Once again the conflict between academics and professionals over the quality and relevance of journalism education reared its ugly head at this summer's 77th annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Atlanta.
Donnybrooks between professors and news professionals have become a regular feature at the association's get-togethers, and the Atlanta meeting was no exception. In a presentation before the organization's newspaper division, Kevin Hall, editor in residence at Florida International University's School of Journalism, put the spotlight on a panoply of gripes that the news business has against today's journalism schools.
According to Hall, there is a wide divergence between what educators value in their students and what editors hope for in journalism school writing skills and career preparation.
Hall co-authored a study entitled, "Writing Education and Journalism Schools: A Survey of Attitudes and Values." His findings in the survey: Editors continue to be disappointed in the preparation and quality of writing demonstrated by graduates of journalism and mass communication programs.
Among the comments heard from editors in the survey: "I'll take a kid from a non-fiction writing program any day. The kid from a newswriting program will be narrowly focused - infused with a set of rules but no real appreciation of what moves a reader's soul."
Another responded: "I will express one fear about journalism schools: they spend too much time on related issues (journalism ethics, journalism history, media theory) that would be better spent on just plain writing and writing and writing."
In discussing his survey of professors and editors regarding issues in journalism education, Hall noted the defensive response of educators when confronted with the concerns of news professionals. Indeed, many professors respond to such attacks with attacks of there own against the news industry: attacks on the poor pay offered journalism graduates and attacks on the industry's lack of appreciation for the broad mission of schools of journalism and mass communication.
This observer does not have to be warned about the admonitions of the journalism professoriat when its performance is put under the magnifying glass. One year ago in these pages, I wrote a critical piece quoting Tonda Rush of the National Newspaper Association, who made a plea for more effective journalism teaching.
Rush accused journalism educators of ignoring industry needs, and declared that journalism schools are "soaking up tremendous resources and intelligent people's time, writing things that the industry doesn't need."
To underscore Rush's point, I provided a summary of some of the findings of research papers presented at last year's association meeting, which included such titles as "Effects of Message Discrepancy on Recall of News Information over Time," "Putting News into Context: Apparent Reality Versus Source Credibility in Judgments of News Believability" and "Flight from Politics: Lesbian and Gay |Wedding' Announcements in Newspapers."
My "Shop Talk" piece in E&P inspired an avalanche of criticism. An official with AEJMC called me personally to protest the article. Unhappy letters came to me as well as to this publication. One professor accused me of wanting to subordinate education entirely to the crass needs of corporate America.
Professor Paul Many of the University of Toledo, admittedly engaging in hyperbole, responded in these pages that journalism education "has about as much of an obligation to better the newspaper industry as sociology has to better the toaster industry."
Professor Ed Adams of Angelo State University pleaded in these pages for an end to professionals criticizing educators and educators bashing professionals.
"Corrigan does not add new information to our understanding," wrote Adams. "He continues to fuel the fire with criticism of the field by citing papers that touch on the fringe of journalism research."
To Adams' last charge, I would have to plead guilty. In fact, I cannot resist the temptation to cite similar research that was again in great supply at this year's Atlanta convention.
Consider such intellectual explorations as:
* "Toward a Systematic Method of Measuring Free Recall from Printed News Stories." This paper proposes a systematic method of measuring subjects' free recall from printed hard-news stories, based on schematic theories of cognition.
* "Using Concept-Mapping To Go Beyond the Source Credibility Model in Assessing Celebrity-Message Congruence." Concept-mapping, a multi-dimensional scaling procedure, was used to examine the relationships between celebrity-attributed and celebrity-message congruence.
* "Models of How the News Media Structure Thought: Media Schemata, Attention and the Relationships Between Personal and National Finances and Presidential Approval."
The contingent structures for attention model suggests that links between respondents' personal financial situations, their confidence in the national financial future, and their evaluation of the president are contingent upon the level of attention to the media.
* "Astonishment and Understanding: On the Problem of Explanation in Journalism." Using rhetorical analysis of professional and academic discourse and news texts, it reveals that explanatory journalism is praised, reviled, evaded, and not clearly understood. A clearer foundation for explanatory journalism remains important, since this journalistic form strengthens journalism's "enlightenment function" and is being called for by the public with increasing clarity and urgency.
* "Objectivity and Epistemology: Stance Adverbs in News Discourse". In addition to signaling speaker attitudes toward, knowledge, the stance adverbs obviously and presumably also accomplish metalinguistic and interpretive work in news discourse.
These adverbs augment or diminish the legitimacy of claims, masquerade as evidentials, and orient the information flow in news.
As was the case last year, only a minute portion of the research papers at the 1994 convention were dedicated to the quest for ways of improving the skills of students who want to write for a living.
My purpose in singling out such "fringe research" is not merely to bash the professoriat, but to again pose some questions: Has journalism education strayed from its primary mission of training students to perform well in entry-level positions?
If our best minds in media education are absorbed in such esoteric research, is it any wonder that journalism school graduate Jimmy's journalistic writing is such a muddle?
While it may be more dramatic to end this discourse by posing these questions, I feel an obligation to offer something more constructive to those who would again accuse me of simply engaging in cheap shots.
As one professor observed last year: "The continued criticism by professionals [of educators] is so broad and hyperbolic that it is difficult to find solutions."
So here's an attempt to offer some solutions:
* Journalism schools should promote more "editor-in-residence" programs, such as the Knight Project on writing that brought Kevin Hall of the Miami Herald to the journalism school at Florida International University.
More professors, likewise, should be encouraged to spend academic leaves at newspaper operations to do hands-on writing and editing assignments.
* AEJMC should establish a journalistic writing division that promotes more research on improving writing education.
Professors should still do "fringe research" in other areas of the media, but research on writing education should become a higher priority. Perhaps news professionals, who have expressed concerns about writing education, will encourage their news organizations to provide stipends to promote such research.
* Journalism professors who teach writing courses and who advise campus newspapers should receive more recognition.
At some schools, professors who teach in these areas are at the bottom of the academic totem pole. They are paid less; promoted less; and, often are held in low esteem by their colleagues. This is ludicrous because, after all, isn't journalism education ultimately about writing?
* Journalism educators should react in a less defensive manner to occasional bashing.
As more and more journalism educators have earned their doctorates, they have grown more distant from the give-and-take, the rough-and-tumble, of that journalistic expression which pays highest tribute to our free-press tradition.
Their penchant for obtuse language and abstraction is only exceeded by their indignant certitude.
Corrigan is editor in chief of two suburban weeklies in St. Louis, where he also serves on the board of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Additionally, he is a journalism professor at Webster University in St. Louis.…