English Composition Courses as Preparation for News Writing
Olson, Lyle D., Dickson, Thomas, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator
Writing courses, typically labeled freshman or English composition, are among the general education requirements at virtually all colleges and universities in the United States. In addition, journalism departments and schools require specialized writing courses (i.e., media writing, news writing, magazine writing, radio news reporting, etc.).
The literature reveals a large amount of research in English composition on a wide variety of topics and a much smaller but increasing amount of research on journalistic writing presented in this journal and at AEJMC conventions. Little research, however, has examined the interplay between the writing instruction journalism and mass communication students receive in English composition and the writing instruction they receive in journalism writing classes.
Olson's (1992) research on the effects of news writing instruction in English composition on the writing performance and attitudes of students examined the notion that news writing instruction is an effective method of teaching writing that might combat some of the weaknesses of traditional composition instruction.
Wyatt and Badger (1993) said that "journalism professors often fail to give students an adequate framework to relate journalistic writing to other writing forms taught in literature, speech, and drama courses." They refer to a "subjective-objective conundrum," in which journalism professors assign to the arts and literature "the subjective and emotional role, while the objective and detached function is relegated to journalism" (p. 3), causing students to be puzzled when they go from a literature course into a journalism classroom.
Few others have examined the interplay between English composition and journalism, and there are key unanswered questions: Is freshman composition beneficial to journalism students? Are there aspects of journalistic writing instruction that would enhance freshman composition instruction and vice versa? Is it important for journalism students to take two composition courses, is one enough, or do they need any at all? Should journalism writing instructors provide a clear framework to help students put various forms of writing into a proper context for their majors?
The field of composition also has some unanswered questions. English composition is in some ways an unexamined sacred cow in the university curriculum. Few dare to question its role, value, purpose, and reason for being. In addition, few dare to suggest changes, because there is unanimous agreement that students need all the writing instruction they can get.
Yet, there's some uneasiness among English educators that should likewise leave journalism educators unsettled. Some argue that what is taught in freshman composition is not necessarily applicable to all fields and disciplines and that this limitation has often not been clearly explained to students and faculty in disciplines outside English. One researcher found that adults do little of the creative or reflective writing commonly taught in English composition (Harwood, 1982).
Others point out that freshman composition is essentially "contentless" and "disciplineless" (although some composition instructors create useful content). Because of the background of most English composition instructors, the "content" often becomes literature and/or anthologies of professional essays. This can be problematic. Gold (1991) argued, "The intellectual demands of the professional essay in the composition course divert attention from teaching fundamental writing proficiency" (p. 261).
The perception also exists that writing instruction in English classes rewards creativity and ignores grammatical and stylistic correctness. Stone (1990) noted that the problem of "deficiencies in knowledge and skills considered minimal for success in institutions of higher education" was one of the major changes in the past generation that make teaching news writing more difficult (p. …