Why journalism education matters

Master Control at BBC Broadcasting House, London (Tony Ganzer)

I have a degree in journalism, and I feel that I’m an endangered species.

Students are, sometimes jokingly, warned away from an undergraduate education in journalism or media studies because the craft of journalism is one honed, or not, through a career. The basics could be picked up on the job. No journalism degree is necessary, and in fact other specialties — politics, economics, etc — would be cherished more. (Full disclosure: I got my graduate degree in International Relations, effectively adding a ‘specialty’ later.)

Journalism training Mecca the Poynter Institute some time ago aggregated four arguments against a journalism degree. I understand the profession is changing, and I understand technology is evolving at a pace faster than many media outlets can handle effectively, but there are certain basics picked up in the journalistic test-kitchen of a university which are disappearing.

And the profession, public, and society suffer because of it, especially in the age of ‘fake news,’ and the demonization of the undefined-but-always-invoked monolith of ‘the media.’

Benefits and Big Pictures

The benefit of an education depends a lot on the educators and facilities available, but I think it is fair to say journalism programs are mostly similar in that they teach:

  • Basics of news judgement (5 W’S, what makes a story news)
  • How to construct a news story
  • How to think critically about topics or types of media manipulation
  • And offer a taste of doing the real thing. Internships, school papers or stations, practical coursework, all give a budding journalist time to, you know, practice.
Those early years are supposed to be a time during which a student can screw up and not be relegated to a minor market out of professional disgrace.

I was fortunate to gain a lot of experience in the early days of my journalism life, providing hard lessons with a soft landing.

It was in college I was given the straight opinion of a newspaper city editor who bled red ink onto my stories until I produced something passable.

It was where I first experienced a CD malfunction while hosting a radio program, and heard the deafening silence of dead air.

It was where I first interviewed local politicians, and had a certain buffer zone between my inexperience and their swagger.

Is this protected environment worth tens of thousands of dollars in college debt? No. But the skyrocketing costs of education are a problem for all professions, and I think that’s more an issue of financing and priorities of higher education institutions, than the education itself.

We’re Talking Journalists, Not ‘Journalists’

Journalists, at least a certain breed of them, live the news and love to serve communities. Within that breed of journalist there are two other types: those hungry for the scoop, and breathing breaking news; and those who want to analyze themes, and tell stories rich in characters. I lean more to the latter.

The common link between the two types is a sense of duty, and a pride in participating in the discourse between people and newsmakers. A journalism education provides the framework for that passion.

As I detailed in my 2010 report on the German mediascape, a lack of trained journalists has left some editorial staffs with folks dedicated to a specialty or cause, instead of to the news and the function of a journalist in society.

There is always a little training when starting a new job, but some things should have been taught and mastered before a staffer enters a newsroom. A journalist should know how to write a basic news story–structure, news pegs, and with some style. (style is subjective, but there should be some!)

A journalist should know how to seek and find information–in the age of Google, this means more than using Google.

A journalist should know how to conduct an interview, listen, ask questions, and be critical.

A journalist should know how to read the news, and how to relate topics to broader audiences.

It is true many of these things can be picked up on the job, but what harm is there to expect (or desire, at least?!) the bar to begin a little higher than ground-level? Even a four-year degree of mini-failures can mature a young journalist enough to be that much more ready for prime-time in a newsroom.

Choosing what to study, and where to spend a fair chunk of one’s life, are not easy decisions. But for someone who wishes to be a solid communicator, observer, and critical-thinker, I think having a journalism degree is a fine investment.

I would agree, that hybrid programs, combining an academic specialty, or IT training, would be beneficial. But the core journalism classes, and practical experience, can provide skills that are vital in a newsroom, and any place valuing those skills.

The Point

In an age of punditry, and 24-hour news cycles, and an overload of garbage passing as information, I cannot believe fellow journalists think we need fewer folks trained in news judgement, ethics, and the sense of civic responsibility which make for a quality Fourth Estate.

As is increasingly apparent, in the U.S. and elsewhere, when the quality of media suffers, democracy also suffers, because the public square becomes intellectually impaired; outnumbered by appeals to emotion.

It is okay to demand more from journalism. And society would be stronger if we valued more the basic skills needed to fulfill the profession’s noble task.

Tony Ganzer is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. He’s reported from Oslo, to Cairo, to Cleveland, with bylines for NPR, Deutsche Welle, Swissinfo, and more. Find more about him here.