Credibility Resides at the Core of Teaching Journalism: The Challenge Involves Adjusting to the New Rigors of the Practice and Getting Students to Think in Digital Ways

By Folkerts, Jean | Nieman Reports, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Credibility Resides at the Core of Teaching Journalism: The Challenge Involves Adjusting to the New Rigors of the Practice and Getting Students to Think in Digital Ways


Folkerts, Jean, Nieman Reports


It was nearly 150 years ago mat Washington and Lee University inaugurated journalism education in the United States. By this action, which took place soon after the Civil War ended, the university sparked an enduring debate about the appropriate balance between a university education and on-the-job training. Not even momentous changes in the technology that enables people to communicate--the telegraph, telephone, radio and television, and now the Internet--have put an end to the arguments about the role of journalism education and what form it should take. But amid this disagreement has been acceptance of a shared goal: to prepare those who will practice journalism to be able to provide citizens with accurate and credible news and information to ensure participation in the governing process.

To achieve this end, journalism education has changed only slightly from the 1960's until the mid-1990's. The most noticeable change has been the rising influence of broadcast media as educators came to regard radio and television as important forms of journalism and as schools expanded to include multiple forms of mass communication, such as advertising and public relations.

More recently the Internet has upended our world by calling into question the ways that most journalism teaching happens. At a time when many universities had developed specialized sequences of courses in print, broadcast, advertising and public relations as a way to resolve debates about how these disciplines could share an academic home, the fast-moving digital revolution--with its varied multimedia dimensions to storytelling--challenged this model.

Some journalism schools have merged specialized sequences of course study into two categories. One is called "journalism" or "news and information," and this includes reporting and writing news for print, broadcast and the Web, along with "info-graphics," design and broadcast and multimedia production of stories. The other carries adjectives such as "strategic" or "persuasive" before the word "communication," and this category combines advertising and public relations. Some of these schools require a generalized multimedia or visual communications class as a basic course. Others teach writing, information gathering, and multimedia production in a single course.

There are two problems with this structure:

1. In some curricula, beneath the newly required visual communications course, much of the rest of what students study looks just the same as it did in the separated sequences. The same courses are taught, with a heavy emphasis on traditional examples.

2. The other problem is one of depth. Can news writing, reporting skills, programs such as InDesign and Flash, along with photography, be taught in a single course? Can one person be all things to all media?

Seeking Guidance

Since I became dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in July 2006, I've spent considerable time talking with alumni, turning to them to learn what graduating students need to know. I seek their advice about how to best address the decline in newspaper circulation and the ascendancy of the Web. Our alumni journalists are concerned more about whether our students master substantive knowledge than they are with how students master technology. Alumni believe they should be learning more about world and American history, how the economy and business decisions affect social and political behavior, and media ethics and media law.

Journalists have offered me good examples of how such substantive study paid off in their newsrooms. I recall one of them telling me how he'd cautioned his editor to move slowly when Richard Jewell was named a bombing suspect by various news media at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He said he could hear his ethics professor whispering in his ear about leaping too fast with limited evidence. …

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