6 Proposals for Journalism Education Today

I’ve spent a huge amount of time this year thinking about and working on journalism curriculum. From developing and teaching a four-week program to train journalism educators in Africa in the practice of online journalism, to helping with a major overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum in my own department, to my current preparations to teach journalism at a university in Indonesia, I have been thinking a lot about what students need to learn today.

Here are six proposals in three distinct areas of journalism that are increasingly important today.

Data Journalism

My colleague Ron Rodgers sent me this post from the Guardian, and it has great value in its brevity and directness: Data journalism at the Guardian: What is it and how do we do it? It addresses 10 big themes that a journalism educator could build a whole course around, but you can read the whole post in about 10 minutes.

In contrast, a paper produced last August as the outcome of a conference in Europe about data-driven journalism is quite long — 78 pages. The paper, Data-driven journalism: What is there to learn?, provides many details in a very well organized format, and it includes lots of links to examples and tools (free tools!).

Moreover, there’s a new book to help us teach students about data! The video below explains it.

Proposals: (1) A journalism degree program should ensure that all students are introduced to basic data journalism, using current examples and demonstrating how to apply concepts. (2) A journalism degree program should offer at least one 3-credit elective course that focuses exclusively on data journalism.

Social Media and Participation

Just about everyone who teaches journalism is trying to figure out how to integrate social media into the mix. We all know that young people are already active users of social media — but that doesn’t mean they understand how to use those media ethically and effectively to do journalism.

Did you know that journalists in Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English newsrooms have had intensive social-media training? Read about it here. The same article discusses how social media links drive traffic to news websites.

As well as getting involved (if they choose) in newsgathering, verification and curation of news, readers and viewers have also become part of the news-distribution system as they share and recommend items of interest via e-mail and social networks. [source]

The phrase participatory journalism is not precisely defined, but I take it to mean that the audience participates in setting the agenda for news. This requires that journalists make themselves open to listening more, and listening to more sources (not only official ones), as well as making a commitment to go beyond superficial (and sometimes denigrating) man-on-the-street interviews.

Another important term is crowdsourcing. This is one kind of audience participation in gathering news — but not the only kind. This BBC story provides a good overview of crowdsourcing, and this article from the scholarly journal Journalism Practice discusses some excellent examples.

Proposals: (3) All journalism students need to learn how to use social media for specific journalistic goals. Assignments should focus on distinct uses such as identifying experts, crowdsourcing, and crisis mapping. (4) In any journalism program, the instructors must work together to eliminate unnecessary repetition in the program — for example, two or more required courses might have almost identical Twitter assignments or blogging assignments. This is a particular danger because it’s easy to integrate social media into almost any course — but redundancy risks trivializing the experience for students.


This is not just a matter of design (as in “page layout and design”), and it should never be a mere afterthought in the production of news materials. A wonderful post by designer Andy Rutledge illustrates better than anything else I have seen why news websites — and many news applications for mobile devices — are more likely to repel readers than to attract them.

Sometimes I think the students who choose to major in journalism came to us through a time machine from a place where people still read text that is printed on paper. What’s especially strange is that most of these students do not themselves read any text on paper — but they imagine that someone will give them a job where they will spend all their time writing text, text, text that will not interact with any other media.

In the early days of print newspapers, pictures were added to help attract people who would buy the product and read the text. Formats and font sizes (among other things) make journalism more appealing. When the product is appealing, it does not drive people away.

Unfortunately, many online and digital news products since the mid 1990s have been doing just that — driving people away. Why was this permitted? Why didn’t the entire newsroom stand up and protest that the website was hideous, slow, impossible to read, horrible, offputting, unusable? They didn’t do it because it wasn’t their job — the way their stories looked was of no concern to them. As the readers abandoned them, the journalists continued to be silent and even ignorant about the destructive effects of bad digital design.

Educators could use this book, for example, and assign students to evaluate news web pages according to its principles: Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?

Proposals: (5) Every journalism program needs a required course in visual design. (6) A journalism course in visual design must educate students in the principles that make an image, a frame, a page, and a screen appealing — or offputting. The course does not need to produce skilled designers; rather, it should produce journalists who recognize when a presentation of news or journalism is effective, and when it is confusing, difficult, and fails.

10 Comments on “6 Proposals for Journalism Education Today

  1. Thanks for this, Mindy. Good ideas, as always, for those of us who teach journalism and work to improve and update curricula.

