HOME     |     INTRODUCTION     |     FORUM     |     ESSAYS     |     BACKGROUND


Getting Journalism Education Out of the Way
By Betty Medsger

Consider this possibility: Journalism education gets in the way — in the way of creating good journalism and in the way of getting a good education.

That possibility first presented itself to me in 1996 as I analyzed surveys taken for my 1996 national study of journalism education, Winds of Change: Challenges Confronting Journalism Education. In a survey of "new journalists," people who had worked for one to 11 years as of 1996, 27 percent of them said they had never studied journalism.

That was a surprise, for there was a widespread assumption among journalism educators that nearly all new hires in newsrooms for at least the previous 20 years were graduates of journalism education programs. The discovery that more than a quarter of them had, in fact, not studied journalism suggested further inquiry. Looking at the data, I found that this group not only had not majored or minored in journalism or studied at the master's degree level — they had not taken even a single course in journalism. This 27 percent was in various ways doing as well or better than the new journalists who had gone to J-school: better in job satisfaction, in income, in achieving managerial positions.

All of which made me wonder about the education the best people had received. I reviewed the backgrounds of all journalists who in the previous ten years had received the two most prestigious awards, the Pulitzer prizes for print journalists and the Alfred I. DuPont Awards for broadcast journalists; and two of the most coveted fellowships in journalism, the Nieman Fellowships at Harvard University and the Knight Fellowships at Stanford University.

Here's what I found:

  • 59 percent of print journalists who won Pulitzer Prizes never studied journalism;

  • 75 percent of broadcast journalists who won DuPont Awards never studied journalism;

  • 58 percent of journalists awarded Nieman Fellowships never studied journalism, and;

  • 51 percent of journalists awarded Knight Fellowships at Stanford University never studied journalism.

"A majority, sometimes an overwhelming majority, of prize and fellowship winners never studied journalism."

I wondered if this picture might change if I looked at earlier years. So I reviewed the educational backgrounds of Knight Fellowship recipients from the time the program was founded 40 years ago. The result was the same. In the years since the study was published, I have found the same pattern: a majority, sometimes an overwhelming majority, of prize and fellowship winners never studied journalism.

What would journalism professors think of this? I wondered myself as my report circulated and I began to discuss it with colleagues. Upon hearing the findings, many journalists and journalism educators simply dismissed them, thinking: these people are probably graduates of elite east coast schools who profited from nepotism or other connections to get hired by elite east coast news organizations.

That explanation, which I considered myself when I first saw the data, is wrong. The journalists in each group — the award and fellowship winners, as well as the 27 percent of new journalists — were a very diverse group. They were graduates of colleges and universities from throughout the nation: public and private, small and large, a few elite, mostly non-elite. Some were graduates of universities that grant respected journalism degrees. They weren't employed by elite eastern news organizations, they were employed everywhere, at a wide range of types and sizes among newsrooms throughout the country. The only obvious thing they had in common was the fact that they had not studied journalism.

What did these people know that others do not know? Perhaps a lot. More than half of them majored in either literature or history. The rest majored in a wide sampling of liberal arts and science disciplines.

Perhaps the fact that people who do not study journalism are often better journalists should not be a surprise. After all, journalism itself is the study and synthesis of everything else, of all disciplines. All journalism is derivative, as journalist Bill Moyers put it once (he was interviewing poets.) Journalists put information and ideas from other disciplines into public vessels of various kinds — breaking news stories, investigative pieces, analytical work, cultural criticism. These non-journalism graduates clearly know how to think journalistically, and they are adept at filling various vessels with quality work. But their thinking and learning did not originate in journalism education programs. Mentors in newsrooms apparently have been their teachers. Or perhaps it was experience itself, which again is not surprising.

"Journalism is in a constant state of needing to improve and another constant state of undisciplined reflection about itself."

The greater achievement of journalists who did not dedicate their academic years to learning how to fill the vessels of journalism, (in contrast to what goes in them), suggests a profound challenge to what journalism educators have assumed was their raison d'etre: training people in how to fill the vessels. The finding suggests that radical changes, or at least intelligent experiments with new approaches, are needed at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The way things are done now seems to get in the way.

Journalism is in a constant state of needing to improve and another constant state of undisciplined reflection about itself. This is not productive. But isn't it the sort of problem that university-based journalism study could address? The profession would gain a great deal from an infusion of more people from diverse and interesting educational backgrounds — like those who did not study journalism but do succeed at it. Journalism educators and employers, working more cooperatively, should search for such students by relying less on serendipity (who shows up). This is the passive form of recruitment — or, more accurately, non-recruitment — that both journalism education and news organizations have traditionally used. Instead, they should look aggressively for broad and inquisitive minds, young people interested in knowing more and more about the world and communicating to a broad public what they learn.

While I think journalism educators should get out of the way, I also think there is a new role, a different and very important one, for them to now play. Journalism faculty should become gate openers to the entire university, rather than guardians of journalism studies. As such they would work far more closely with colleagues in other disciplines. They would develop the relationships needed to recruit excellent students from other disciplines, not to a major or minor in journalism but to an intensive senior year introduction to journalism. The curriculum would be truly interdisciplinary. Assignments in journalism courses would make use of what students have studied in their major areas of inquiry and also tap the expertise of faculty in other disciplines.


HOME     |     INTRODUCTION     |     FORUM     |     ESSAYS     |     BACKGROUND

© Copyright 2002 New York University