In defense of journalism education: The 3 essentials it teaches

As fall semester 2012 moves toward mid-term, journalism education is gathering its defenses against assaults on its relevance.

Emory College announced last month that it is closing its program because journalism falls outside the school’s emphasis on liberal education, according to Arts & Sciences College Dean Robin Forman.

“It’s not our job, as a liberal arts college, to simply train people to be professional journalists — in the same way it’s not our job to train people to be professional doctors or lawyers or businesspeople,” Forman told a reporter from Creative Loafing.

He’s not an outlier. Bill Cotterell, a retired political reporter from Florida went even further. He compared journalism education to driver’s education, where the real learning comes from “trial and error.”

“Anyone who’s smart can learn the 5 Ws in a couple weeks. And if they learn from their mistakes, they can get good at telling you what’s really going on,” Cotterell wrote on Tallahassee.com.

The Nieman Journalism Lab has an entire series on re-inventing journalism education, including calls to teach coding, entrepreneurship, and other techniques for a profession in flux.

These critiques and suggestions, however, focus on journalism’s products — the stories filed, the photographs taken, the apps created, or the content aggregated — while overlooking the conceptualization involved in the process. After almost 25 years as a reporter, I’m convinced a good journalism education turns out students who think carefully and deeply.

That might sound strange, given my background. I didn’t go to journalism school. Instead, I stumbled into the field in my 30s, after a few years as a freelance writer. I needed more than a couple weeks to learn the 5 Ws and 1H, but a stint as a night cops reporter gave me some chops.

Along the way, I learned that powerful journalism springs from questioning and probing, skills I was taught as a liberal arts major. If I wanted a memorable article, I had to do more than get quotes from the school board meeting. I had to challenge assertions, perceptions and assumptions – including my own.

Otherwise, I wasn’t a journalist. I was a stenographer.

Why journalism education works

When I began to teach about 10 years ago, I pledged to produce critical thinkers who could work as competent, committed journalists. I never assumed my students would go straight into the profession. (In fact, a former student became a rock musician before ending up at Fortune Magazine.) And if they did, I didn’t assume they’d stay in a single medium; in 2001, we were talking convergence. While I didn’t skimp on mechanics, I knew my students could go wherever they wanted if they had a substantial intellect.

That’s also the aim of a liberal education, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities. On its site, the AAC&U writes:

“A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.” (Emphasis mine)

I imagine Emory University agrees with that definition because the university belongs to the association. I just wish Forman and others — including some professional journalists — understood a good journalism education already accomplishes those goals in three important ways.

1. A good journalism education teaches students to search for answers.

Journalism calls the search “reporting.” Other professions simply call it  “research.” The name doesn’t matter as much as the expectation that students will develop the practice and carry it into their professional and personal lives.

Robert Hernandez communicates that expectation when he challenges his students to “Google it” instead of relying upon him for the answer.

“At first, they thought I didn’t know the answers and I was using the search engine to cover up my shortcomings,” he wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab. “But those who have truly embraced the Web know what that simple phrase really means: Empower yourself.”

2. A good journalism education teaches students to ask the fundamental questions of all intellectual inquiry.

Journalists are so busy extolling the practical applications of the 5 W’s and 1 H, we forget how powerful they are. Adrian, at lifehack.org, explained the importance of the sequence in a 2007 post on New Year’s resolutions. “All six questions are essential. Missing any of them leaves a gap that must be filled by assumptions or imagination,” he wrote.

Any profession or field of study can teach students to employ the interrogative words. In journalism, however, they’re inescapable. Habitual use of the 5 W’s and 1 H, paired with the push to discover answers, can result in the greatest benefit of a good journalism education.

3. A good journalism education develops intellectual curiosity.

Chalk it up to practice, the 10,000 hours of repetition necessary for mastery. After spending four years immersed in inquiry and investigation, curiosity becomes second nature.

Can a prospective journalist learn these skills on the job? Yes, but news outlets aren’t in the teaching business. They’re in the publication and sales businesses. They’re in the delivering-content to-an-audience business.

Like Bob Cohn, editor of Atlantic Digital, they’re looking for folks who “have the right sensibilities – and the skills to succeed in this new age,” not for folks who have to learn them.

A journalism program is a dedicated learning environment where students flourish or flounder. A good program should be judged by whether its students have learned to think, regardless of the field they enter or the jobs they eventually hold.

Afi-Odelia Scruggs, an independent journalist in Cleveland, Ohio, has taught journalism to high school and college students in northeast and central Ohio. She has a Ph.D in Slavic linguistics from Brown University.

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  • Anonymous

    Maybe it’s time for journalism schools to teach new reporters how to communicate.
    —–
    Advertising agencies use repitition to maximize the impact of their propaganda. But reporters are only interested in writing the first draft of history and they use repitition just to maximize the number of people who will look at the advertising in their newspaper or news broadcast. The war on terrorism is the top story for one week. Then another sex scandal the next week. And how about another series of stories on how Wall Street has corrupted our democracy. But reporters don’t care about their failure to communicate. Even though surveys by the news media have repeatedly shown that most voters are too ignorant to vote intelligently. Reporters care more about having fun than they are worried educating voters so we the people can make our government represent the us instead of the special interest groups.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=717583338 Karl Idsvoog

    Keep in mind, when journalism fails bad things happen. We had in a war in Iraq because rather than ask the questions that needed to be asked, the bulk of the press played cheerleader. There was no imminent threat. We had a financial meltdown because rather than question the banks and the regulators and Congress as major fiscal controls put in place following the Great Depression were dismantled, the press again played cheerleader. What do you think will be the economic consequences of securitizing liars loans? There was no need for a massive oil spill in the Gulf. There are two major industries: tourism and oil. What do the emergency response plans show? But the press didn’t check. If they had, they would have discovered BP wanted to save walruses in the Gulf. We have scandal after scandal in college athletics because the local press, instead of doing its job as reporters, plays cheerleader.

    We’ve moved to the era of disaster-response journalism. It’s not until the disaster strikes reporters finally start asking questions that should have been asked years previously.

    Journalism schools need to be training their students to aggressively go after information. There is absolutely no need for human microphone stands. There is a great need for professional journalists.