    I am most intrigued by your fourth proposal and the suggestion that when many instructors try to incorporate simple social media exercises in their courses, which so many want to do these days, they risk trivializing the experience for students by making it redundant. I see that happening but have not figured out what to do about it. Your post helps explain why it’s a problem. Co-ordination among faculty can help, but when so many professional courses are taught by contract instructors, co-ordination is difficult, if not impossible.

    And, of course, your list raises the old question of what to drop to make way for these new ideas. If we can’t add to the number of credits students must take, we always have to drop something to make way for new courses. In my experience that’s often where the discussion stalls and why change is slow.

    Thanks as always,
    Mary McGuire

  2. Mary, you’re right — it is very hard to figure out where to fit it all in. I have been very inspired by two of my colleagues who teach the traditional news editing course (which is required of all journalism majors) — they have incorporated Twitter, blogs, Google Maps, and all kinds of new digital stuff into that course.

    I think one possible way to address the redundancy is to have either brown-bag lunches or faculty meetings that address specific topics, such as “How are you using Twitter and/or blogs in your classes?”

    Someone must take good notes during the meeting, and all adjuncts or sessionals must be required to read those notes. It’s probably the department chair’s job to ensure that the adjuncts or sessionals know what they are supposed to cover (and not cover) in the classes they teach.

    It is more important than ever today for someone (if not the department chair) to be responsible for quality control over the content of courses taught by adjuncts. This matter of endless repetition really makes the students angry — and I don’t blame them.

  3. Mindy,

    Thank you for a timely and relevant post.

    I’m looking at this from myriad angles: I’m a newspaper design editor who received a traditional J-school education 23 years ago from UNC. I also completed a Certificate in Technology and Communication from Chapel Hill and am enrolled in the new master’s program that expands on the certificate. Additionally, I will be an adjunct teaching newspaper design at UNC this fall.

    The Technology and Communication curriculum is much more focused on the data, social media and presentation aspects you have outlined. I don’t think it would be a very big leap to incorporate these courses into an undergraduate program. Or, as you suggest, integrate them into the practice of journalism in all courses.

    I must commend the faculty in the UNC certificate program for “getting it.” For course descriptions: http://jomc.unc.edu/Certificate-in-Technology-and-Communication/Certificate-Course-Descriptions-2

  4. These are some great ideas. Having taught as an adjunct at a few places, I know firsthand that there is often little (if any) emphasis on quality control across courses taught by adjuncts. While I know that in my case this was often the bi-product of the department head being stretched too thin, it was frustrating to feel like I didn’t have the tools I needed to do the best possible job. Perhaps even more frustrating was the perceived notion that no one cared. Most adjuncts want to be a good resource for their students but are not brought into the departmental loop enough to make that happen.

    In addition to the brown-bag lunch idea regarding use of social media, perhaps a TA or an RA could be responsible for gathering copies of social media assignments across courses and making a digital reference library that could be added to over time. Seems like that could benefit everyone.

    Many thanks for the great ideas.
    Megan Fromm

  5. Teresa – That certificate program at UNC looks excellent. Also, I know they have first-rate faculty there. Thanks for posting the link.

    However, it can be hard to integrate these things into the undergraduate curriculum for a myriad of reasons. One is bureaucracy. Another is just fitting it in, both in terms of finding enough qualified teachers and rearranging the existing classes and who teaches what.

    That’s no excuse, but unfortunately it’s not as easy as saying, “Let’s change it now!” 🙂

  6. Megan Fromm – Thanks for adding the perspective of an adjunct professor. I think students often have wonderful classroom experiences with adjuncts teaching journalism — but I have sat in on some meetings at other J-schools where I heard the adjuncts voice the same concerns you mentioned. It’s not easy for them to attend meetings (even if they were invited, which usually they are not). But the lack of interaction with the rest of the faculty leaves them in a vacuum, and sometimes they don’t even know the real purpose of the course they are teaching or how it is meant to fit into the overall curriculum.

  7. Here’s an idea: teach wannabe journalists how to interview, write and report objectively rather than with agenda-driven biases, which plague so much of the schlock that passes for newspapering these days. Whatever happened to the Fourth Estate?

  8. Pingback: Believe in the digital journalists | Curious on the Road

  9. Hi Mindy,

    I think that your proposals are Good Ethical Guidelines. It has been good to read you, a pleasure and a greeting. Bye

  10. Pingback: Is this thing on? « the Kat's meow

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.