The j-school debate

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By suspending the selection of a new dean for its Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University has reopened a long-simmering debate.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger is saying the school's traditional emphasis on teaching the craft of journalism needs to be balanced with courses full of intellectual and theoretical rigor. Without this, students will be trained as little more than scribes.

But where should that balance be? And how far from the axis point can a journalism program stray before it is considered unbalanced? Who defines "balance" – academics or journalists?

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Columbia is not alone in its "skills" tilt. J-school programs at Northwestern University and the University of Missouri also have a strong cachet among working journalists, largely because of their "professional masters" programs. At the other end of the spectrum are universities such as Stanford, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, which made their reputations producing PhDs in communication.

In between are colleges and universities that have achieved some balance. As a result, nearly all j-schools offer mass-media courses.

Journalism training is a bit like playing the piano. A pianist who only hits the notes seldom "makes music" of the same caliber as a person who also knows composition, musicology, theory, and music history. In journalism, it's a given that a reporter can write about, report, and edit the news. But to approach the craft with an informed professional perspective – to "make journalism" – aspiring journalists need to study media ethics, law, history, global communications, and theory.

When Columbia or any other university pays only token attention to intellectual course work, it risks providing little more than vocational training where graduates rub shoulders with other journalists, fill their Rolodexes with media contacts, and learn to write snappy leads.

On the other hand, supporters of solid skills training counter that many j-schools have morphed into "communication studies" departments, where faculty have no real training in or understanding of the media, and therefore often see it as their goal to demean and deconstruct journalists, bash the First Amendment, and publish an unending stream of drivel.

Which brings us to the question of what journalism really is – a trade, a craft, a profession? Is it like plumbing or carpentry or veterinary science or medicine or law? Journalists traditionally have wanted to be treated as professionals, but at the same time have eschewed a professional accrediting process, fearing that could lead to governmental control. Thus, parallels with professional academic programs and degrees in medicine and law are at best incomplete.

For most of the 1800s, aspiring journalists learned on the job. This sort of apprenticeship is now nearly extinct, with most new hires in newsrooms – upwards of 85 percent, by some counts – being journalism majors.

Today's editors demand that potential hires have the tools to cover a story. With decreasing advertising revenue, dwindling circulation, and increased pressure to maintain unrealistic profit margins, editors want to hire people who can hit the ground running.

Thus, it's tough for majors in history, philosophy, English, science, etc., to get a job – unless they also have considerable journalism course work or have worked for a campus paper. Undergraduate j-school students fill most internships, the stepping-stones to journalism jobs.

Then there's the question of how much to "converge" the various media in a college curriculum. Does one teach print, broadcast, photojournalism, and the Internet to all j-school students, or should students specialize? What about the fact more students are interested in advertising and public relations than journalism?

Some academic purists contend journalism education is a strange bedfellow for institutions of higher learning – especially at major research universities. If journalism education is synonymous with trade-school education, they are correct. But given the unique nature of the US Constitution and First Amendment, one is hard-pressed to argue that that would automatically exclude a course of study that included the historical, ethical, legal, and philosophical implications of freedom of the press.

Given such modern-day job and academic realities, a properly balanced graduate j-school should continue to be attractive to some of the very best liberal arts undergraduates. Columbia can be a legitimate gem of the j-schools. And there's room in the crown for other journalistic jewels. It's a matter of balance.

• William A. Babcock is chair of the Department of Journalism at California State University, Long Beach.

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