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If we must have j-schools...


The first step toward improving journalism education would be to abolish it at the undergraduate level. The problem was summarized succinctly in The Washington Journalism Review by Claude Sitton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Raleigh, North Carolina News and Observer: "Too many journalism schools are turning out communicators who have nothing to communicate.' Under-graduates interested in journalism should be enrolling in rigorous liberal arts programs. Literature, history, and the other disciplines that expose the student to countless different worlds are much more likely to stimulate the curiosity so many journalism students seem to lack than is Intro to Communications 101. Although journalists will not spring ready-made from the college libraries with press card in fedora and pad in hand, these students will have more understanding than those who studies how to build an inverted pyramid from a pile of facts. In addition, the tough composition requirements that should be part of any liberal arts education could liberate graduate schools from having to teach elementary grammar.

On the graduate level, journalism education should be split into two tracks. There are those who want to become journalists but who have not been able to get the first-hand journalism experience they need to get a good starting job. Some may have worked at a small newspaper, hoping to apprentice under a Lou Grant only to discover themselves stuck under a Ted Baxter. There are, sad to say, hundreds of rotten newspapers out there. Some of these potential students might have newspaper experience but want to switch to broadcasting without knowing the difference between a sound bite and a mosquito bite. An education in the basics would enable them to learn the rudiments of journalism and get that starting job.

The second track would be for those students with some previous experience who have already shown they can be thrown into an unfamiliar situation and emerge with an informative story. For them, journalism school could push further, allowing for development of expertise in particular fields. This would alleviate the problem of experienced reporters having to relearn the basics.

The ideal program would combine academic study with two kinds of practical experience: from the inside and from the outside. If you're interested in being an environmental reporter, you could take special courses, perhaps given through a joint program with the biology and chemistry department, in environmental science. Your practice assignments could include both the in-depth story on toxic-waste disposal methods in the city as well as spot news coverage of the sewer board.

The journalism professor would teach not just how to write a feature lead but how to decipher local environmental regulations, not only how to write concisely but how to use the Freedom of Information Act to help determine the safety of toxic-waste casks. Readings would go beyond Strunk and White to include books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which would challenge students' minds and give them historical perspectives on course topics.

In addition, the school should require as a prerequisite or, better yet, as part of the program, an internship on the other side of the note pad. The student would actually work for the Environmental Protection Agency, an environmental group, or a waste management firm so he or she would know both the chemical and the bureaucratic forces that shape environmental policy. Many editors have come to think that practical experience on the other side taints the journalist by creating biases and undermining his status as watchdog. But limited spurts of experience would be unlikely to warp the mind of a capable journalist and would provide valuable perspectives on the innards of institutions. Newspapers hiring an environmental reporter would be getting a reporter who would be able to probe past the press releases and official announcements to see why decisions are made and what might be wrong with them.

Finally, to clean out the deadwood on journalism school faculties we should reform the tenure system. Problematic in any academic discipline, tenure is even more troublesome in journalism education. This is one field that doesn't require fluency in a jargon. Journalism has its flaws, but it at least makes room for outsiders who bring fresh perspectives and who hold common sense higher than self-referential rote. So journalism schools should depend primarily on working journalists hired on a part-time basis or under short-term contracts. This would help guarantee that faculty members would still have the energy and talent to make it in journalism and that their instruction would be grounded in experience. Depending on journalism teachers cloistered away from the real world is like discouraging medical school professors from practicing medicine. A constant flow of working professionals would prevent journalism schools from becoming retirement grounds for burned out journalists.

Journalism schools don't need to be inferior academic institutions. If universities took these steps, they could make the training they give as valuable as that offered by the best professional schools.
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Title Annotation:journalism school memories
Author:Waldman, Steven
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1986
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