Why Professors Value Journalism Degrees More Than Professionals (Beyond the Obvious)

I’m all for disrupting  higher education. I think open-enrollment online programs and “digital badges” to recognize the development of certain skill sets are a great idea, as Howard Finberg of Poynter writes, and I was doing a fist pump in agreement over the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton’s piece deriding the “symphony of slowness” in journalism education. By all means, let us escape from the bureaucratic, risk and change-adverse academic climate to one that welcomes innovation and can help us lead in building the future of journalism.


There’s a reason, beyond the obvious one of self-preservation, that 96 percent of journalism academics said that a degree was “very to extremely important” to learning skills, according to Finberg’s survey, compared to just 59 percent of professionals.

This reason is that many students are coming to college woefully lacking in basic reading/writing and digital skills. A significant amount of what my colleagues and I do as college professors is essentially remedial. SHOULD this be the case? Hell no. But it is. CAN students learn these journalism skills on the job or through their own initiative using online resources? Sure. But in my experience,  very few employers have the ability or desire to do the kind of time-intensive remedial training I’m forced to do in my classroom; they complain about the students we do send them because sometimes we are unable to completely make up for the deficiencies they come in with. And very few students, especially between the ages of 18 and 22, have the kind of self-motivation to push themselves through an online program with no carrot in the form of a formal credential and no accountability in the form of tuition. Each semester, I fail at least one quarter of my undergraduate journalism classes because they simply do not do the work, and that’s in a face-to-face class they are paying for.

Ultimately, this is a problem with our nation’s struggling primary and secondary education systems and the lack of parental and social and financial support for education that many communities face. I honestly believe it is a crisis that will ultimately erode our democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry, as well as our economic competitiveness.

I love my students dearly and care passionately about teaching, so forgive me if I sound down on them. And certainly this does not apply to all of them. But I think we need to have an honest conversation about the state of education today, or nothing will change.

The kinds of people who become journalists at elite institutions are often smart and self-motivated, and it’s hard to conceive of a 19-year-old who has difficulty writing an intelligible sentence or a so-called “digital native” who doesn’t know how to copy and paste a link (I have many of the latter). Trust me, I have trouble believing it myself. And I’m sure the best journalism schools have far fewer struggling students, but they also pull from a far-less diverse population of more wealthy students, too.

If we were to eliminate journalism degrees, what you would see is even more newsroom jobs going to a more homogeneous group of people from upper-class family backgrounds. You would also see a decline in the kind of news literacy we need to ensure future demand for good journalism, as yes, many students with a journalism degree go on to other non-news jobs. By all means, embrace online delivery and open education. I just think it’s a little naive to think that we are ready to eliminate the degree.




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10 responses to “Why Professors Value Journalism Degrees More Than Professionals (Beyond the Obvious)

  1. David Brazeal

    This seems like a case for rolling a few journalism classes into an English or communications degree. I agree we want literate people engaging in journalism, but I think that will happen whether we lose the journalism degree or not.

  2. Having spent four long years attending university – a public institution but the only one offering a credible course within my region – and coming out absolutely disgusted with the level of education and the course structure – here is how i think some of the skill factors ought to be sorted out

    1. Journalism, like other fields needs to be a little selective in letting people in – an entry test which gauges cognition and language proficiency and i guess rudimentary computer/internet/mobile skills to be able to enter the course!

    2. Foundation year must focus on relearning and enhancing the skill sets of these students!

    2. sophomore year must focus on equipping students with additional skills which they will use in the field – along with a healthy dose of ethics!

    3. Senior year: students must start playing different roles in a University newspaper, channel, website so that they can implement their skills in a practical yet safe-learning oriented environment!

    At the same time – they must also be encouraged to set their own mini journalism projects into practice – set up blogs, start podcasts, shoot videos/documentaries!

    4. begin more serious stuff – researching trends, bettering systems, team management, company management, laws, more ethics (can’t stress this enough) etc etc!

    Awaiting feedback!!

    • changingnewsroom

      Yes…I think that overall that’s a pretty good general outline of what a curriculum should look like. The devil tends to be in the details in terms of exactly how you design it and what you require.

      Most journalism schools like mine DO have an English proficiency test that students must pass before entering the program. I shudder to imagine the skill levels of students that do NOT pass that test, because it is not extremely difficult to pass. One could make the test more stringent, but this is problematic for a couple of reasons. One is that state funding is increasingly tied to the number of students enrolled/graduated, so there is tremendous survival incentive to admit more students and keep them around – this is getting worse, not better. Two is that I think these problems are so widespread and deep that you would really see your pool of students shrink – this is a pretty significant and major issue. Personally, I believe these students are plenty smart and can learn and that the problem is one of preparation or more importantly, motivation.

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  6. Bill Sutley

    Editors see the journalism degree as less-essential simply because they’ve worked with some very good journalists who somehow slipped into the industry with another degree — most often English or history. And they’ve also worked with great journalists who didn’t finish *any* degree. But these are still the exception rather than the norm; the trait they share is that of being a “quick study,” learning AP style and journalistic writing conventions on the fly rather than in the classroom. At some point, much of journalism boils down to critical thinking skills, and I think it’s disingenuous to think our journalism profs have cornered the market in this area. I’ve known some history and political science majors with a strong b.s. detector, borne of skepticism that’s part of those fields.

    All this said, I believe most editors (which I’ve done) and other journalism bosses have little time, especially in today’s media landscape, to deal with all but the most gifted non-journalism majors. The challenges for journalism professors (which I’ve also done) are to develop a more sophisticated, technology-savvy critical thinker, armed with superior language skills and clarity of thought, as well as an awareness of other multimedia tools they can also deploy (or seek help with) in appropriate situations.

    • changingnewsroom

      I’d agree that we certainly haven’t cornered the market on teaching writing and critical thinking, and I highly recommend that journalism students double major for that reason. And there are absolutely examples of folks without journalism degrees or any college degree who can learn journalism on the job – but as you say, that may be more of an exception than a rule. I also fundamentally believe that a journalism degree can have value even for students that never work in traditional media jobs at all.

  7. A couple of years ago I was stunned to see a recent j-school grad who didn’t know how to hook a digital camera to a laptop. So much for digital native

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