What’s the point of journalism school?

Some critics would have you believe there’s very little point in getting a college degree in journalism. Writing in The Nation, Michael Tracy asserts that a journalism degree is unnecessary because you can get a job in the news business without one.  What’s worse, Tracy says, is that “it’s actually bad for the craft.”  In Tracy’s view, by teaching students about objectivity and impartiality, J-schools are “dehumanizing” future journalists.

Syracuse University’s Hub Brown responds in the latest issue of Static, a newsletter for broadcast journalism educators, that the training journalism schools provide in ethics and standards is more necessary than ever. And he says the claim that you don’t need a degree to get a job, while technically true, really doesn’t apply to broadcast:

I don’t know a news director in an electronic journalism entity anywhere who would consider hiring someone who does not know how to write for the ear and not the eye, or does not know what pictures to shoot at the scene of something newsworthy or why to shoot them, or cannot reliably produce news content for audiences on deadline. These are not skills one just absorbs. Especially not now.

The proof, Brown says, is in the numbers. Broadcast newsrooms are hiring again and new journalism grads are benefiting.  Of course, as a journalism professor Brown has a vested interest in the success of J-schools. In some ways, so do I, as the author of a textbook that’s used in many of them. But even if I didn’t, I’d still think Tracy is a little off base. Why? Here are three reasons:

1. While it’s possible to learn skills on the job instead of in J-school , most newsrooms are looking for new hires that can hit the ground running. They’re especially interested in people with strong technical and multimedia skills. And I can’t tell you the last time I heard a young journalist mention training as something their employer provides. Just doesn’t happen.

2. J-schools that do their jobs right give students a solid grounding in critical thinking and ethical decision making. Both are critically important in today’s busy and often under-staffed newsrooms. Young journalists need to know how to dig for the truth, not just how to write a coherent sentence, as important as that is. They need to know how to be fair and how to remain independent. Yes, they’ll get better at it with practice, but in many newsrooms they may have to make decisions quickly and without much supervision. They need to leave school with a well-calibrated compass to avoid serious ethical missteps.

3. As Hub Brown points out, students who graduate from accredited journalism schools are required to take a broad range of courses outside their major. Only a third of their total credits can be in journalism. I hear students complain about this restriction all the time, but the truth is that the liberal arts courses they are “forced” to take give them a broader understanding of the world they’re about to cover.

I’m more than willing to admit that not every J-school does a great job of preparing its students. Some professors, stuck in the past, don’t serve their students well at all. But is journalism school in general “bad for the craft”? I think not. What do you think?


3 comments for “What’s the point of journalism school?

  1. Deb Wenger
    August 15, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Getting a broader understanding of the world while in school is critical, but it may be time for the accrediting body to recognize that some of that knowledge lies outside of liberal arts. I believe it’s time to rethink the curriculum standard to allow for courses in engineering, business and other computer science to be deemed as important as those in history, English or a foreign language. If you do, too, (or even if you violently disagree!) consider joining Deborah and me at the Journalism Interactive Conference in Maryland at the end of October:
    We’ll be discussing that issue and learning new techniques for teaching social media, mobile and more. Hope to see you there!

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