In 1993, I left what is arguably one of the most theoretically oriented journalism and mass communication programs (Wisconsin-Madison) for what was arguably one of the most practically oriented journalism programs (Missouri-Columbia). Both places were very good at what they did and not very good at what they didn't do. My task at Missouri was to figure out how to develop the research effort and link it to the tremendous applied enterprise that existed there. What we developed at Missouri during the next eight or nine years was a "book-ended culture. " The number of active doctoral faculty was tripled; the doctoral curriculum was streamlined and made more rigorous. Doctoral students and faculty ramped up their research productivity many-fold. The quality of the master's theses, both in terms of theory development and methods sophistication, was increased, with master's students beginning to present their work at national meetings, and sometimes to publish it. In the applied master's "projects" where students spent three-quarters of their capstone semester producing professional products like news photo documentaries, investigative news analyses, beat books on topics like crime or education, and the like, the quarter-time "research component" was ratcheted up to a respectable small piece of quality research. Research and applied faculty came to at first grudging and then even enthusiastic respect for one anothers' contributions to the educational endeavors of the school.
But research and practice education book-ended each other. Practice and research training were separate, insulated and isolated, even though they sat next to each other in the curriculum. We expected the master's students to take theory and research and integrate what they learned into their learning of the trade. We expected doctoral students to become theorists and skilled methodologists and tell us how their work might be applied to the "real world" of journalism. We theorists believed research could be applied and even within the often narrow confines of our own research programs had sometimes carried out some "application." But as Skinner, Gasher, and Compton articulated in their essay on "putting theory to practice," we "put too much onus on students themselves to bridge the gap between theory and practice."
This brings me to the topic of how the "news industry culture" affects graduate education. For master's students (and probably undergraduates as well), the assumption by the industry is that journalism education will provide them "welltrained" students who can be hired into the various news niches, and without a lot of further investment grind out whatever news products are needed. No one will have to teach them inverted pyramid writing style. They'll be able to report on cops and courts, or education or city politics. They'll know how to produce a news story, report or anchor local news, or in some cases have enough background to do specialized reporting. A favorite argument in the trade journal literature is whether journalism students are best for these jobs, or if just any uncommonly bright student is best trained in-house to do these tasks. Columbia University, in a widely reported story about the meaning of high-quality applied journalism education, has seen lots of arguments about what it can "add" to working with high-caliber professionals to create a more "academically acceptable" educational system.
The news industry seldom turns to academia for "think tank" activities. Few news media professionals are aware of, much less read, research that scrutinizes them. When "research" is needed by the industry, it turns not to academics, but to professional research supplier companies. (One exception is the Media Management Center at Northwestern.) The news industry does not often share its own data, be it financial information or information about its users or whatever, with academics. Of course, in fields like business, medicine, nursing, law, and economics, the relationship between industry and academia is far more collaborative. The bottom line is that the professional culture that perceives journalism schools primarily if not solely as providing a workforce influences what we think about how practice and theory should be integrated in our curricula and courses.
Some Alternative Conceptualizations
Let's think about how journalism and mass communication education would change and how our relationship with the news industry would change if we reject and replace the assumption that we are only about producing a workforce.
My own journey to a reconceptualization began with my collaboration with Lori Dorfman and Jane Stevens on conceiving of crime reporting as being improved by taking a "public health perspective." More recently, I have been greatly influenced by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's little book called Elements of Journalism.
Dorfman, a public health researcher, and Stevens, a science reporter, came together in the early 1990's, sharing the idea that crime and violence are "diseases" in societies, analogous to the flu or dysentery. A public health perspective on disease searches for causes of illness and death and then changes the conditions so that more people are saved. For example, one of the best ways to assure healthy humans is to clean up their water source. Similarly, a public health perspective on crime would suggest that instead of writing stories focusing only on crime incidents, the patterns of crime in a city along with causal analysis and proffered solutions should be written. (Research shows that primarily certain kinds of crime are reported, i.e., emphasis on murders and the more unusual the better, stereotyped patterns of whose murders are reported, those least likely to be murdered are most likely to have their murders reported. In fact, crime depicted in the news is startlingly different from crime as it exists, thus thoroughly misrepresenting reality for news consumers.) Thinking about crime in this way suggests that the news industry should change its conceptualization and treatment of crime and violence. But how is that argument communicated to the industry? There certainly are no direct channels between journalism schools and news professionals. Dorfman and Stevens did manage to communicate their perspective to many reporters and editors (e.g., see Reporting on Violence: A Handbook for Journalists and Reporting on Violence: New Ideas for Television, Print and Web at
What struck me about the research on crime and violence reporting was that our educational culture was not set up to pass this research to students and have it affect how they were taught reporting and editing. Thus the "train the workforce" culture carried with it intrinsic barriers to effective linking of theory and practice. Skinner, Gasher, and Compton note that journalism education is the servant to two masters, one the industry demanding graduates and the other the university itself, which demands theory and research and sometimes even external funding for that research. We could do research to establish the existence and impact of current crime reporting, which -would be published and raise our standing in the eyes of the university's administration, but there is no reward system for teaching our students about this or for communicating it effectively to the industry. We did teach crime and violence reporting as a special-topic course once at Missouri, but the everyday demands of the professor's time and the need for the fundamental courses to be taught combined to guarantee the course would not reoccur.
Nevertheless, this experience suggested to me that being caught in two cultures was likely limiting our conceptualization of what graduate courses, both at the master's and the doctoral levels, might look like.
