HOME     |     INTRODUCTION     |     FORUM     |     ESSAYS     |     BACKGROUND

Betty Medsger, page 2

In such a program, students would study the basic skills of research and writing, as well as the history and current issues of journalism, including ethical behavior, corporate pressures and the impact of technological changes on journalism. Courses would be designed to emphasize the responsibilities of the journalist, as well as the citizen, in both preserving and criticizing a free press in a democratic society. Journalistic writing would be taught not as a series of formulas but as a critical thinking process, as well as a creative and artistic process, all of which are to be used in the pursuit of truth as it can best be found.

Ideally, journalism faculty would spend considerable time learning how to introduce students from other disciplines to the challenges of journalism, while giving them a realistic view of the business and the idealism they'll need to excel. The introductory courses could start with analysis of and experience in writing the basic story forms. In the second semester, more complicated forms would be introduced and students would be encouraged to develop their own approaches to writing and reportage. The importance of serving the needs of citizens in a democratic society would flow through all aspects of journalism instruction.

Formulas would not be confused with guides. The who-what-when-where-how-why questions should not be ridiculed, as they have been by some in this debate, just as innovative forms of criticism and commentary should not be dismissed. We should all remember that people pay a high price for asking those often complex and hated questions, simple though they may sound. Who did what, when and where they did it, how and why it happened… these are, in fact, the very essence of the most courageous acts of journalism throughout history. They require a journalist's knowledge and a journalistic understanding of the matter at hand.

Most of the 24 journalists killed in 2000 and the 37 killed in 2001, as documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, were killed because, in one way or another, they were asking: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? And they were asking not as part of a formula for the commodity "news," but rather to uncover essential information that government officials or other powerful people did not want the public to know. Journalists sometimes pay a high price for doing the basics. There is nothing comparable in other disciplines.

"Journalism faculty should become gate openers to the entire university, rather than guardians of journalism studies."

Similarly, one form of journalism does not have to be belittled in order for another form to be praised. Each can stand alone as excellent and demanding, and also contribute to other forms, as Brooke Kroeger argues so eloquently in her essay for this forum, "Journalism With a Scholar's Intent."

At the graduate level, master's degree programs could be developed that are truly graduate level studies. Here, introductory courses in writing and research would not be offered. Graduate programs could still serve people who do not begin with sophisticated writing and research skills, but only after they have acquired the skills either through work experience or special training elsewhere.

In contrast to most graduate programs, (which tend to provide an introduction to journalism or function as general communication studies programs with a little journalism, a little advertising, a little public relations and perhaps even a little of something else) these new master's programs would be designed for journalists who have considerable experience — and a need to inquire. These people are typically interested in deepening their expertise in a field they want to cover, or strengthening their skills as a depth journalists. The new graduate programs would welcome students who, at either their own initiative or their employer's initiative and funding, want to study the urgent problems of journalism. This might mean a searching examination of a current issue in the profession or a local problem in their own newsroom. Grad students would map the problem, mine the university for valuable knowledge, then test and develop their plans for solutions.

In all aspects of graduate education, as in undergraduate work, interdisciplinary study would have to be the guiding theme. Journalism faculty would assist graduate students in developing highly individualized, interdisciplinary plans of study for either developing better expertise or digging into the problems of journalism.

New experimental programs, in which journalism educators would be gate openers to the whole university on behalf of students interested in journalism, could provide faculty with a vital new role: showing young people how to use their education in the liberal arts and sciences to improve and deepen the journalism that appears in the world beyond campus.

Journalism educators, working with leaders in the profession, should also help create a new culture of learning in newsrooms and other work places, a culture that respects higher education and doesn't sneer at the thought of being intellectual, or confuse it with being elitist. One way of creating that new culture, in addition to the undergraduate and graduate programs proposed here, would be to perfect continuing education programs for journalists. J-schools have never made this a priority. In various surveys, journalists have said they desperately need it.

In the new roles suggested here, journalism faculty would help increase excellence and diminish mediocrity in the practice of journalism, while overcoming an unnatural divide between the newsroom and the university. The promotion of excellence and higher learning in J-schools should not, however, be limited to a bicoastal approach, with a couple Midwestern schools thrown in to the mix, while graduates of all other programs are expected to do the grunt work. A renewal of excellence is needed at schools in every region if journalism is to improve throughout the nation. This should be obvious.

An interdisciplinary approach to journalism education, combined with the closer involvement of professionals, could cause employers and opinion leaders in the profession finally to recognize how valuable the university is to American journalism. By creatively getting out of the way — becoming gate openers to all that universities offer rather than guardians of journalism as a separate discipline — journalism educators could become more integral to the life of their universities and more effective in improving both journalism and the education of journalists.

Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter, was the head of the Department of Journalism at San Francisco State University and founder of its Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism. The author of three books, she lives in New York and is a free lance writer and journalism education consultant, most recently in China.

HOME     |     INTRODUCTION     |     FORUM     |     ESSAYS     |     BACKGROUND

© Copyright 2002 New York University