Lessons Learned: Evaluating J-Education

By Merrill, John C. | The Quill, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Lessons Learned: Evaluating J-Education


Merrill, John C., The Quill


A veteran professor reflects on the changes in journalism education during the fast half a century.

As the new century begins and I finish 50 years of teaching journalism, I ask myself if my efforts and those of my colleagues have really been valuable to the field of journalism to any substantial degree. Have we in journalism education helped to produce better journalism for the country? Has journalism education made a significant impact on the field of journalism, or has it simply followed the lead of journalism, reinforcing the status quo? How seriously do the news media look to the journalism and communications schools for advice and leadership? Is journalism today any better than it was in 1950? Such questions plague a person who has spent half a century trying to improve the field.

We are definitely in a new age in the training of journalists - an age of specialization within the journalism curricula themselves, and at the same time we are tripping through much larger fields of communication studies. Increasingly it seems we are de-emphasizing journalism education and stressing the arts and sciences of communication. Everybody is becoming a journalist, and certainly the Internet is supplying the tool for this possibility. It seems to me that our students are increasingly critical and skeptical (even cynical) about the American press, as they are exposed more and more to postmodern writers, deconstructionists, critical theory, communitarianism and public/civic journalism.

Fewer and fewer journalism students are interested in the print media. Most are studying public relations, advertising and broadcasting, whereas when I began teaching 50 years ago, journalism essentially meant the print media, with a little radio and television thrown in. Now print journalism is subsumed by a huge multi-media world of communication-related activities even the dispensing of government information.

Academic persons bemoaning conglomerates in the journalistic media should look closer to home, at what is happening in their universities. Communication schools and colleges have for the most part co-opted journalism schools and departments, and have turned them into subordinate entities. These communication conglomerates have gobbled up journalism, the fine arts and speech communication. One wonders why they have not grabbed off music and English and the foreign languages also.

When I began teaching journalism, I basically taught journalism. Now the new communications faculties teach a little of everything - psychology, sociology, philosophy, political science, economics, management - loosely tied, of course, to the theory and process of communication. In the '50s and '60s we in journalism education felt that perhaps the departments of psychology, economics and others could do an adequate job of teaching our students those subjects. Today, it seems we are trying to do everything, and consequently our students are, like the television that impacts them, getting a scattered and superficial education.

In the old days when journalism faculty got together to talk, we discussed a wide range of substantive topics, issues and ideas. Today when we occasionally get together the talk inevitably centers on computers and the newest technologies. Things, not ideas, increasingly dominate the dialogue.

One thing is certain: in the '50s, for example, students came to journalism school with good writing habits. Today's TV generation of students do not write nearly as well as their earlier counterparts. They know little grammar; they have little knowledge of rhetorical devices, organizational basics, paragraphing and the like. Their vocabularies are packed with terms like "cool," "wow," and "have a good day," and their computers' spellcheck will solve their spelling problems. These are generalizations, of course, for I find many of my students today, especially the graduate students (often with bachelor's degrees in fields other than journalism) are excellent writers and thinkers. …

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