J-Students Have It Both Ways (Sort Of): Don't Make It an Either/or Question

By Patten, Jim | The Masthead, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

J-Students Have It Both Ways (Sort Of): Don't Make It an Either/or Question


Patten, Jim, The Masthead


I served five summers as writing coach in the Pulliam Fellowship program, teaching and mentoring ten new college graduates each year. The Fellows worked as reporters at either The Arizona Republic or the Phoenix Gazette. We had "class" every Monday night, and I conducted individual writing sessions with each one at least weekly.

In each of the five groups, about half had attended journalism school and about half had not. The same scenario unfolded every summer. The J-school grads got off to a faster start than their non-J-school colleagues. Most of the journalism graduates could report and write at least acceptable, and often excellent, stories. They knew the terminology of the newsroom, the importance of deadlines, and something about the laws of libel.

The Fellows who hadn't attended journalism school but had concentrated on liberal arts instead lagged behind at the start. But only briefly. By mid-summer, they caught up with, and frequently surpassed, the J-schoolers.

It's a small sample but I feel safe in offering this experience as evidence that a good liberal education, patient on-the-job instruction in the newsroom, and basic intelligence and motivation are as good a foundation for a beginning journalist as a journalism education.

The problem with this conclusion--indeed, with the whole discussion of journalism education vs. liberal arts--is that there's no reason for it to be framed in either/ or fashion. Provided students enroll in one of the one hundred ten or so accredited schools journalism, they're required to take a huge majority of their classes in the liberal arts. A strict lid is kept on the number of journalism credits they may take.

Thus, students at such schools have it both ways. Sort of.

Journalism is a small major at such schools. At the University of Arizona, from which I recently retired, only twenty-six credits (of the one hundred twenty needed to graduate) must be in journalism. Still, one could argue, and I do, that even that might be too much. Every journalism class taken is a Shakespeare course not taken. Every journalism class taken is a history course not taken.

Still, a journalism major provides some benefits that other majors do not. Many journalism schools require a formal ethics class, and all journalism classes of any substance address ad hoc ethical issues. A plagiarism case in a live reporting situation beats a lecture about plagiarism any day.

And virtually all journalism majors require a course in media law. A newcomer to the newsroom with no background in what constitutes libel is a time bomb waiting to go off. The non-J-school Pulliam Fellows, for example, frequently were shocked to learn that attributing a libelous statement to a source is no protection against a successful lawsuit.

So what's the answer to Rod Dreher's question of whether a journalist-in-the-making should major in journalism, minor in journalism, or major in "something like economics, biology, political science, history etc."?

One possible answer is all of the above. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Students who pursue a journalism major, supplemented by work at the student newspaper or broadcast station, solid internships, and the beginnings of a personal network, can get off to a good start in finding a job.

But is finding a job the goal of a college education? …

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