Journalists in the Making

By Smillie, Dirk | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Journalists in the Making

Smillie, Dirk, The World and I

Last January, the New York Observer called on Tom Goldstein, one of the nation's leading journalism school deans, to resign from an ethically ambiguous job he had been given.

Goldstein, dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, had been hired just weeks earlier to review press coverage of Michael Bloomberg, New York City's new mayor, by the very media organization Bloomberg founded. Could Goldstein, a leading media academic and press pundit, offer impartial criticism of the mayor, who also happened to sign his paychecks?

The dean denied he was a "walking conflict of interest" for journalism students, as the Observer charged. He refused to resign. But the Goldstein episode demonstrates the rocky, sometimes uncharted relationships journalism schools have with the very industries they serve.

Professionalizing the press

Two forces keep journalism alive: the marketplace and the First Amendment. In 1902, American journalist Joseph Pulitzer thought he discovered a third: making the art of reporting a legitimate profession. "My idea," he said, "is to recognize that journalism is, or ought to be, one of the great and intellectual professions; to encourage, elevate, and educate in a practical way ... future members of that profession, exactly as if it were the profession of law or medicine."

It was a lofty vision--though one that wouldn't really unfold until 1935, when the undergraduate program in journalism at Columbia University was finally elevated to graduate status. Over the next 30 years, other schools followed suit. These programs drew aspiring journalists who wanted to become ace reporters, primarily for newspapers.

One hundred years later, journalism education has blossomed into nearly 500 university journalism and communications programs around the country. But Pulitzer's grand dream is still just that.

Notwithstanding the rapid growth in communications programs, J-schools- -with a handful of exceptions--are still the stepchildren of the academy. Few journalism schools are central to the life of their own campuses. In the last century, only two J-school deans have ever become university presidents.

A similar disconnect exists between journalism education and the media industry it serves. "The relationship between journalism schools and the news industry is a dialogue of the deaf. They just don't listen to each other," says Everette Dennis, professor of media management at New York's Fordham University.

Compare that to the interdependence between the academy and industry in business or medicine. A career in investment banking requires a master's degree in business administration. To practice surgery, one needs a medical degree. Media organizations do rely on J-schools for a steady supply of cheap labor, yet they spend little on education for new recruits, says Dennis.

Part of the problem lies in defining that training. Journalists require neither a license nor a degree to be a reporter. The decentralized, nonconformist nature of journalism is bound by no universal code of behavior. Ethical controversies, such as the Goldstein case, are common. No surprise, then, that after more than a century, there's little consensus among educators as to what the best journalism education should consist of, nor agreement in the marketplace over its role in training media rookies.

Ups and downs of influence

If there was a golden age of J-school influence on media organizations, it was the 1970s and '80s, when colleges and universities flooded newsrooms with fresh-faced J-school grads. Over those two decades, the number of journalism degrees granted in the United States quintupled. In 1987, 80 percent of all new newspaper hirings were journalism graduates. What they often brought with them was a deeper knowledge of nuts-and-bolts reporting and an awareness of the leading ethical theories of the day. …

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