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"To teach the craft of journalism is a worthy goal but clearly insufficient in this new world and within the setting of a great university," Lee Bollinger has said. What do you think?
Duh. Of course we ought to do more than beat rules and regulations into our students, play "pretend" journalism, and teach students in a year what a rookie reporter can learn in a month on the job. Certainly we ought to offer rigorous courses worthy of the university we are housed in. I don't know about the "new world" part of it; I think his statement has ever been thus.
I was all set to bash craft, to put in a plea for art, for upping the intellectual ante, for the encouragement of individual voices and thinkers and double majors and deep inquiry. But a funny thing happened on my way to this forum. An instructor broke her leg and I inherited G54.1070.01, the first time graduate broadcast students bang out a newscast. From basic questions of what constitutes news to clear, concise writing to accuracy to ethics, my syllabus is steeped in craft; I feel compelled to say a few words on behalf of the basics.
In an ideal world a student would enter the workplace with a general understanding of the world and its various histories, and have a deep understanding of a few subjects (that is, be college graduate). Then, at his or her first job, and under the tutelage of experienced, caring mentors, this smart person would learn how to write and report well, with confidence and conscience.
So why not save time and money and learn journalism in the real world? Because the real world sucks. I've been there, anchoring newscasts in places where duping wire copy into the teleprompter is considered writing. When I was a rookie reporter in New York, a prominent anchor yelled at me for using "allegedly" while covering the Central Park jogger trial because "everyone knows those creeps are guilty." He was one of my alleged mentors. And as corporate synergy and ratings pressure infect the business daily, perhaps j-school can inoculate young journalists to the diseases eating the flesh out of what could be the most important force outside government: the Fourth Estate.
How do we get students to find their own voice and do responsible journalism about important ideas and events they feel passionately about? Stay tuned. We're working on it.
Amy Atkins, an adjunct instructor at NYU, has been anchor for CNN, Court TV and MSNBC and a correspondent for ABC News.
I agree with Bollinger that training in journalistic "craft," as currently conceived at Columbia and other mainstream journalism schools, does not in itself fulfill the intellectual mission of the university. But his formulation implies that the problems of conventional journalism education can be solved by "craft plus" combining journalism training with a traditional discipline or some other recognized academic body of knowledge. The school's new acting dean, David Klatell, has reinforced that impression by reassuring Columbia journalism faculty and alumni that "What Bollinger's talking about is an expansion of what we do." If so, he is making a serious mistake. The journalism curriculum needs to be rethought, not just added to.
The J-school concept of craft is highly problematic, based as it is on a narrow, ideological conception of journalism. Journalism "boot camp" mainly teaches the practice and ethos of a specific journalistic genre, that of daily newspaper reporting. As the military metaphor suggests, it holds out the promise that from the rigors of reporting and writing on deadline the professional journalist is forged. Philosophically, daily newswriting is positivist: the reporter is a transparent mediator between the reader and "the facts," which are out there, independent of his/her existence. The reporter's goal is "objectivity," which requires the purging of any hint of an individual voice or perspective. Questions about the nature of observation, and the extent to which it necessarily creates facts rather than simply recording them are elided, as are the difficulties that arise in separating "fact" from "analysis."
One can argueand I would largely agreethat these assumptions, as well as the terseness of newswriting and stylistic conventions like the inverted pyramid, are essential to an enterprise that seeks to nail down, for the reader and the public record, the maximum amount of information about events with the amazing speed a daily deadline entails. One has only to contemplate the contents of newspapers last September 12 to recognize the power of the craft of hard news reporting. The problem with the j-school boot camp is that the skills thus imparted are presented not as necessary, if limited, conventions of daily newswriting but as the essence of journalism itself. Reflecting the attitudes of the elite newspaper establishment that promoted journalism education in the first place, j-school ideology sees hard news reporting as the essential initiation rite that defines a real journalist. It resists any insight into the limitations of newswriting skills and implicitly or openly belittles the very different kinds of craft required of journalists who write literary and personal essays, political and cultural criticism, and in-depth magazine or book-length reportage. It treats the individual voice of the writer as an enemy to be stamped out, rather than a potential to be cultivated. It disdains commentary as "thumbsucking." In short, its view of "the craft of journalism" is inherently anti-intellectual, whether or not supplemented with academic subjects.
