it’s not that they want to be journalists. Some want to be book editors. Others want to go to law school. Many of them want to write about music or travel. I don’t hear a lot of today’s journalism students saying they want to go out and give a voice to the voiceless, expose corruption, act as a watchdog to keep power in check.

Maybe that’s not so different from how it ever was. As I remember it, when I was a print journalism major in 1979-81, a lot of my classmates wanted to be music critics, columnists, magazine editors. (As for me, I thought I’d like to be a film critic, like Pauline Kael.)

Beyond journalism, beyond school

The years spent at university as an undergrad are not meant to be job training. In North America, at least, those years serve as a transition between who you were as a child and who you will become. That has to do with a lot more than the job you will get after graduation.

So, as Pat notes, it would be great if journalism students took a substantial minor. I’ve noticed that a lot of journalism students take a minor in English, i.e. writing or literature. Another very common minor is sociology. These choices are not very wise — they’re not giving the student a background in an area that complements the journalism training. Political science, or area studies (e.g. the Middle East, or Latin America), or environmental science — those would be smart minors for someone who wants to be a journalist.

Why don’t college students pursue smart minors? I think it’s because most of them don’t know what they want to do. That’s not so strange. They’re 19 or 20 or 21 years old. They’ve had a long, peaceful childhood. Many of them have not traveled outside their own country. Many of them don’t know much about the world outside of school. (I think this explains why so many of them just stay in school, getting a master’s degree in something they also probably won’t end up pursuing as a career.)

Why do you major in anything?

Students complain about what we call the general education requirements. They have to accumulate about 60 credits in a broad variety of courses including history, science, and math; then they move on to 60+ credits in “upper level” courses. The general ed courses fulfill the role that a liberal arts education has always fulfilled (or at least, they’re meant to): completing your education. Put another way, the undergraduate journey is supposed to lead to your becoming an educated person.

Why do many employers want someone with a BA, when a journalism certificate would probably suffice? Most journalism is learned on the job. Wouldn’t it make more sense for perspective journalists to take a one to two year certificate program, while getting more professional experience, instead of spending four years studying journalism?

Pat looks at this the way many Americans do. We’re a practical, down-to-earth people. We say, “Why do I have to take all those stupid courses about economics and statistics and philosophy and blah blah blah when I will not need to use any of that stuff in my JOB?” Students do anything they can to expend the least possible effort in courses they do not consider relevant.

What’s rather funny (or maybe tragic) is that some students don’t consider any of their courses to be relevant to anything. They view the university experience as a task to be completed, and that is, at the end you get a bachelor’s degree, which is the whole point for them.

The trade school alternative

A certificate program — completed in two years, or even less — could produce a person who could apply AP style and write a lede and take a decent photo, etc., etc. It wouldn’t produce an educated person.

(I do sometimes wonder whether the university system is producing many educated people nowadays.)

I think the news organizations started requiring a four-year university degree because journalism changed as the world changed. It’s McLuhan’s global village now, and it’s not sufficient to go into journalism with a high school education. On-the-job training (as if there were anyone in today’s newsrooms who would or could train the new kid) is not going to suffice, because today’s journalist actually does need to be well educated.

I would argue against the trade school suggestion. I’m in the crowd that considers journalism a profession (even though we don’t have certification programs or licenses in the United States).

The role of a master’s degree

Pat suggests that a journalist might be better off to MAJOR in an area such as science and MINOR in journalism. I’ll argue that a minor is typically 12 credits, or four 15-week courses, and most students wouldn’t be fit to work in a newsroom after only four courses.

A good alternative might be a professional journalism master’s degree, lasting three or four semesters. This is what Medill is doing with its program to train computer programmers to work as journalists. Take a person who has completed an undergraduate education in a subject area unrelated to journalism and then train him or her to be a journalist. That addresses a number of the issues Pat brought up.

The University of California, Berkeley, has a graduate-only journalism school. There are no undergrads majoring in journalism there.

To me, this makes a lot more sense than the trade school idea. But would anyone suggest that we close down the undergraduate journalism programs? Eliminate them?

Undergraduate education

I would not, and here’s why: All the students who go through a four-year journalism program and earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism have, at the very least, a good idea of how journalism works, when it fails, and when it reaches noble heights.

