Why does anyone major in journalism?

See also: Getting a journalism degree, getting a journalism job

See also: All posts in the “Jobs” category

We have college classrooms full of young people who have chosen journalism as their major. One question is: Do they actually intend to pursue journalism? Another question: Is our curriculum preparing them to be journalists in the years ahead of them?

A couple of things I read over the weekend fed into the ideas I’m going to lay out here:

  1. In ‘There is an element of fraud in journalism education,’ says leading professor, a British journalism educator and longtime newspaperman said that a lot of today’s students “have no realistic prospect” of ever becoming journalists. He was not referring only to the shrinking number of journalism jobs — in his opinion, many students are just not sharp enough. He raised a question about the fairness of universities accepting all these students into journalism majors — is it right to admit hundreds of students when their chances of working in journalism are small, and getting smaller?
  2. In Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Integrating Video into the Curriculum, an American educator and photojournalist outlines the kind of struggle familiar to every journalism professor nowadays — how the heck can we adjust the content of our courses to prepare these kids well and properly for journalism work in the future? How many diverse and wide-ranging skills should they be exposed to? How can we balance that with the need to make them competent in at least one or two specific areas? It’s a continuously moving target — Web video, programming languages, Twitter — what to include, what to skim over, what to offer in depth?

So I was slicing these ideas up and rearranging them somewhat (remixing, I guess), and here’s what I came up with:

Lots of students who choose to major in journalism do not intend to become journalists.

This seemingly simple statement has many dimensions. Some journalism majors change their minds in the midst of their undergraduate years, deciding against a career in journalism, but stay in the major and graduate with a journalism degree anyway. Others know at the outset that they don’t want to “do” journalism, but they’re aiming at law school or some other goal, and they see a journalism degree as a steppingstone to that. Some of them think they want to work in journalism, but their youthful idea of what journalism includes does not align with what the curriculum teaches — that is, they have never desired to check facts, investigate public records, attend school board meetings, or interview experts about difficult topics.

However, these students have chosen to major in journalism, and while they are free to change to another major, they choose not to do so. I have to counter Tim Luckhurst’s allegation of university “fraud” with the observation that we can’t force the students to change to a more suitable major, or to choose one in the first place. The same kind of thing certainly goes on in other majors, from physics to fine arts. No one is guaranteed a job or a career in the field they chose for university studies. That is true also at the (post-)graduate level.

What a student learns in a journalism major is useful in many other fields.

I don’t need to belabor this, because someone already wrote a good blog post about it: Dear May 2009 Graduate, Here’s 40 Reasons to Still Study Journalism. The 40 include:

  • “Journalism teaches you to be a writer, and a good one.”
  • “Journalism teaches you how to ask questions, including the tough ones”
  • “You will learn tangible skills.”

That brings us around to the contents of the curriculum.

A graduate with a degree in journalism ought to be competent in certain tasks, practices, skills.

Working journalists and journalism educators all debate (endlessly) which tasks, practices, and skills these should be. But I’d like to offer a simple idea here: The decisions about which ones to teach should never rest on the previous two statements:

  • Lots of students who choose to major in journalism do not intend to become journalists.
  • What a student learns in a journalism major is useful in many other fields.

There is a practice recognized as journalism, and most working journalists and journalism educators can agree on a basic outline of what that is, and what it requires.

If a student decides to stay with a journalism major and graduate with a degree in journalism, then that graduate ought to be competent in the fundamental practices required to be a journalist. It does not matter one bit if the kid says, “But I don’t actually want to be a journalist.” If he or she can’t master the fundamentals of journalism, then he or she should not be given a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Unlike Tim Luckhurst, I do not think universities commit fraud if they admit hundreds of new journalism majors each year. I do believe that a journalism program commits fraud if it hands out journalism degrees to students who can’t write, can’t fact-check properly, or can’t use the necessary tools of journalism in the 21st century.