The first step toward reinventing the journalism curriculum is to recognize that serious journalism--in all its genres and forms--is in itself an intellectual activity. While it may draw on academic knowledge, it has its own distinct character as an intellectual enterprise: it is a transdisciplinary inquiry into the present, which takes place not in scholarly journals but in a non-specialized public conversation. A serious journalist is by definition that figure so much discussed in the academythe public intellectual. Craft is integral to all kinds of journalismas it is, for that matter, to scholarshipbut it is a means to an end: promoting a rich, nuanced, complex and diverse public conversation on contemporary affairs. How can journalism education contribute to this end? This is the fundamental question Columbia and all journalism programs must address.
Ellen Willis is a professor of journalism at NYU and director of the Department's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Her latest book is Don't Think, Smile: Notes on a Decade of Denial.
The raging debate over the merits of journalism education has left many of my colleagues on the defensive or, worse yet, silenced. Some have quietly wondered if the critics are correct when they suggest that a journalism education has no place in the academy and simply forestalls for students more valuable experience to be found in the newsroom.
Some of my colleagues have even lent credence to a wayward belief that J-school students spend most of their time in the classroom learning craft, rather than on scholarly pursuits. These J-school bashers would turn superb journalism programs at schools like Columbia University and New York Universitywhere students are steeped in the social, political, legal, historical and literary traditions of journalisminto sterile media studies programs that are cordoned off from the dynamic and crucial field of journalism.
I have practiced daily journalism and pursued scholarly research on the news media, and I am perplexed by the debate. Given the vital role of journalism in our democracy, I can only wonder why its merits as a scholarly pursuit are not instantly grasped. Learning the who, what, where when and why of journalismor the craftis, in itself, of value, but is merely a fraction of what students learn in any credible journalism program.
In addition to learning important writing, research and analytical skills which are valuable in any number of fields, our students constantly examine the ethical, legal and moral challenges that they will surely encounter in the newsroom. During my own experience in four different newsrooms, little time was devoted to the weighty issues of journalism ethics or even the brilliance and inherent complexities of the First Amendment. Most working journalists spend less time pondering even the worst common newsroom practices than they do hustling to get a story. When newsroom practices violate basic tenets of decency, or even the law, most are unfazed unless theirs becomes one of the case studies journalism students examine. For many working journalists, their daily decisions are governed less by ethical principles and familiarity with First Amendment law, than by deadlines.
In their defense, most young journalists, eager to please their editors, are not sufficiently grounded in history, the First Amendment or ethical principles to challenge those who would have them peak through windows, sift through someone's trash or stick microphones in the faces of parents who just lost their children. Given the race to fill air time and newspaper columns, few have time to consider the decisions they make, and those they'll have to make in the future. Racial, gender and religious stereotypes and unseemly practices are rewarded with front-page by-lines. And given the import of their jobs, our very democracy hangs in the balance.
To suggest, as some have, that the newsroom is the best place to groom young journalists ignores the quest by some of us to raise the standards of journalism and to underscore its essential role in a democracy. My students are challenged to not only absorb current practices, but also to critique and explore better alternatives to sticky dilemmas. Fortified with an ethical, moral, historical, legal and literary framework, it is hoped that some of our students will become dynamic newsroom leaders who, when confronted with stories like the Monica Lewinsky/President Clinton scandal would approach it with more grace and intelligence than even some of our best news organizations did. Likewise, it is my hope and expectation that some of my students will be among those who will challenge their editors to cover individuals and communities with greater depth and sensitivity, and without the racial, religious and gender biases that continues to mar so much otherwise worthy journalism.
While it is true that an economics major can learn aspects of the craft well enough to become a journalist, it is also true that one who is exposed to the historical, legal, and ethical underpinnings of journalism will be better poised to practice more thoughtful and responsible journalism. Given the increasingly celebrity-saturated coverage dictated more by business than public service values, journalism is at a crossroads. Needed more than ever are professionals prepared to handle increasingly complex issues while recognizing the vital public service they perform. Where better than the academy to prepare the next generation of newsroom practitioners and leaders?
Pamela Newkirk is associate professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post and Artnews, among others.
Bollinger has it partly right. It is insufficient to teach only the craft of journalism without giving would-be journalists the expertise in the basic issues they hope to report on in the future. Further, we must offer experienced journalists the rudimentary and theoretical training to become the editors-in-chief and news directors of the future... in essence an "MBA" school for journalists.
