Research Skills Instruction in Undergraduate Programs

Article excerpt

Journalists are more than writers. They are researchers, too. This truth becomes more apparent as they use new information technologies. Reporters now use commercial on-line databases and the Internet, in addition to traditional information sources such as wire services and library materials, to shape and add content to news stories.

But until recently, the role of research in the newsmaking process has been a largely neglected issue.(1) Perhaps this is because, as Anthony Smith argues in Goodbye Gutenberg, reporters and editors have labored under the idea that their work was "private, single-handed authorship," when, in reality, modern journalism has been the reformulation of information from previous news stories, wire services, and other information sources. Computerization now makes the act of compilation more explicit.(2)

As exploration of the role of research in newsmaking continues, questions arise: Do journalists know how to be effective and efficient users of both traditional libraries and their modern adjuncts, databases, and the Internet? To be more specific, what library, database, and Internet research skills are taught in undergraduate journalism and communications programs, where most journalists with college degrees are educated?(3)

The answers have broad implications for journalistic quality. Relevant research, incorporated in news reporting routines, can alleviate such perennial problems as superficiality,(4) inaccuracies,(5) and overreliance on government sources of information.(6) Research can make for a higher quality story overall: Hansen has found that Pulitzer Prize-winning stories use more independent research channels, reflecting greater initiative by reporters in use of the body of recorded knowledge.(7) Finally, when journalists draw on diverse sources of information, they create the free marketplace of ideas advocated by John Milton in Areopagitica as necessary for national vitality.(8)

This article summarizes the results of a survey of research skills instruction in United States undergraduate journalism programs under four broad headings: research skills instruction, library instruction, Internet instruction, and library orientation. Comments from respondents about specific areas of the survey are included under relevant headings. Respondents' general ideas about the value of research skills and problems developing them are in a special section. A discussion of issues raised by survey results follows. The paper concludes with recommendations.

Method

A three-page questionnaire, a cover letter explaining the purpose of the survey and a postage-paid return envelope were mailed in early March 1994 to heads of undergraduate journalism programs listed in the 1993-1994 Journalism and Mass Communication Directory, published by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. These program heads were asked to give the survey to a faculty member teaching a research skills course, the journalism librarian, or another person in the program or institution working with faculty on information- and computer-use issues. A follow-up letter, second questionnaire, and second postage-paid envelope were mailed out about six weeks later to programs that had not returned the survey. Responses were categorized, coded, and entered on a spreadsheet. A total of 206 usable questionnaires were returned from a total of 399 undergraduate journalism programs for a 52 percent response rate.

Research skills instruction

Journalism educators value information-gathering skills. In the 1987 Oregon Report, an assessment of American journalism education, information-gathering competence was one of five fundamental competencies that journalism educators agreed their graduates should have. Information-gathering competence was defined as clearly including library skills.(9) Articles written by journalism educators advocating the development of research skills are further proof that educators think research is integral to good journalism. …