Students will continue to major in journalism if the j-schools stick to their guns and require competence in the fundamentals. I am arguing that the fundamentals now must include the newer tools that are used to produce journalism products today:

  1. A laptop computer that the journalist maintains and for which the journalist takes responsibility
  2. A digital still camera capable of shooting video that’s usable on the Web
  3. A digital audio recorder capable of high-quality sound for use online
  4. A blog or content management system to which the journalist can upload reports from the field, including audio, photos, and video
  5. Social networks, blogs, RSS, and other means of staying connected to the community and the world
  6. Software applications used for editing audio, photos, video, etc.; also software used for managing projects and information

It’s not appropriate today to say that these tools are somehow specialized or marginal. These are essential tools for doing journalism.

(Note that I’m not saying every student needs to be an expert in using each of these, and also, I’m not saying it’s sufficient to have ONLY basic knowledge. You’ve got to be really good at one or two skills, at least.)

If journalism majors are permitted to graduate without basic competence in the use of these tools, it seems to me that something’s not right. It’s irrelevant whether the graduate intends to work as a journalist. If someone is awarded a journalism degree, that person ought to be capable of doing journalism.

17 Comments on “Why does anyone major in journalism?

  1. Hi Mindy, very thoughtful piece and you raise some execellent points about the new tools current journalism students should be aware of if they’re hoping to embark on a career in the ever-evolving field of journalism.

    However, as a 28-year-old journalism graduate I would strongly dissaude any aspiring journalists from signing up for an bachelor’s degree in journalism.

    From my experience most of my contemporaries who have excelled in journalism did so by studying other subjects like politics, law and even engineering and then went on to do postgraduate training in journalism.

    It does suck a little bit that my teachers at the time didn’t point this out to me when I signed up for the course. Now that jobs are even scarcer, it’s even more important to stress that fact.

    That said I’d recommend any course that teaches aspiring journalists to think entrepreneurially and create their own job instead of signing up for a career at mainstream media organisations faced with so much uncertainty.

  2. Excellent post, well stated! Now, I wonder how we might gauge the quality of college journalism programs based on these criteria? Do you know of any web sites or means for finding the best j-schools that have programs based on the fundamentals and tools you mention?

    I’ve spoken with j-school professors in Minnesota and many express a strong curiosity for what other schools are doing and how. They also express a strong desire to improve their programs to meet these kinds of needs for their students.

  3. Mindy:
    Hey, wonderful piece. It’s a topic I’ve often thought about and I admire your honesty in addressing it…
    In short, the ability to think through an issue and to present facts & context coherently in words (or any media) is going to be invaluable in any serious profession.
    And I would imagine that a working familiarity with the new tools of the digital age would be valued by many employers. (I’d guess that your students today must think entrepreneurially in a way that was not true earlier.)
    A small thing, but I’d add, too, that if anyone asked me, journalism would make an excellent minor for all the reasons you cite.
    It seems to me that measuring the value of a degree calculated solely on potential newspaper employment is a rather narrow one.
    Finally, the issue of a curriculum catching up to a changing profession is applicable, too, to many other majors, I’d imagine.

  4. Hi Mindy, thanks for a great post. I was at the AJE when Tim Luckhurst made these points and there was certainly a rustle of unease in the audience. Most of us there were from “new” universities, the ones more likely to teach journalism as a degree in the UK – and we all recognised the “bums on seats” description. In fact, I think the original point came from an audience member. All of us have experienced that sinking feeling at the beginning of the year when we realise that some of our students are just not equipped to make it in this most competitive of professions. Some people may not consider it fraud to let students start a course when their grades indicate that they will struggle but my colleagues and I certainly do. Unfortunately, our attempts to say this are met with stonewalling from management. You may be interested in my blog from this event and the comments on where we’re going from broadcaster Jon Snow at http://predocsblog.blogspot.com/. I’ve set a link to your blog from mine so if you want to do the same….thanks very much.

  5. Thanks for all the comments, folks!

    Zoe – I don’t know if it makes a big difference if someone does journalism as an undergrad and then some other subject as a grad student (what the Europeans call a post-graduate), vs. the other way around (political science, say, as an undergrad and then journalism as a master’s). At least in North America, if the journalism program has a skills emphasis, these two paths reach the same destination.

    Jeff Achen – Hard to measure the quality because a lot of the schools’ efforts to teach these new skills are very new, and some exist more as intention than actual practice. When I meet other journalism educators and discuss the classes, etc., at their schools, I hear a very wide range of solutions and approaches.