Then about three years ago I picked up the Elements of Journalism by journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. They are leaders of a group called the Committee for Concerned Journalists, which had spent a number of years asking the basic questions of what the press should offer and what people should demand of their news. Kovach and Rosenstiel argued that the "purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing." To achieve this purpose, journalism had to be first obligated to the truth, put citizens above all other stakeholders, dedicated to a discipline of verification, maintain independence from those they covered in the news, monitor power, provide a site for public discourse, speak in an interesting and relevant way, and make sure the corpus of news is "comprehensive" and "proportional." Kovach and Rosenstiel did not discuss these principles in a context of scholarly research. But to do so would certainly be straightforward. And then to structure a course and even a curriculum around the principles in a scholarly research context would provide a framework for linking theory to journalistic practice. So a colleague at Missouri, George Kennedy, and I restructured our master's proseminar guided by the Elements principles, doing some additions and subtractions here and there. (Syllabus available from the author.) And we cajoled a number of the editors at the school's daily paper, the Missourian, to take the course along with first-semester master's students. First-semester students also generally take three credits in the newsroom doing reporting, and that experience is accompanied by a ninety-minute discussion each week. I team-taught in that applied section so that the theoretical perspective would be included as we talked about all the issues of beginning reporting. Last fall, we taught the course again, tightening it up and including more Missourian editors. Next fall we will also teach a proseminar for broadcast news students that will be similarly structured and will likely include producers from the school's television news station.
Restructuring our theory/research proseminar for master's students changed our educational culture in two critical ways. First, it was demonstrated that we can truly teach theory and practice in the same course. The professors lead with examples of the integration, providing a model for the students, who then no longer have to do all the work of integrating theory and practice. second, it became clear that our practice professors, i.e., those who work in our newsrooms, have to learn theory and research for it to be present in the newsroom. In the past a master's student might question the "agenda-setting function" of treatment of a particular story and receive nothing but ridicule from her newsroom editor. Now our Missourian editors are having the "agenda-setting," "news corpus," "framing," "social construction of news" arguments themselves-in the language of scholarly research and with the knowledge that people have done useful research on these issues. Although we are still in the developmental stages of this activity, the long-term goal is to have all master's courses in the curriculum combine practice and theory/research. And we intend to have all newsroom teaching be similarly structured. We will therefore no longer be training graduate journalism students to do journalism as it has always been done. Hopefully they will be trained in ever-developing "best journalistic practices informed by the scholarly literature in communication."
Adams outlines a "journalism studies" curriculum for journalistic practice that, although it is based on a critical/cultural approach and deemphasizes social science theory, is quite consistent with that of Elements of Journalism, but which expands it in some important ways. For example, it adds a focus on how journalistic content operates within social and power structures and within culture.
But can we change our educational culture and have any impact on changing the culture that defines the relationship between the news industry and journalism schools? Although a detailed discussion of this question is beyond the scope of this commentary, a couple of issues can be at least overviewed. One issue is whether we (Straw, 1985) run the risk of making our students "professionally unemployable." Certainly our current curriculum for beginning print students challenges their previous conception of the what news business is and many of them have communicated their insecurity about this reconceptualization to us. What we say to them is that even the smallest story provides an opportunity to think differently than one's colleagues at a traditional newspaper. It will be several years, however, before we can even begin to determine what difference our change in culture makes to their careers.
Another issue is the more general one of communicating innovative thinking about news practice, not to mention relevant research, to news professionals in a way that influences them. I don't know the solution to this but I think there are some models that will prove helpful. The Media Management Center at Northwestern, Poynter Institute, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Committee for Concerned Journalists, as well as other professional/foundation supported organizations are influencing newsrooms and news processes. They provide or stimulate research that news professionals pay attention to. At Missouri, we are building a Journalism Research Institute, funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which we hope will open a scholar-practitioner dialogue between news professionals and our own research/training mission.
The common denominator in these various efforts is a reconceptualization of the meaning of communication research and education. Our job is not the training of the workforce in the current practices of journalism. Our job is to design, execute, and interpret scholarly research on communication in a way that will transform how news is defined, created, and diffused into the citizenry. Students must understand that is our mission, and their job is to become part of the effort. They must come at journalism as scholars, not mechanics. As we learn more about how that change in culture can best occur, journalism faculty and graduate students will perceive a different role for themselves, and the news industry will hopefully begin thinking very differently about what journalism schools provide for them.
Adams, G. S. (1988). Journalism knowledge and journalism practice: The problems of curriculum and research in University schools of journalism. Canadian Journal of Communication 14(2):70-80.
Cunningham, Brent (2002). Searching for the perfect j-school. Columbia Journalism Review, November/December, 20-30.
Dorfman, Lori, Esther Thorson, and Jane Stevens (2001). Reporting on violence: Bringing a public health perspective into the newsroom. Health Education and Behavior 28(4):402-419.
Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel (2001). The Elements of Journalism. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University, "Cracking the Code: Creating New Lifelines Between Journalists and Academics," 2000 Symposium Report.
Rodgers, Shelly, and Esther Thorson (2001). The reporting of crime and violence in the LA Times: Is there a public health perspective? Journal of Health Communication 6(2):169-81. Commentary by J. Gregory Payne, 189-92.
Skinner, David, Mike J. Gasher, and James Compton (2001). Putting theory to practice: A critical approach to journalism studies. Journalism 2(3):341-60.
Esther Thorson (THORSONE@MISSOUM.ENU) is associate dean of graduate studies with the School of journalism at the University of Missouri.…