If they come out and never, ever take a single job in journalism, they will retain that knowledge.

There are a lot of undergraduate majors that don’t qualify you for a job — they qualify you for a graduate program. Plenty of students graduate from one of those majors and decide they don’t want to continue on in that field — medicine, sociology, economics, fine arts, whatever. Some of them pursue something else in grad school, but some get jobs in other fields, e.g. retail. Or even journalism.

Your undergraduate years are preparing you for life, for future decisions, which include choices about a career. It’s okay if you get a journalism degree and don’t become a journalist, just as it’s okay if you get a sociology degree and don’t become a social worker. (The difference there is, you’d need to go on to grad school to become a social worker.)

As for how well educated you are on completion of a bachelor’s degree in journalism — well, I’d say that has always depended as much on the student as on the faculty and the courses.

24 Comments on “Rethinking the education of journalists

  1. Pingback: O ensino do jornalismo : Ponto Media

  2. I think the argument of a college vs a trade school always boils down to this:

    At a college, we teach heads and hands. A trade school only teaches hands.

  3. I’ve actually found good use for that pesky statistics class from undergrad. Same with sociology, which is pretty darn applicable in journalism.

    A broad-based liberal education serves journalists well, as any good journalist should be naturally curious and be able to learn new things quickly.

    One of my gripes with high school and college education is that neither seems to teach problem-solving and thinking skills very well.

  4. @Dan Sinker – Good nugget, man. I forgot to mention that I think all the best journalism programs require a full-semester course on media law and (in the U.S.) the First Amendment, and also, a separate full-semester course on journalism ethics. These are practical without being at all hands-on.

    When I was an undergrad, I thought both of these courses were among the hardest I took in the whole four years — but they were both among the five or six most valuable courses I took.

    In newsrooms where I worked over the years, the near-fatal legal and ethical errors I saw my non-journalism-educated colleagues make, or almost make, continually reminded me that getting a journalism degree, in my case, had prepared me well for a career in journalism.

  5. The focus on hands-on education misses the point of what helped get us to the place we’re in now as an industry. It wasn’t that journalists weren’t talented and skillful. It was that they weren’t imaginative (hence why we see 15,000 journalists at the Democratic Convention). You ask journalists why they do something a certain way, and they’re likely invoke history that for all intensive purposes started with Gutenberg and ended with the Founding Fathers. Hands on training is important, but shouldn’t be the back bone of a journalism education. Theory, research methods and heavy data analysis — tools that help journalists better understand their audiences and make smart decisions based on readers actual habits — need to play a bigger role, as do classes with an entrepreneurial spirit, which will help enliven students creativity and help them be industry leaders (and discover a wealth of existing research that will give them a much deeper knowledge of how to confront the problems facing journalism). And of course, students need to be encourage to develop their intellect and their scholarly passions through liberal arts courses. Is English not a good minor of a journalist? If that’s what they’re passionate about, they should be encourage to throw themselves into it. The most rewarding intellectual experience I had, which honed my research, writing and editing skills far beyond any journalism class I took as a master’s student, was writing an undergraduate honors thesis on mixed-race identities in gay and lesbian Mexican-American literature. If we continue on an anti-intellectual approach, we’ll continue to train unimaginative newsroom leaders who will lead our industry to its death (and likely put it on YouTube for all to see).

  6. This issue is constantly debated among educators, journalists and my current group of peers — the students in j-school.

    We see the changes in the media, then we see what we need and want to know and then we look at our classes and feel underwhelmed (more of a personal opinion).

    I find that some of the classes I’ve taken outside of journalism have some of the most practical application. Classes like geography, environmental science, political science, foreign language … these classes inspire me to work toward being a better journalist.

    I’ve taken a different path toward journalism, originally following science and engineering coupled with communication. To make a long and boring story short, I needed the communication concentration as part of my engineering coursework.

    So why can’t we do the opposite with journalism education?

    J-schools and four-year programs can add an extra requirement to their journalism programs. There should be a requirement, be it a minor, a concentration or a second major outside of communications.

