Some Universitries Begin to Rewrite the Story of Journalism Education: Report Documents Trend toward Producing Generalists

By Kees, Beverly | American Journalism Review, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

Some Universitries Begin to Rewrite the Story of Journalism Education: Report Documents Trend toward Producing Generalists


Kees, Beverly, American Journalism Review


Here's the nightmare: One day all journalism students disappear, replaced by bland creatures ready to step into any job requiring writing or speaking -- but not trained to ask probing questions and unable to find, analyze and organize information of vital interest to the public.

They are Generic Communicators.

It's a trend already appearing on some campuses, where journalism skills are undervalued and where a preoccupation with academic degrees takes precedence over professional experience as a qualification for teaching. Such schools require a heavier load of mass communication theory courses in the belief that journalism is a dying profession and that training communicators, rather than journalists, should be the goal.

These are among the key findings in a Freedom Forum-sponsored report, "Winds of Change: Whither Journalism Education?" by journalist-turned-journalism educator Betty Medsger. Her study included three surveys conducted by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

The Medsger study documents the trend toward an emphasis on communication studies despite the fact that programs with a clear focus on journalism appear to do the best job of preparing students to be journalists.

"I'd like for us to lose the old 'journalism-ain't-real-learnin'' syndrome,", says Hampden H. Smith III, professor and head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Virginia's Washington and Lee University.

When "communicators" take over a journalism program and "start sabotaging journalism education as we know it, they are, aided and abetted by ill-informed hysteria that there aren't going to be any newspapers," says Gene Roberts, managing editor of The New York Times and a journalism professor on leave from the University of Maryland. Roberts says there isn't a good census of journalism jobs, but he believes the profession is expanding through jobs in specialty publications and on-line news services.

Journalism education is also being jeopardized by the removal of expertise from the classroom, according to Medsger's study. "We found that 17 percent of the journalism educators had no experience as journalists," she says, "and that figure rises with younger educators. ... Among those 44 and younger, 23 percent had no journalism experience.

The decrease in professional-experience levels of journalism educators has been accompanied by an increase in the number of journalism teachers with advanced degrees. The Medsger study found that 42% of journalism educators with more than 10 years' experience had doctoral degrees. That figure doubled -- to 84% -- for those with 10 or fewer years of experience.

For "Winds of Change," Medsger also studied six years of reports from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), made up of journalism educators and journalism professionals who examine schools seeking acereditation or reaccreditation. Her conclusion: The evaluators "seldom assess the expertise of faculty, and they ignore the quality of student writing" -- a subject of great importance to potential employers.

Aggravating the worrisome trends in journalism education are the journalists who disparage the skills needed in newsroom jobs and figure they can be picked up on the job. These are often the same journalists who grumble about journalism graduates unable to "hit the ground running."

Al Johnson, executive editor of the 53,000-circulation Columbus (Ga. Ledger-Enquirer, takes the opposite view. "Newspapers spend too much time teaching skills," he says, adding that basic competence should be developed in classrooms, internships and student media.

The trend toward generic communication may be a reason for declining skill levels among recent graduates, Johnson says. "I don't know why colleges and universities even think that's the way to go."

Journalism's de-emphasis on campus

The findings of the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut will give Al Johnson little comfort. …

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