Journalism school takes part in national debate: what to teach?

Dylan Thomas

When the president of Columbia University announced this summer he was suspending the search for the new dean of its journalism school, it highlighted an ongoing debate at journalism programs across the country – including the University – about what should be taught in their classes.

Historically, whenever journalism schools strayed too far from teaching the basics of reporting and editing, professionals criticize them for not teaching students the practical skills required for professional work, said Sherrie Mazingo, Cowles Media Fellow at the University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

That’s become the debate’s focus: teaching students about the field or training them to work in it.

Kate Parry, a senior editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press who has been hiring reporters for 11 years, said being a skilled writer is still “the price of entry” into professional journalism.

“If you’re hiring a reporter, you’ve got to hire somebody who can write, bottom line,” Parry said. These are skills often learned on the job, she said.

That was certainly true for Kyle Bosch, who graduated from SJMC last May. Bosch studied broadcast journalism and has worked as an associate producer at KSTP television since his junior year.

Bosch said the skills courses he took were more important because “you can learn all the theory you want, but when you really get out in the workforce, it’s a matter of knowing how to go down to the courthouse and look for a document, knowing how to find a source.”

On-the-job training was especially valuable for Bosch, who felt the two broadcast reporting courses SJMC offers did not prepare him for professional work.

“The thing about it is, there’s a lot more to broadcast journalism than just being a television reporter,” Bosch said. “The job I’ve been doing as a producer at KSTP, there’s not really training for that at the University of Minnesota.”

Although Parry stressed the value of on-the-job training, she said courses such as media law and media ethics are important for learning how to make news judgments and ethical decisions.

Bosch said the SJMC media law course was especially helpful.

“While it’s a theory course, it also teaches you skills you need to know, in terms of what you can and cannot do, so you don’t end up getting sued or getting your station sued,” Bosch said.

Faculty at SJMC said the program tries to balance teaching skills and theory.

“To me, those schools that focus solely on one area Ö without due consideration and inclusion of parts of the other, are not the best schools,” Mazingo said.

Al Tims, director of SJMC, said, “While our program has a professional component, we think of ourselves as professionally oriented, rather than a professional school.” SJMC is firmly a part of the College of Liberal Arts and seeks to provide a broader education, Tims said, unlike the skills-based reporting boot camp at Columbia.

Shaking it up

another distinction is that Columbia offers only a graduate program.

Still, the debate going on there and at other major graduate programs in journalism reflects the changes going on in the field.

Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, considered one of the pre-eminent journalism schools in the country, administers the Pulitzer Prize, the top award in American journalism. In an intensive 12- to 18-month-long master’s degree program, students hone their journalistic abilities.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has said his re-evaluation of the school may lead to more specialized reporting programs.

Loren Ghiglione, dean of the Medill Graduate School of Journalism at Northwestern University, is leading a yearlong evaluation of its program.

Ghiglione is waiting for approval on several courses he has introduced, including new graduate courses in legal journalism and economics and business journalism. The journalism and music departments at Northwestern are already working on a music journalism program.

Tims said SJMC has two graduate programs in the works that will focus on specialized reporting. A health journalism masters program, which Tims said is the first of its kind in the country, will be jointly run with the University’s School of Public Health and SJMC.

Finding a balance

during SJMC’s history, the program has gone through changes affecting its focus on both areas of journalistic study.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, the program built its reputation on a strong base of mass communications research, said Mazingo, who has also written a history of the program.

Even during that period, many of the school’s professors came from a professional journalism background, not research, Tims said.

Research and theory remained the program’s emphasis through the 1980s, Tims said.

During one period in the late 1980s, “There was a lot more interest and emphasis on the scholarship and a lot less interest and emphasis on the professional needs of our students,” Tims said.

Tims said what the school lacked most in those years was involvement from area professionals. But in the years since then, the school has managed to attract several of them, mostly as adjunct faculty.

The years under former University President Mark Yudof were also a time of growth at SJMC, marked by a focus on new media, such as online journalism, Tims said.

It is during these years that Mazingo thinks SJMC made its greatest strides toward finding balance. She said, from her understanding, five or six years ago the school began “specifically to prepare (undergraduates) for entering into the professional world, and the curriculum began to change accordingly.”

Although faculty members say they believe the school has found a good balance between the competing interests, the SJMC Web site shows all but two tenure-track professors at the school hold doctorate degrees.

That could be a sign the University still has strong roots in the research side of journalism education.

Still, the adjunct faculty at SJMC includes many professional journalists, often coming from the local community.

Tims said the school should be an environment where people from both sides of journalism can interact.

“Our ability to have (professionals) interact with people doing some of the most important scholarly work anywhere in the country Ö makes this, I think, a vibrant community,” Tims said

“We have issues with who we need to be in the coming decade or two, but they aren’t the same kind of hand-wringing issues that Columbia has.”


Dylan Thomas welcomes comments at [email protected]