    Why is this important? To provide a well-rounded and educated person that is necessary to be a “professional” journalist.

    These concentrations can give the prospective journalists the opportunity to find a niche they would like to report on. Essentially the second educational aspect is the proposed “beat” the journalist is looking for.

    Who would you hire for a city/state government reporting position? A journalism graduate with technical skills and reporting chops? Or the same candidate with an extra piece of education about political science?

    It seems obvious to me.

  7. @Jared – In the j-school where I teach, we do require an “outside concentration.” But we don’t mandate what it may be. Many students take English as their outside concentration. This does not make them more well rounded, in my opinion. Some take business administration, but I’m not sure if they get something useful out of that.

  8. Here in New Zealand we have a two tier system of journalism education (slash) training.
    There are only three journalism courses in university settings, usually as part of a three year undergraduate degree or one year postgraduate program.
    The other eight providers are Polytechs (based on the English model). They offer a one year National Diploma which is moderated to standards set by an industry-controlled body the Journalists Training Organisation. []
    I think that a degree is much better for some of the reasons already outlined in this thread. But I don’t think we’ve got the mix right yet. I would like our degree here at AUT University to be liberal arts based, rather than focus on communication studies. I would like my journalism majors to do a second major in business, or sociology, literature, sports and health science, engineering or languages (the other disciplines we offer).
    My reasoning is that journalists need to have at least one “content area” that they can focus on when they leave, to develop some beat expertise.
    But, they also need some background in media studies, or at least journalism history, politics and sociology.
    We’re grappling with these changes daily and currently re-assessing our curriculum to make it better in two ways:
    1. more digital, less (no) analogue
    2. a broader educational experience

    I think the trade school idea is close to our Polytech system, I don’t advocate that as being in the best interests of the students or of journalism.
    As we face the crisis of public confidence and trust that so many of us are aware of, researching and writing about; we need more intellectual grunt in our journalism programs, not less.

  9. Pingback: Journalism - do we need training, education, or scholarship « Ethical Martini

  10. The New Zealand system sounds similar to what the Canadian system used to be. (Not very surprising.) The Canadians used to segregate the practical programs, such as nursing and journalism, in what they called colleges, not universities. There was a clear intellectual stratification between the two.

    I had already completed a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree at a U.S. university, majoring in journalism, and I was very skeptical when I learned about the Canadian system. I remember thinking they were treating journalism as if it were, say, welding or cabinet-making.

    That’s precisely the argument against taking a trade school approach to journalism education, in my opinion. You don’t need to know about the world in order to be a good welder. You sure do need to know about the world if you are to become a good journalist.

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  12. At the heart of your argument, which I generally support in principle, is that a liberal education is a good base from which good journalists can emerge — that the well educated and well rounded student with some outside specialties will produce better journalism.

    However, it seems to me that one of the results of the industry changes underway is that the market for good, thoughtful, journalism with perspective is quickly disapearing. Fast and cheap appears much more important than thoughtful.

    Is there any space in the current news cycle for a liberally educated journalist to bring that liberal education to bear when they may be sent out to capture the audio, video, and stills, make prelim edits and write something insightful?

    In the current environment, a trade-school educated journalist might be more functional than the university educated one. Whether that is desireable is another story.

