What’s Next for Journalism Education

As assignments go, this one was pretty easy: Would I, the editor of this journalism review asked, recommend journalism school if I had an 18-year-old daughter who was about to enter college?

The answer: Yes, I in fact did that very thing. Robin is a sophomore at my journalism school, the Donald W. Reynolds School at the University of Nevada, Reno.  I recommended j-school because she was interested after spending a lifetime (literally) listening to me talk about how much fun a journalism career can be. But I also recommended j-school because there still is no better way to learn to write and think clearly and concisely, traits that are shockingly rare in today’s world.

I also recommended journalism school because the best of the schools are going to improve in the following ways while Robin still is enrolled, and afterwards.

1. Being famous for something

In 20 years on the Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, I would guess that I’ve read more than 350 summaries of site teams that have visited schools being considered for accreditation. I’ve made nine visits myself. Too often, I’ve left a discussion thinking, “This school has met the accrediting standards (which is tremendously important), but I can’t come up with one really distinguishing characteristic that separates it from schools one state away.” Rude translation:  “Schools that try to do everything end up doing nothing that’s excellent.”

A solution may be in sight: My guess is that tough curricular reviews, prompted by budget crises in many states, will result in the best schools belatedly making difficult solutions about areas to emphasize – and, as a result, areas of less importance. Every administrator and faculty member will come up with a different list (I hope). My direction would be to ask a few obvious questions.

Does your location lend itself to a specialization? If not, is there a broad underserved area in journalism that your school might help? After the last election, I’d say that rigorous public-affairs reporting would be one area. I love Politifact.com and other fact-checking services, but isn’t fact-checking what all journalists are supposed to do?

2. Specializing

When I was the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News I hunted for an electrical engineer who could write – or, at the very least, a journalist who had studied electrical engineering. I never found either but I still think that he or she could have covered Silicon Valley’s semiconductor industry better than we did with our very bright but traditionally trained reporters.  From the very beginning, journalism’s accrediting council had in mind the need for broadly educated journalists who could cover anything, even chips.

As a result, the council limited the number of journalism courses that a j-major can take (which seems counter-intuitive to academics in other, more narrow fields). Today’s accrediting standards require a minimum of 80 semester hours “in courses outside the major area of journalism and mass communications, with no fewer than 65 semester hours . . . in the liberal arts and sciences.” For most students, that means a potpourri of interesting courses that lead to a broad education – a good thing – but not a specialized education.

However, the requirement leaves plenty of room for that specialization – a beefy minor or a second major in a specialized, not broad, area. Writing about graduate education, Nick Lemann, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, recently said that specialized courses provide “the kind of intellectual grounding that enables a journalist to delve deeper into a story, asking the kind of questions an expert in the field might pose and evaluating evidence.” I’ll bet the best schools will push, even in undergraduate education, for more minors or double majors in unusual areas . . . such as electrical engineering.

3. Learning to add

Our provost – my boss – recently asked me if journalists know how to evaluate, say, the chance of a Category 5 storm hitting New Orleans or the risk to the population when Ecoli is discovered in a very small part of the food chain. I told him the truth – most journalists don’t understand numbers. But I suspect the best schools will encourage journalism students to study at least rudimentary statistics and, depending on kids’ interests, maybe even basic accounting.

If students complained, I’d steer them toward one of my favorite sites, 538.com, whose official goal is “to accumulate and analyze polling and political data in way that is informed, accurate and attractive.” What it really does is us

e statistical analysis to measure all sorts of interesting subjects, including the chances of clearing a heavy snowfall from the streets of New York. It’s a fascinating site. Stats or accounting would be the perfect accompaniment to a good course in database reporting.

4. Questioning news sources

Thanks to pioneering work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the best journalism schools are teaching students how to evaluate the news they are reading, whether they’re getting it by phone, computer, print, television, radio or social media. To our surprise, many of the students in our pilot news-literacy course last semester didn’t grasp the importance of evaluating the source of news: A partisan site seemed as credible to many students as a news site. For the spring semester, we’ll emphasize specific questions to ask about sources.

5. Writing long-form journalism

My newsroom friends will think that all of those ink fumes got to me over the years when they see this idea. But the best public-affairs reporting that I have read recently was long and nuanced. “Game Change,” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, may have had a lot of blind quotes, but it also had detail I read nowhere else. Adam Nagourney in New York Times Magazine told me things I didn’t know about Harry Reid – and I live in Nevada.

Almost everything Peter Baker writes in the Times and Times Magazine, such as “The Education of President Obama” in October, enlightens. The best journalism schools will match up the need for better public-affairs reporting and long-form writing by using some of these examples – even if we are in the age of Twitter.

6. Working with journalism professionals

Collaborations flourish. More and more journalism schools are working with professionals in all sorts of ways – covering specific neighborhoods, investigating subjects that haven’t been covered. As Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, writes, “. . . a great deal of work is being done by journalism schools in meeting the public’s need for high-quality information.”  Besides, students are learning to collaborate with each other and with pros.

What could be wrong with that? Not much, but I’d argue that students should be paid and receive course credit, which implies evaluation by a serious editor or faculty member. Overholser quotes one of my colleagues at Reno, Donica Mensing, as adding a third requirement: “For this work to have value, the standards, organization, editing and networking of new models must be incorporated into the creation and distribution of the journalism. We owe it to students and to the health of the discipline to push for new skills and mindsets for the future, and avoid absorbing all energy into reproducing work we know how to do.”

7. Learning the right thing to do.

At our graduation reception each spring and winter, I tell students I have good news and bad news for them. The bad news is that many other good journalists, in addition to our latest crop, are out there. The good news is that few of them (at least that’s my argument) have received the mandatory ethics grounding that our kids have received – and that will distinguish them in an important way in this unprincipled society.

Three years ago, our senior class decided that new graduates should be offered a chance to pledge that they will practice ethical journalism in their careers. Those who like the idea sign a parchment ethic pledge that we display and receive a small copy for themselves. “Our daughter should put that on her resume,” one happy mother told me last year. The best journalism schools will push ethics education.

I don’t know what Tony Wagner of Harvard, author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” had in mind when he wrote about the skills that all students need. But here’s how Tom Friedman paraphrased him: “There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving,  the ability to communicate effectively, and the ability to collaborate.”
To me, that sounds as if he is talking about journalism education.

Jerry Ceppos is dean of the Donald W.  Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. For 36 years, he worked as an editor at the Miami Herald, as managing editor and executive editor at the San Jose Mercury News and as vice president for news  Knight Ridder. He later was an adjunct professor at San Jose State University and a fellow in media ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.


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