    Tom – I’ll throw out one idea about a journalism minor, and you see what you think about it. The bachelor’s degree is 124 credits, minimum. The student must take at least 80 of those credits OUTSIDE the j-school. That’s meant to ensure a broad-based liberal arts education. A minor — 12 credits vs. 44 — is only four classes. Is it worth diluting our already scarce resources to offer a minor?

    Sara McConnell – Don’t you think a physics professor feels the same way? Students fall away as they reach the more difficult classes. A young person who was the best student in her high school English class discovers that her writing skills are in the lowest 33 percent in her university classes. That’s just real life. Journalism is no different.

  6. Mindy:
    I was only suggesting a minor in the abstract, thinking of a student interested in journalism but electing, maybe, to hedge his/her bets with a a major in another field. I can envision that journalism would combine well with other studies — ie, History, Business, pre-law, English, etc.
    And I’m suppose I’m pushing back on the idea that if there’s not a newspaper job to be had, then journalism has. well, no place in the university.
    The marketplace recognizes the value of communication skills in many places, not just in print newspapers.
    Having said that, your numbers about the number of required courses are persuasive …

  7. I completely agree but what I’m talking about is what happens before students even get to university and find out how difficult the classes are. Every August sees the farce of “clearing” – ie allocating the students who haven’t got the required grades to courses which aren’t full. We always are full and don’t need to go into clearing but we’re expected to “cross subsidise” other courses at the university which haven’t attracted the students and have lower grades, so that students are admitted to the university to do a joint honours degree in Journalism and A. N Other subject. This is what UK universities mean by bums on seats. If you don’t get the students, you don’t get the funds from the government.

  8. I agree that basic competence in the six techy skills you outlined is a pre-requisite to being a credible, modern-day journalist. However, proficiency in all of those skills will also enshrine you with the title of ‘blogger’, and that role need not necessarily have anything to do with journalism.

    I can write an article that becomes very popular on Reddit, and I can flood it onto Twitter and tick all of the other social media boxes. But that alone doesn’t make me a journalist and it doesn’t set my skill-set aside from the millions of other computer-literate ‘writers’ out there.

    For the younger generation technological proficiency should be virtually guaranteed anyhow. I believe journalism courses should teach you the things you can’t just learn sitting at home on your laptop.

  9. riverScrap.com – I certainly agree there is more to teach than those six tech things. But you are mistaken if you think “technological proficiency [is] guaranteed” among young Americans today. We see a large number of them who basically don’t know anything except Facebook, music downloads, and Google. Many of them do not know how to create digital content. And they certainly do not know how to gather clean audio or shoot a usable photo.

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  11. The guidelines about how to teach multimedia and what to include seem very sound, based on my experience teaching Latin American journalism professionals. It´s a moving target, but you´ve provided clear thinking here.

  12. That was very interesting and helpful. I Am interested in journalism (maybe music journalism), but do you think, doing a major in music, and electives like drama, visual arts, literature is helpful? As I read earlier having some knowlege of other areas studied like law, history for instance would go well with it. What about the more creative journalists that venture into the arts areas as jobs, What areas do you think would be key to study and what areas could I get into if I completed a journalism degree?

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  16. Thank you for this article. I am about to be a graduate with a journalism degree, and just like you stated I probably won’t persue a job in the journalism industry. I’ve changed my mind in my last semester, but think it is stupid to not just graduate with a degree. And if I do decide to pursue it I will have to make up my own ways to get published. I hope to write a book one day and maybe even be an english or journalism teacher to younger students. So hopefully my degree in journalism will be useful in other areas.

  17. I agree with your article. As a student majoring in journalism, I do not regret choosing this major. While I may not get a job in journalism, it has provided me with skills I could use in any other job such as how to shoot video, edit audio, take photos and write efficiently. I would like to get a job close to the field, but even though I don’t, it will help me wherever I go. I also agree with Prof. McAdams that the journalism schools are not fraudulent and would only be so if they choose to award students with the degree when they haven’t taught them the basics to be a journalist. Whether or not they get a job in the field, the university did their part.

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