Schools like NYU and Northwestern have addressed the need to give journalists relative expertise in another field by requiring undergraduates to combine their journalism major with at least a concentration in another discipline. But this is not enough. The lack of beat reporting in TV and radio news continues to result in the unhappy combination of misinformed reporters misinforming the already-misinformed public. Newspapers following the beat reporting system offer much better-informed coverage, but even the best beat reporters are often ill-equipped to cover specific issues within their beats that require a true expert's knowledge. One thing that all undergraduate schools should be doing immediately is offering basic communications-skills course to seniors majoring in other fields. I would guess such courses would easily become some of the most popular choices for those seniors. Even well-established doctors and lawyers often jump at the chance to appear as experts or even full-time reporters at newspapers and on TV despite being forced to take a pay cut. In other words, let's train the biology, government, drama and foreign language majors how to communicate for print and broadcast journalism before they become too entrenched in their own field's culture and jargon. Even if only a small number of them decide to pursue journalism as a career, we could improve the quality of the business exponentially.
But that brings us to phase II. It won't do us much good to have hundreds of issue-expert journalists out there if the current media outlets aren't prepared to use them properly. That's where our graduate schools come in. Instead of teaching basic journalism skills coupled with post-graduate level theoretical discussions about first amendment issues, let's offer experienced journalists the management training they'll need to make the improvements we all hope to see in print and broadcast journalism. One management method we must drum into the heads of such students is the desperate need for the beat reporting structure in all our newsrooms. This may seem too vocational to people like Lee Bollinger, but it's dangerous to underestimate the serious need for better journalism in this country and throughout the world. In some ways, this is a continuation of an argument that's been raging for centuries: Should our academic institutions remain cloistered enclaves where the privileged few discuss the issues, or should they look to offer real guidance and training for the rest of the world? As journalists and educators we should all be against the "cloistered enclave" option, lest we end up training and adding to the legion off feckless media critics who never offer experienced, working journalists the tools they need to make things right.
Jacob Novak is producer for CNN Financial News and an adjunct instructor at NYU.
Lee Bollinger is right to want a penetrating look at how Columbia teaches reporters and editors, and I think the "trade school" approach, as it has been practiced there and elsewhere, does not serve either journalism or its multiple audiences.
I have taken the position since I came to NYU in 1974 that journalists ought to have the widest possible exposure to the arts and sciences, and made that point repeatedly when I was director of undergraduate studies and then chairman. The Science and Environmental Reporting Program very much reflects that philosophy. Science Survey, our year-long smorgasbord and hard science sampler, attests to that. So does another requirement, Press Ethics, which is really philosophy for journalists.
The "trade school" approach is too narrow to equip journalists with the range of political, historical, economic, sociological and other knowledge areas with which they must be familiar to find meaning in what they cover and put it in perspective. Without that broader perspective and real knowledge about their areas, they are reduced to be robots who can be manipulated by the subjects of their stories.
My daughter is a physician specializing in urogynecology. While she obviously has to have very great background in the technical wherewithal to do surgery on a uterus, knowing her patient's politics, social history, criminal record, and so forth has no bearing on the operation. But it is very relevant for anyone who reports news to the public. It is absolutely imperative to know where George W. Bush, or any president, is "coming from" when he tries to state his political agenda to the country and the world beyond. Reporters and editors who lack that background knowledge are manipulable to a very dangerous extent and therefore are a menace. So say I.
William E. Burrows is the director of Science and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU. His most recent book is By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War.
Lee Bollinger's decision to suspend the search for a new journalism school dean reflects a larger confusion in the "discipline" of journalism (the very question of whether it is a discipline being one of the most confusing elements). Bollinger rightly asks whether journalism schools are trade schools or centers of genuine intellectual activity. His implication is that if they are only the former, then they don't belong in a "great university." On this point it is notable that of the other Ivies none have journalism schools or departments. Clearly Columbia is the exception, not the rule.
The "crisis" of journalism education has a lot to do with the crisis in media in general. There are few really good jobs, whether at newspapers or magazines, for new graduates. And Bollinger's question about whether "craft" is enough gets to the heart of the issue. What kind of a craft environment are we training our students for? And what resemblance does our training (which includes in-depth research and reporting, structuring lengthy pieces, etc.) bear to the impoverished (both culturally and economically) media world they will enter? Why teach students how to fashion their ideas and literary sensibility in such a peg- and celebrity-driven environment? There are barely a handful of magazines that still publish ambitious, lengthy non-fiction. Some mid-career applicants to NYU's magazine program have never published a piece longer than 1000 words. To say that there is a "disconnect" there is to understate the problem dramatically.
