A journalism education has never been more relevant

February 10, 2010

By Terry Field
Media Analyst
Troy Media

CALGARY, AB, Feb. 10, 2010/ Troy Media/ — As a journalism professor I have been asked a number of times recently about the utility or value of taking a journalism program at university when the journalism industry is in such a state of flux. Allowing that a professor is going to be biased in favour of advanced education, my answer has been that journalism education at a university level, with its focus on communication skills, has never been more relevant than it is right now.

The context for this discussion is well known. Rapidly changing technology has altered both how news is delivered and the relationship between news producers and their audiences. The Internet has opened up the world in a sense for all who can access it, allowing users to program their own media use by browsing websites that interest them – including mainstream media, specialized information sites, single-topic sites, sites more attuned to the user’s age demographic, social media sites and so on. Audiences can also easily make their own media through blogs and uploading video or audio to sites such as You Tube, or sending it to professional newsrooms for inclusion online or on-air.

Audience participation

This fragmentation has challenged journalists to compete, in a sense, against non-traditional sources such as blogs and social media sites, and to make room for audience participation and what is sometimes referred to as “citizen journalism”. Digital media is also challenging the old-media revenue model that is based on selling space or time for advertisements in print or on-air. Traditional media companies are having a tougher time making money today than in the past, and their move to some form of Internet delivery has not produced the financial results they had hoped for, at least not yet. This revenue problem has been exacerbated by the recession, and it has had an impact on newsrooms in terms of closures and layoffs. That bring us back to the reasons for people now questioning the utility of journalism education.

The answer I offer to the question has three components. The first has to do with the relationship between industry and university level journalism programs; the second considers the role “citizen journalism” plays or could play and how that could affect journalism; while the third component examines what goes on inside a journalism program in 2010. (I won’t presume to speak for all journalism schools in offering my views, but I would argue that there is a broad similarity among journalism university degree programs).

It surprises some who question the relevance of a journalism education today when I suggest that the program we offer at Mount Royal University is not based exclusively on satisfying the needs of the journalism industry. It is fair to say that historically journalism schools were focused primarily on treating students as prospective newsroom employees, and challenging the students to measure-up in a sense to the demands of the craft – including working long hours without whining, and encouraging students to ‘earn their spurs’ in smaller news markets. A program’s measure was its success in placing students in industry, and teachers would particularly celebrate the rise of a graduate to a significant job in one of the country’s major news markets. After all, most journalism professors in Canada and many if not most in the United States, came to teaching following what were often lengthy careers in the business, so it only made sense that they promote their professional values in their new work setting.

Preparing students for all possibilities

Coursework to develop news skills still exists today in journalism programs but the focus has shifted from preparing students for industry to preparing students for a range of possibilities in their lives, including working as a journalist. That is not to say journalism schools don’t canvass industry views or maintain strong relationships with industry professionals, but there is a difference between monitoring and consulting the context of the industry, and designing a program based on the near-term goals of industry.

The second part of my answer to questions about the value of journalism education today is to suggest bluntly that professional newsrooms will continue to exist in some form well into the future, despite the rise in “citizen journalism” which might more be accurately described as citizen media. Digital media has opened up the media world to individuals with access to production software, such as digital cameras and editing, and to the Internet including blogs, twitter and social media sites. But has this explosion of personal reflection resulted in higher quality trustworthy information? I would suggest that with notable exceptions, such as the Iranians who bravely blogged during last year’s protests or the doctor who wrote a blog/diary about his time working in a clinic in Africa, the majority of this citizen input does not add much to our understanding of how our society functions, how or communities adapt etc. Yet, the sheer volume of citizen media and the illusion of content could certainly wash over professional reporting. The challenge to journalists is to capitalize on what’s missing in the citizen-based realm and offer information that has been professionally verified and packaged. While one might argue that anyone can produce video, or audio or write a story (an assertion I would dispute by the way), one should likewise allow that skills in choosing what stories to cover, structuring information and effectively researching and verifying information, are specific skills that do not broadly exist in citizen media. Journalism schools provide for these skills.

With all that in mind, the third part of the answer to the question of the contemporary relevance of journalism education has to do with what is offered inside the degree. Journalism craft skills acquired by students, such as writing, interviewing, project planning, production and multimedia, remain highly useful to the news industry as implied above, but they are equally useful for work in other communication settings, and/or other forms of work. In addition, university level programs feature liberal arts or general education components, and what I refer to as communications contextual elements such as law and ethics, media history, social research methodology, and communication theory.

Taking responsibility for your work

As importantly, journalism education is based on learning to work as part of an editorial team and learning to take responsibility for the results, while also developing the ability to be self-critical and self-directed. Lastly, in broad terms at least, journalism education is based on engaging with the community, meeting people, attending events, figuring out how communities function, and learning how people react to what goes on around them. Arguably, the community focus of journalism education is a distinctive component that forces students out of their comfort zone and encourages confidence. Our students talk all the time of the challenge they face in the outwardly simple task of making cold calls to sources, and meeting people they don’t know, only to find out that they in fact have the ability and knowledge to do so, and to be successful. That’s a great lesson for a young person to learn, especially in a work-world that demands adaptability.

Many other faculties in a university would argue that they provide some of the same lessons as listed above, and that is indeed the case. The argument for journalism education does not imply that it is the only reasonable choice for a young person to make, but that it remains a reasonable and valid choice for a young person despite the challenges being faced by the news industry, primarily because the ability to communicate in print, using media and in person is in my view the single most important skill set any of us can learn.

Terry Field has worked in print and broadcast media, and he is currently an associate professor and program chair for the journalism major in the Bachelor of Communication program at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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