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Diverse field needs a mix of backgrounds: thousands of J-majors will never find real work.

Journalism is not rocket science. So why require or even encourage college-level training or education in it?

Well, we need a mix.

First, people should be thankful that government requires specialized education, testing, and licensing for such people as engineers and surgeons--and that it cannot impose such "standards" upon journalists.

Second, we should recognize, but avoid for now, the discussion about whether this is a trade, craft, calling, scam, service, holy mission, business, or profession.

Third, the field admits persons of widely divergent backgrounds, qualifications, goals, and ethics. Some of us remember studying the Hutchins Commission Report of 1948 in class. Early in our careers we saw the Kerner Commission Report, circa 1968. Ever since, the industry has been striving for staff diversity.

So, in addition to the still-relevant need for diversity of journalists' race and gender, we need diversity in their cultural backgrounds--and educations.

About every ten years, academic researchers in Indiana survey U.S. working journalists. They find that journalists are still largely white, male, upper-middle-class, college-educated in some field--and increasingly college-educated in journalism.

Is the trend toward hiring mostly J-majors a good thing? In many ways, yes. But even some J-educators concede that there's real risk of too much of a good thing. Indeed, we strive to avoid it in the curriculum.

Some of the best in the business (Mike Royko) got great mostly with guts and street smarts. Some have Ivy League sorts of degrees in other fields and obviously learned the trade skills readily on the job. Some experts and decision-makers have bachelor's degrees in one field and master's degrees or higher in journalism, or vice versa.

We who have moved from doing to teaching cringe when we see entry-level help-wanted ads that demand specific technical skills ("Mac-Quark expertise required....") I remember wanting to hire people who could produce on Day One. But we really needed those who were wen-prepared to continue learning, growing, and contributing thoughtfully beyond the first few years.

So are we dealing here with trade schooling or higher education?

Yes.

There's no avoiding the reality that editors want beginners who already have experience, gained at someone else's expense. Many of us in J-education have changed the majors to require internships. Some require students to work in student publishing or broadcasting.

Yes, it all can be learned in high school or out of school. However, for many people, it is best to learn both the basic trade skills and the professional standards together while in college.

As a beginning reporter, I had several occasions to use the media-law basics we struggled with at Illinois to avoid ruining people's lives needlessly and to prevent libel suits. My first hire as an editor was from Medill, and our small paper benefited greatly from his balance of general education and journalism skills. When he was promoted suddenly to editor, we applied principles learned in the classroom.

On the other hand, the best political reporter who worked for me later was a novice at journalism, a history major who knew the back rooms of the statehouse.

We really needed both.

Is there a perfect balance? Of course not.

Is American higher education guilty of churning out thousands of J-majors who will never find real work in the field? Probably, depending on your definition of "guilty."

A few years ago, a public institution in another state claimed one hundred percent placement, largely in that state's small-town press. Others might admit to graduating numerous taxi drivers and office workers along with reporters, video-photographers, designers, and (too few!) copy editors.

Many students use a J-degree as a steppingstone, to grad school or law school for example. We admit to helping create the surplus of lawyers. Some of us have the consolation of knowing that lawyers who studied journalism where ethics and social justice are part of the curriculum may be primed to serve the public interest.

The real journalists among any program's graduates have that special fire in the belly.

Higher education demands a balance between majors and the rest of the students' studies.

Every institution needs "general accreditation," handled by regional organizations such as the North Central Association here in the Midwest. Decennially or more often, they examine the entire institution on thousands of criteria, including faculty qualifications, resources, admission and graduation rates, assessment processes, and curricula. They do not dictate, but they do demand evidence that the education is appropriate for the degrees offered.

One requirement for a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree is a minimum of one hundred twenty semester hours or its equivalent.

Specialized accreditation by professional associations is nutritious but nonessential frosting on that basic cake. In college-level journalism education, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications offers it. The council sets high standards for many things, including curriculum and faculty.

Some institutions require doctoral-level degrees for all regular faculty. Others use visiting professionals, Ph.D. holders, and people who have real-world experience plus additional education--a mix.

The standard most relevant to this discussion is the balance of coursework between the J-major and the rest of the college education. At least eighty semester hours must be out of the major. Majors range from twenty-five hours to more than forty. In some cases, the student needs ninety or more hours out of major, plenty for a good liberal arts education.

Most institutions require "general education" in English composition, math, biology, another science, social sciences, humanities, cross-cultural study, and courses designed specifically for juniors or seniors. Many strongly recommend a minor in a suitable, unrelated field.

Whether the major is journalism, history, an art, or a science, the basic idea is to develop critical thinking, communication skills, a sense of responsibility, some knowledge about the rest of one's world, and some higher-level knowledge and skills in one or more fields.

A news organization needs both people who have studied specifically for this field and those who have not. A mix.

NCEW member John McClelland is an associate professor of journalism at Roosevelt University, Chicago. E-mail jmcclell@roosevelt.edu
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Title Annotation:Symposium: to J or not to J? A question of career preparation
Author:McClelland, John
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:1008
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