The Role of Journalism History, and the Academy, in the Development of Core Knowledge in Journalism Education

By King, Elliot | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Role of Journalism History, and the Academy, in the Development of Core Knowledge in Journalism Education


King, Elliot, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


University-based journalism education has suffered from a lack of respect in the academy and the profession. One contributing factor may be that outside of the professional skill set, it is not clear if a defined body of knowledge about journalism exists that all journalism students, journalists, or the public should know. While the concept has several different meanings, developing a core body of knowledge could help journalism education improve its standing as an academic discipline and make an important contribution to the professional practice of journalism. The contribution of journalism history to the development of core knowledge in journalism could be identifying the specific incidents that have resulted in, or are representative of, the defining characteristics and features of American journalism.

In both the academy and in professional circles, journalism education has long been treated as a kind of unloved relative who shows up, usually only grudgingly invited, at family gatherings. Even though the number of journalism programs in the United States is proliferating and departments of communication are frequently among the largest undergraduate departments on their respective campuses, as James Boylan's history of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism makes clear, even a top journalism program like Columbia's can hold little respect institutionally.1 At Columbia, repeated efforts have been made to merge the journalism program with other "small" units, such as library science, and to limit it in other ways.

And the Columbia program is not alone in being slighted. At the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which, like Columbia, is widely viewed as a top program in the United States, when a new dean was appointed in 2006, he came not from the school's journalism side per se but from the directorship of Northwestern's Media Management Center and a joint faculty appointment in media management at the Medill School and Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Upon his appointment, the new dean promptly announced that he planned to suspend faculty governance and "blow up" the curriculum.2 It is hard to imagine a top American law school run by somebody who was not primarily known as a legal scholar per se or lawyer and who planned to "blow up" legal education.

Journalism education is also not highly respected in the industry. Though increasingly entry-level positions in news companies are filled by students with degrees in journalism, the ethos in the industry still seems to be that students should study the area about which they intend to report, rather than journalism itself.3 This is the strategy that many leading graduate-level journalism educators apparently have embraced as well.4

Indeed, the hostility of many practitioners to pre-professional training in journalism is one of the peculiar aspects of the field of journalism. In contrast to, let's say, business, where, like in journalism, holding a college degree in the field is not a prerequisite for building a career, from time to time, business faculty not only train students but also have an impact on business practices themselves.5 And the top faculty members at leading business schools are regularly consulted by the top management in leading corporations.

The low esteem in which academic training in journalism is held has many causes. Though generally unspoken, many practitioners apparently wonder what students could possibly learn about journalism in the academy that could not be taught better on the job. One aspect of this multi-faceted situation, and one of the reasons that journalism is held in low esteem as an academic discipline, may be embedded in the concept of core knowledge.

The Problem of Core Knowledge

Most academic disciplines have a central or core body of knowledge associated with them. For example, all students in certain specific disciplines of psychology must learn something about Sigmund Freud, even though Freud's clinical approach is no longer in favor. …

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