Journalism curriculum, and the hands-in-the-air approach

Photo by Andy Hares on Flickr

It’s hard work making sure a journalism curriculum remains relevant.

Here are “four essential components to the new curriculum for teaching news and communication,” according to Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute and co-author of The Elements of Journalism (2001):

  1. “Teaching of technical skills (how to use different platforms and technology). …”
  2. “Journalistic responsibility (including history, values, ethics, community, material that always made journalists better). …”
  3. “Understanding of business (how to understand audience metrics, revenue, entrepreneurship). …”
  4. “The intellectual discipline of verification … a more conscious, disciplined and clinical approach to what we once called knowing how to report, think and write …”

I think every j-school in North America (including the one where I teach), and probably the world, falls short. We need to ask ourselves why.

One suggestion, which Rosenstiel and others have made, is to partner up with other departments in the university — such as computer science. Some j-schools have done this in one way or another, but it’s not going to work (or work well) in every college and university. Some schools don’t have a computer science department. Some computer science departments will not allow non-majors into their courses. There are computer science departments that have no courses relevant to data-driven journalism or journalism code.

When it comes to hiring new faculty, or adjuncts, to teach the skills on Rosenstiel’s list, we run into other stumbling blocks. In small college towns, the adjunct pool may be limited — and lacking in 21st century skills even more so than the tenured faculty. In colleges and universities all around this continent, budgets have been cut and teaching positions eliminated. New hires on the tenure track are increasingly required (by the top levels of the university) to have a Ph.D., which limits who may be hired.

A common response to all of this is for professors, adjuncts, deans and chairs to throw up their hands and say, “Well, what can we do?”

The clichéd deafening silence often follows the question.

Students deserve better. Regardless of what they think journalism is when they tick the box to become a journalism major (and regardless of whether they’re paying Ivy League prices or in-state tuition at a public university), they deserve to be taught skills, techniques, and ways of thinking that will carry them through the challenging times at hand and ahead. They deserve to have every teacher — tenured, adjunct or freshly pressed Ph.D. — looking at what’s new, what’s happening today, now (what happened in and around Boston last week, for example, as seen in the mainstream news and in social media) and incorporating new methods for reporting, for storytelling, and for engaging the audience into all of their classes.

Don’t forget Rosenstiel’s item No. 3. It’s not about business journalism — it’s about the business of journalism. When students are thinking about getting a salaried job at a major media organization, they’re thinking old school. Many of them need to be pushed to open their eyes and see what’s in front of us now. It’s our job — their journalism teachers’ job — to push them.

6 Comments on “Journalism curriculum, and the hands-in-the-air approach

  1. Rosensteil’s four elements that are integrated into RU’s ‘new media’ course – a fourth year specialisation with only nine students. This represents only ten percent of our graduates. The important thing of course, is that the other four aspects should be mainstreamed in whatever specialisation (audio visual, audio, communication design, etc) is practiced. Capacity and political will appears to be an issue. Additionally, institutions also face the pressure of churning out more post-graduate graduates which leads to a skewing in the employment of staff who have a record of ‘new media’ research but who don’t have the scope of vision (see the four elements) required to prepare students for the contemporary forms of experimental and reflective media practices expected from the communications and cultural industries.

  2. Even with the availability of capable faculty and instructors, many if not most j-schools don’t see the need to extend those new skill courses to non-journalism majors. For instance, I see that at University of Florida, Multimedia Reporting is required for journalism and PR majors, but not for advertising and telecommunication majors.

    In a recent post surveying a dozen journalism/communication colleges/schools, I found University of Oregon J-School to be the only school that has multimedia journalism courses as school common core courses, i.e., required for all majors – advertising, comm studies, journalism, public relations.

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