Posted on June 22, 2009
Why does anyone major in journalism?
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:
- 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?
- 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:
- A laptop computer that the journalist maintains and for which the journalist takes responsibility
- A digital still camera capable of shooting video that’s usable on the Web
- A digital audio recorder capable of high-quality sound for use online
- A blog or content management system to which the journalist can upload reports from the field, including audio, photos, and video
- Social networks, blogs, RSS, and other means of staying connected to the community and the world
- 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.