My "solution" to the problem has several parts.
Journalism schools might start to redefine their mission along the lines of law schools and/or creative writing programs. Even though the majority of lawyers will end up doing tedious legal work (trusts and estates, etc.), they are all required to analyze the very greatest legal decisions in American history. Law schools don't tailor their education to the marketplace (graduates of Harvard and Yale law schools are famous for failing the state bar exams). Rather, they assume a marketplace exists for their product, which is high quality intellectual capital stuff the practice of law won't get you.
And creative writing programs don't lead their applicants to assume that they will all get published. The aim of these programs is to improve a writer's work, move her towards excellence in her craft. Publishing is something that nearly everyone desires, but an MFA program isn't judged a failure if only a small percentage of its graduates excel and become "name" writers. That is the norm.
The portfolio program at NYU is an experiment that takes these ideas into consideration. It is designed to educate journalists in a way that is both conservative and revolutionary: Conservative in that it emphasizes knowledge of various journalistic traditions, basic literary skills, and practical outcomes (a.k.a. getting published) and revolutionary in that we are going to pursue these goals without primary emphasis on the "boot-camp" model ("skills" courses, "content" courses, etc.) that has dominated journalism education for the last half century. We have another metaphor: the body of work.
Applicants come to us with a proposal (much as an MFA applicant who wants to write a novel would submit several short stories), and then we work with them to develop it. The outcome is a collection of polished, though not necessarily published, pieces of work: essays, reports, criticism, reviews, documentaries, book proposals, etc. The goal of students in the program is to create a body of work. One of our goals is to set the bar high.
Journalism schools need to rethink their identities, both professionally and intellectually. Bollinger's criticism is born of his idealism and high expectations for journalism. He fears that the journalism schooland, by extension, journalism itself--has lost touch with its idealism and sense of mission. These are precisely the questions we should be considering. Perhaps it took an "outsider" to pose them.
Robert S. Boynton directs the graduate magazine journalism program at NYU. He has written about culture and ideas for The New Yorker (where he has been a contributing editor) and Harper's (where he has been a senior editor), among other publications.
The Bollinger imbroglio is, of course, political: a new university president looking for a foil to give his nascent administration the kind of drama that generates publicity. Journalism is his straw man, the raggedy apostate that threatens the ethereal tower.
I am, of course, overstating the case, in much the same way the debate is overblown, and, oh, so familiar. In the academic venues where "journalism," (whatever that term means) is taught, there has always been a kind of perverse unilateralism, or at least tribalism, tearing at the house. Academics versus professionals, theorists versus practitioners, the cosseted savant nose-to-nose with the street reporter.
The debate this time is no different, just louder and, I submit, a colossal distraction from the real issue, a problem as old as the academy: what does it mean to be "educated?" I don't know the answer, yet, but perhaps by debunking the debate, I can at least clear the ground for those who want to return to the important business of thinking about students instead of the pointless politics of the academy or the intellectual anemia of a compositional form (That crumbling Sphinx, That hoary triangular monoliththe Inverted Pyramid) that merits less than five minutes of anyone's time.
Because the debate is political, it is often more an exercise in dogma than an exploration of ideas and professional practice. To label a particular program as a "boot camp" or "trade school" is ad hominum nonsense. And to suggest that journalism education is built on the simple task of reporting and writing the news, is to ignore the evidence of the many fine courses in law, ethics, science, business and, yes, literature that are part of most J-School curriculums.
The students are cheated by this debate, cheated because no oneagain, I overstate the caseno one in journalism education is thinking about the cognitive principles essential to good course design. We know what we should be teaching, reading and writing, and it makes little difference whether we teach the reading and writing of news stories, essays, arts criticism, business writing or left-handed wind shifting. If we would spend as much time fine tuning our teaching as we do arguing about what we should teach, then journalism would be "intellectual" enough for everyoneespecially our customers, our students.
Michael Norman, a member of the NYU Journalism faculty, is hopelessly lost in history of WWII in the Pacific, sent there by Farrar, Straus & Giroux to discover why in the spring of 1942 America suffered its greatest defeat.
Yes, teaching of "craft" is insufficient. Why would anyone think otherwise? But I do not think that craft should be belittled. It is an important underpinning. (Cultural criticism, at it best, relies upon research, fact checking and interviewing skills combined with intellectual rigor and with expertise) Also, it seems to me that teaching of craft probably encourages some very smart young people to believe, at an early, stage, that they can have a career in journalism. We need them.
