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.