Phi Beta Cons

More Thoughts on Journalism Degrees

We’ve gotten a few e-mails in response to my post on journalism degrees, so I figured I’d add some more comments. I should note that whatever bias I have stems from my own Medill School of Journalism degree; I had a second major in political science.

Here are my thoughts after about two years in the work force:

  • The most important thing a journalism school does is teach the basics. This comprises reporting and writing.

  • Journalism professors don’t just present the material, but give students a chance to practice it, and get professional feedback, without publishing the results. Learning “on the job” in journalism, you can’t make mistakes without misinforming the public. It’s important to hone your chops outside the newsroom.
  • There are journalism-specific skills that only a journalism major will teach. An English degree will teach writing (albeit in a different prose style), but not reporting; J-school professors provide advice on conducting interviews, how much to tell sources about stories, and the like. Not to mention law, ethics, etc. Contrary to the bizarre impression of one e-mailer, it takes more than “two hours” to learn these things and practice them. Again, one can absorb these skills on the job, but that involves being on the job before absorbing them, which (to repeat) can lead to some bad situations.
  • The value of a journalism degree, like the value of just about any degree, diminishes sharply over time. If I were in charge of a hiring decision, faced with two otherwise-equal candidates fresh out of college, I’d pick the journalism-school graduate without hesitation. If both candidates had at least three or so years of experience in journalism or a related field, the degree would be little more than a tiebreaker. Degrees help their holders enter careers at higher levels than they’d be able to otherwise, but once that’s happened, advancement in the career depends more on performance.
  • Journalism falls between the categories in Charles Murray’s Real Education. As I’ve previously mentioned, I have a full review of the book forthcoming, so I won’t say much, but Murray argues that college is to provide the elite with a liberal education, whereas vocational training should prepare folks for more normal professions. To work for most newspapers, one basically needs strong writing skills, enough interpersonal ability to approach strangers and interview them, the ability to ascertain and accurately rephrase facts, and a solid understanding of the laws and ethics governing journalism. One can acquire these skills in a time span far shorter than four years. However, to analyze issues in detail, based on a solid base of knowledge, is a different question, and I certainly see the benefit in some journalists having a more well-rounded education — fewer than half of the courses I took in college were journalism ones, and my political-science background has come in handy in my career. Perhaps the best system would have two tracks; those in one track would receive two-year reporting and writing certifications, while those in the other would attend at least three years, but would have to double major in a topic they planned on writing about. The former would start in local newspapers, the latter in magazines and bigger-city newspapers. Some of the former, of course, would surpass some of the latter.
  • All journalism schools should require a three-month internship before graduation, plus work on a student paper. Without such prodding, students should be doing internships at least part-time in summer, but a requirement (fulfilled in place of course work one semester) guarantees that all graduates have real-world experience. Student papers provide a low-stakes outlet that, while public, lets writers make mistakes without usually facing too many consequences. Student papers also give non-journalism majors a good place to hone their skills, if they think they might want to get into the field.

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