In reply to Lee Bollinger's questions about future direction, I think that NYU is already answering some of them. Locating journalism within the Faculty of Arts & Science is appropriate, as is the requirement that students also have a minor in another area. That engagement with the liberal arts tradition might be stressed even more. More economics, philosophy, history, art, languages, international experienceso that exposure to the disciplines enables the students to make judgments. The practice of journalism is an intellectual enterprise. And it is urgently important.
Powers of observation, and the ability to think, write, penetrate complexities, construct a coherent report or a clear argument are necessary for first-rate journalism. Journalists translate for others, and there is no such thing as a well written piece with "no voice." There is no such thing as "just the facts." Choices and distinctions always have to be made. I find that my NYU students are eager to test themselves in this way. And even for some of my students who may not continue in journalism, I think that what they have learned to do constitutes a transferable skill and a meaningful accomplishment.
When I read some of the most prominent U.S. newspapers, I find, increasingly, that I cannot even figure out what happened. The event itself is insufficiently explained or mentioned, or there is no comprehensible time sequence or any explanation of who is who. I began writing as a critic because I thought the criticism I was reading was awful. This might not be a bad motive for some of our students today.
Ellen Posner is the fomer architecture critic for The Wall Street Journal and a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and ARTnews, among others. She teaches Critical Writing to undergraduates at NYU.
I have inordinate respect for academics, but I try to avoid overestimating them. One has to be receptive to President Bollinger for no other reason than his power, but I don't think we can assume that he's going to frame the debate any more intelligently or productively than his peers and predecessors. If he can, then he's on to something, and we should listen carefully, maybe even act. If he's merely dabbling intellectually in another profession (or craft, as he prefers to call it), then I think we should be routinely attentive because of his position, while hoping that he soon moves on to something else.
Mentioned in the reactions to Bollinger's announcement was the possibility of journalism students taking courses in the medical school. This could conceivably be useful, but it seems unlikely that we need that level of specialization to produce good reporters. One of the best experiences of my career was covering AIDS for New York Newsday for two years, and I began that assignment with no medical background. I learned the beat, however, by covering countless medical conferences and seminars and interviewing many very impressive health professionals. I doubt if I would have done a better job on this assignment if I'd taken a couple of courses at the University of Minnesota medical school. I was better served by concentrating on journalism and the rest of the liberal arts, and learning later what I needed to learn about the beat that I was fortunate enough to be assigned to, at a very fine newspaper with a number of excellent Columbia graduates.
David Holmberg, an instructor at NYU, is a former reporter for New York Newsday and a former senior editor of The Village Voice.
When NYU and Columbia grads walk into newsrooms across the country, editors expect that they can handle the basics; that they know how to write compelling, clean copy on deadline. This takes practice. Indeed, 10-months of running off to cover news in New York City is barely enough time to give grads a foundation for their first jobs, where their skills will skyrocket. Thus, any move to expand the academic component should in no way dilute the skills side.
After all, graduate students have selected Columbia and NYU because they want to be working journalists. (On the other hand, undergraduate journalism students at all universities should take only a few skills classes.) For those who want to study journalism, other excellent universities offer respected journalism programs with a heavy academic focus. But NYU and Columbia offer something uniqueNew York City with daily breaking news and the opportunity for hands-on experience with working journalists guiding them along. It would be a shame to weaken this greatest strength.
Right now, Columbia students are fanning out to Corona, Crown Heights, Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, as they prepare their "beat notes" on stories about these communities. NYU students are gearing up to produce a cultural magazine. This kind of experience should never be replaced by textbook readings in classrooms and dorm rooms.
That said, Columbia's J-School is looking for a new leader and what better time is there to re-evaluate its curriculum? Already, NYU and Columbia go beyond trade school tracks but strengthening their academic sides is worth exploring. The departments should always be exploring ideas for thought-provoking classes. In addition, perhaps the j-schools could require students to take more classes in other departmentslike environmental studies for the science reporter or political science, religion or economics. As long as the skills component isn't diluted, it's ok to revisit and revise the curriculum, to make it broader, to offer more and to take advantage of "the setting of a great university."
Eve Heyn, an adjunct instructor at NYU and a Columbia J-School alum, is a former People magazine staff correspondent. She now freelances for People and other national magazines.
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