In Defense of Journalism School

I’m getting a little bit tired of articles like this one in Inside Higher Ed today that give voice to the following argument: “Some believe journalism schools are exploiting students by maintaining high enrollment levels despite the contraction of the market for professional journalists — a system that guarantees a large population of out-of-work, debt-addled graduates.”

I know that I’m biased; currently my own livelihood depends on educating journalism students. However, I sleep with a clear conscience every night because I still wholeheartedly believe that journalism is an excellent choice of a major.

Those of us who teach journalism don’t lie to our students about the tough job market or the increasingly diminished likelihood that they will end up in traditional media jobs. If anything, I exhort them constantly to stay abreast of all the changing developments in our field; their cluttered inboxes full of articles I send them are testament to that.

But journalism students are learning skills that I believe translate well to a variety of possible careers, while also giving them the ability to express themselves and explore their own passions in life more fully. I’m sure the average critic of journalism school doesn’t quite grasp that many of our students start college barely literate (I’m not exaggerating) and unable to compose an intelligible sentence, but that’s the state of things today.

Learning to write, think critically about information, be comfortable creating and consuming content in multimedia on the Web, talk to people from many walks of life in a professional manner, verify the accuracy of a statement or statistic, know where to go to get questions answered, use social media creatively and productively, and the like, are simply vital 21st century skills. Not only that, at schools like mine at the University of Memphis, many students from historically underrepresented groups are learning how to speak truth to power and ask tough questions about the status quo.  The Web is a tool that can expand our horizons, and I hope that’s exactly what they are learning to use it for, whether they ever get a job working as a reporter or not.

I was a journalism and conservation biology major in college. I’ve never used the conservation biology major one bit, but I do think that having a strong grounding in the scientific method certainly has enhanced my own career as a social scientist in many ways as well as giving me an appreciation for the intricate workings of the natural world. The point being that majors in school, often selected when students are 18 or 19 years old, are often not directly transferable to one specific job. That doesn’t mean they don’t have value. And I’d say journalism is especially valuable in an era in which our personal and professional lives are increasingly awash in information.

A journalism degree also teaches you to demand information, which has often been correlated to active participation in civic life, and to review it critically and to push for quality. This is good for society, too. If my students never practice one lick of journalism in their lives after they graduate but they retain some appreciation for it and an understanding of why it matters to democracy, then I call it a win. A big win, in fact.

The article also notes that some critics of recent partnerships between journalism schools and local news organizations say this amounts to  essentially stealing professionals jobs by offering free labor.

This strikes me as patently ridiculous. If you truly think that it’s JOURNALISM STUDENTS that are to blame for job loss in the media industry today, I’d say you just really have not been paying one whit of attention to anything that has gone on in the past five to 10 years. The decline and job loss happened well before these partnerships became relatively common. To me, looking at our vastly diminished metro daily that one person recently told me reminded them of a weekly paper in rural northern Canada just based on its small size, journalism students are simply helping in small ways to fill a gap in local coverage while getting a more prestigious byline and a chance to work with professionals. If I really believed that journalism students were stealing food from families by taking away jobs, I’d be against these partnerships too, but I just don’t see any truth to that. Reporters are now spread between multiple beats, and I think we do see some risk of a rise in corruption with less fourth estate oversight of our local institutions.

Also – do they produce work equivalent to experienced professionals? Gee, no kidding, of course not, at least most of the time. Their professors – who are often if not always former journalists – work as their editors, and the professionals in the newsroom do have to sometimes step up to help too.  They are students, so by definition, they are learning, not fully formed. But I think you’d often be surprised by what they can achieve. I know I’m proud of mine.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “In Defense of Journalism School

  1. Thanks for this defense of j-schools. I wrote a very similar post in response to the same article (and am also a j-prof!) I appreciate your explanation of how a journalism degree remains relevant and useful. The question I’m thinking about is whether/how much the curriculum needs to change if we consciously accept that many of our students will not be professional journalists, Or do we carry on knowing that these skills are transferable to other disciplines?
    (See the post at http://www.networkedjournalismeducation.com)

  2. If the Chronicle is really worried about departments creating majors for jobs that don’t exist ….

    … they need to take an EXTREMELY hard look at Ph.D programs, particularly in the humanities.

  3. changingnewsroom

    Donica,

    Fully agree that we have to continue to update the curriculum to reflect these changes. I do see that happening at our school and at others, although the pace is slow and has to be approved at so many bureaucratic levels I sometimes feel like I work in the Kremlin or something.

    Currently we have three separate sequences that basically are set up very specifically to funnel students into very specific jobs, e.g. the “newspaper/magazine” sequence, for which students take traditional print layout in addition to other courses, and “broadcast” where they learn very television-specific skills. However, we are thinking about converging these sequences to a much higher degree to give students a broader mix of highly-transferable skills as well as a little bit more choice in what they might want to focus on.

  4. fev

    Nice work, Brownie.

  5. As a j-school student, this post is encouraging. Thanks Carrie🙂

    I must add that a fair bit of the stuff I’m taught is outdated. I think a lot more about present day journalism should be taught. However, through the course I’ve learnt things off my own back and developed a wide range of skills.

    http://ptbdisorder.wordpress.com

  6. Thanks for this post and for the link to the Higher Ed post. It reminded me of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about graduate programs in humanities, and how they are not prepping students for real jobs.
    I think you bring up a good point that it’s not journalism students, or journalism schools, that are taking away jobs in the industry.
    In terms of the partnerships between schools and local news organizations, I think it’s mutually beneficial: otherwise I think both parties would elect to go their separate ways. The news orgs get help with their reporting (some even pay students stringer fees) and students get badly-needed experience and clips.
    In terms of j-professors and j-programs, as Joseph, the previous commenter says, some programs and professors are not preparing their students. I’ve been working with j-profs and j-schools for 2 years now. Some are really with it, and are passionate about helping their students to learn to write well and to think critically, and they work HARD to introduce new/social media to enhance the storytelling process and I applaud their work. But I’ve met other j-profs who are stuck in their ways: one professor I met told me that he didn’t want our UPI editors giving his students feedback on their work because it might contradict what he was teaching them. I’ve met other professors who are struggling to put their print journalism program in order and so online/convergence/multimedia journalism is way beyond them. It may be that the latter may be that the latter portion of people and programs are dragging down the whole.

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  8. Harumi,

    Thanks for your comment. It makes me want to put my fist through a wall that somebody actually said that they didn’t want feedback from UPI editors cause it might contradict their teachings, and that people were worried about putting their PRINT journalism programs in order. Good grief. Frankly, my advice to students in that situation is get out, NOW, and take your tuition dollars elsewhere. That’s pretty much what I would call the equivalence of malpractice. Gahhh.

    I mean believe me, it’s a struggle. Even getting a simple course changed requires a Kremlin-like process of bureaucratic approvals and any number of obstacles. But to flat out resist making any effort at all? Sheesh.

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  11. Your statement about how well journalism skills translate to many careers is spot on. And if students are learning hacker-journalist skills such as databases, programming languages and web frameworks, then their employment options grow even further.

  12. changingnewsroom

    Thanks, Anthony, and agreed. My husband is of the hacker-journalist type and I definitely think those skills have/are expanded his options in many ways.

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