The quandary of journalism education

One of the biggest complaints I had in the latter stages of my career as a TV news director was that the young people coming out of the country’s J‑schools knew a lot about journalism but little about life. At core, I’ve always believed that a journalist is an observer of life, and that has little to do with the mechanics of the trade. Hence, most of these young people knew how to “be on camera” but couldn’t name their own congressman, much less “find” a story or tell me what made some things important and others not.

This made no sense to me.

Ray Boyer of the MacArthur Foundation noted at the journalism “think tank” last week at Ball State University that journalism education is reaching the point of MBA programs in terms of student expectation upon entry. To paraphrase Ray, students used to come to J‑school for a degree in journalism, but now they’re coming in expecting a job. The question to me is who’s creating that expectation?

I’ve heard the lament about the quality of those entering the field many times from news managers, both in broadcast and in print, so I was happy to hear people talk about it in Muncie. During the Friday afternoon session, we broke off into smaller groups to discuss ways journalism could better serve communities. This was designed to bring us around to the types of things we need to be teaching in our schools (something I’m not sure it accomplished). There were two themes that I heard that were encouraging.

One, nobody mentioned the mechanics of journalism, other than to say that technology was changing things. There were a lot of ideas, however, about things journalists need to be taught, including how faith helps define “community” and how the sub-cultures of America really live. This was encouraging.

Secondly, several people mentioned that we ought to drop the distinction between print, broadcast and new media journalism, and instead, just offer journalism all by itself. This flows from the first observation, because by reducing the instruction on the mechanics of the trade, it might help better prepare people for the job of observing life.

I’ve now had the opportunity to participate in blogger meet-ups in two cities, and one thing I always come away with is amazement at the quality of people “out there” doing the blogging thing. Bright, articulate, filled with passion, and curious about life — just the kind of person you’d like to have in your newsroom. Few have been through J‑schools, however, and perhaps that’s a good thing. And it helps explain — at an intuitive level — why people are increasingly drawn to the views and observations of the blogosphere.

This idea about transforming journalism education is vastly more important than you might think. It could be we’ve been educating the life right out of our students. Journalism isn’t an élite, big-bucks profession, folks; it’s a trade, the tools of which are becoming increasingly simple and easy-to-use. A trade requires an apprenticeship, not a degree, and journalism badly needs people with a passion for life and how things work.

The elitism supported by institutional America is what’s being challenged these days, and I was honored to be a part of a discussion about it in the middle of a great campus. If there’s one thing institutions “get,” it is self-preservation, and in today’s bottom-up world, that means challenging the basic assumptions that anchor us to the fruit of our modernist culture. Whether universities can do this is problematic, but there really is no better place to start.

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