  13. I come from the “other” side in NZ journalism training to that espoused by Martin Hirst (Ethical Martini), who is head of our largest journalism school, Auckland University of Technology.
    I head the second-largest.
    I did his job for eight years, helped set up at AUT the first NZ undergraduate and masters degrees with journalism.
    After 22 years in journalism and 20 in teaching it, I’m back where I think it works best – the polytech (trades) level Martin disparages.
    It works best, in my opinion, for the following reasons:
    1) The university-based degrees in NZ are too bound up with timetable constraints to respond to the rapid changes taking place in journalism and the media. Our programme can suspend formal classes for a week if we like to monitor, analyse and critique immediate news media developments and current affairs, such as the last Gulf War, 9/11, whatever. We can run special weeks on special topics, such as our “death week” during which our students learn about reporting trauma. Martin can’t often do that – because it doesn’t fit the overall timetable his programmes must adhere to.
    There was a classic illustration of the failure of his approach just this week. We in NZ have been hosting Columbia’s associate dean Arlene Morgan for sessions on reporting race and ethnicity (she is one of the world’s authoriries on this), and when she went to our kind of school in Hamilton and Wellington her sessions were packed out. At AUT – which has 500 students on its degree and 70 in journalism, just SEVEN showed up to her session. It didn’t involve assessment, so nobody bothered.
    2) We have much smaller classes, much closer one-to-one tutoring, much more flexible approaches to news gathering and writing. For us, the learning experience is a one-year journey during which tutors and students form a close professional relationship. Take a look at our news website ( ) and compare it with AUT’s, and you’ll see what I’m driving at.
    3) Many of our students already have a degree, so the education background Martin talks about is already with them. Our students range in age from 17 to 57, which makes for an effective dynamic in peer learning. Martin doesn’t get that. Almost all of his degree students are 18 to 20, while most of his graduate diploma students are recent graduates. When I taught there, most were from the upper two socio-economic groups – those from the “other side” of NZ society didn’t get a look in. They all looked the same in the lift each morning and afternoon when we arrived and departed. They were bright, but lacked life experience.
    NZ has a vibrant, multi-cultural society, but you don’t see that at schools like Martin’s. There are a few representatives of ethnic minorities – thank goodness, since they were the seven who turned out to hear Arlene Morgan.
    I believe there is room for both approaches in NZ, and I know from experience that our news media industry believes that, as well.
    Martin’s background is in Australia, where the 20-odd journalism schools are almost all embedded in universities. The Australian media industry has a jaundiced view of the product of this system.
    Martin has yet to learn that we in NZ have an excellent record in educating our journalists, a system that is closely connected to the industry which employs the graduates.

  14. Pingback: Our Marty disses NZ’s journalism education to the rest of the world « Tuckr

  15. @Jim Tucker – one point that resonates deeply for me is the notion that people from a lower socio-economic background have a better chance of getting into (and finishing) a trade-school type of journalism program. I believe it’s harmful to a society to have too few journalists from the lower and middle classes (I assume the reasons are obvious). If we could get more kids from poorer families to become journalists by opening up journalism trade schools, then I’m all for it.

  16. Hi,

    I am one Martin’s students at AUT. I think things may have changed since Jim taught here. As a graduate diploma student I probably fit Jim’s assessment, but many of the other students don’t. AUT’s current crop is diverse in age, ethnicity and experience. Sure, many of us are middle class white kids from the North Shore of Auckland, but many have travelled to AUT from various different centres around the country. Although a lot of us are in our early twenties, there are many mature students in both courses. Some students have already had incredible experiences of travelling and working abroad and some have worked in the industry prior to coming to AUT, including the BBC, Radio NZ or TVNZ. There are talented individuals here from every corner of the globe. AUT is certainly not as homogenous as Jim says. In fact as a middle class white male I am in the minority in both courses!

    AUT may well have larger classes, but we still get quality time with the lecturers and tutors. The experience Jim describes is certainly not exclusive to Whitireia. Many of the staff go out of their way to help students and I’d be surprised if anyone felt neglected.

    Being a graduate diploma student I agree it is beneficial to have already obtained a degree (particularly in NZ history and sociology!) before studying journalism. Journalism is about telling stories and informing the public so you cannot tell people what is happening now if you don’t know what has happened in the past, or why it happened.

    However, some students have no interest in news reporting, so I can understand when they are turned off when the focus turns to politics, for example. Perhaps then the ideal model would have students undertake a degree in their field of interest, be it politics, fashion or whatever, and then complete a diploma in journalism, which has an emphasis on media issues, ethics and practical skills.


    Paul Harper

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  19. It’s a good point that college (or University) teaches heads as well as hands- but as a Journalism graduate from the University of Lincoln (UK) I think the focus on teaching heads is sometimes too strong. We learnt about cultural diversity, we learnt about ethical issues in journalism and we even learnt about the history of journalism. But really learning how to be a journalist, how to gather news stories and how to interview people- I learnt that mostly from doing work experience outside of my course.

  20. Well said, Katie. I think many people would agree with you, and I would too. What I learned about how to BE a journalist was all learned in newsrooms.

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