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Does journalism training belong in universities?

A debate over journalism education/training in Denmark echoes an opinion article in yesterday’s Observer by Mary Warnock who argues for elite academic institutions, saying: “The silliest thing Tony Blair ever said was that 50 per cent of the population should go to university.”

Supporting the rejected Tomlinson proposals for education reform, she writes:

Those who chose the wholly practical course would leave school already virtually apprentices, used to skilled work and capable of increasing their skills; those who chose the theoretical alternative would have passed academic examinations that properly prepared them for university. Different universities could make their own decisions about academic or ‘mixed’ applicants, depending on their teaching and research strengths. (It might even have turned out that some institutions of higher education would proudly go back to calling themselves polytechnics.)

Denmark’s school of journalism management is currently at odds over whether the school should become a part of Aarhus University or remain an independent institution, Norwegian journalist Kristine Lowe writes in her blog.

The head of the school believes that as research has increasingly become the domain of universities the school needs to work more closely with the Aarhus. The chairman, on the other hand, believes independence is important to maintaining industry links and strengthen journalistic development.

Lowe has experience of journalism courses in British institutions. In an earlier blog post she wrote of her experience of a media and communications course at Sussex University (abandoned after five weeks) because it turned out to have “very little to do with the reality of the media as I knew it”. She later completed an MA in International Journalism at London’s City University, although she does not mention this in the post. It is always instructive to listen to what former students have to say.

Her conclusion is: “Journalism is a craft, not an academic discipline and there’s a limit to how many souls can find gainful employment theorising about page three girls.”

The City courses are practical as are those of many of the better journalism departments in UK universities. British employers recruiting post-graduate journalism students tend to a preference for those who have completed a diploma rather than an MA. Most students are also keener on achieving a diploma.

In other words employers want young journalists who have a solid practical training. At Westminster University, where I now teach, practical journalism training has been successfully combined with research. The Communication and Media Research Institute is top rated and contributes in many ways to the quality of practical teaching for young journalists.

Media studies and journalism can be combined successfully, as they are at Westminster, but it is a difficult trick to pull off. In places where things go wrong students are short-changed as Kristine Lowe says happens at some British institutions and at the University of Stockholm. She quotes a representative of the Swedish Newspaper Publishers’ Association as saying practical vocational training has gradually been replaced by academic research and studying mass media from a cultural perspective.

The trouble and confusion arises when there is no clear distinction between media studies and practical journalism. But journalism is probably not a subject for universities which measure their success in Nobel Prizes, the yardstick of world excellence Lady Warnock uses.


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  1. John Henningham says

    We’ve certainly found that employers in Australia prefer the diploma approach. Graduates of Brisbane vocational journalism college Jschool‘s one-year Diploma of Journalism are in high demand, with 100% take-up rates: http://jschool.com.au Surveys of graduate satisfaction also put us at the top of the league table: see The Australian‘s recent piece “What makes a good school of journalism”, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20447561-7582,00.html (also at http://jschool.com.au/topschools.php).
    The key to a good journalism education is solid practical training in combination with relevant theory. There are many good university journalism programs in the English-speaking world (mainly in North America), but perhaps many more which are not much good, and are dominated by “media bashing” from ill-informed commentators with no personal experience of journalism. No other professional discipline at any university would permit dominance of the field by people who are hostile to its practitioners.

  2. Wordblog » Blog Archive » Journalism and media studies debate continues says

    […] All sides are represented in a piece headed “What is the point of media studies?” by Tim Luckhurst in today’s Independent on Sunday. I had my say a week ago. […]

  3. Kristine says

    Yes, it was sold to me as a journalism course at an education fair. The guy who sold me on the idea emphasised the practical elements of the course, and most of the other students on the course I talked to were there because they wanted to become journos or film producers. But I was not even 20 back then, so guess I was a bit too naive and perhaps could have checked better.

    As for taking an academic first degree: I don’t think it matters so much what subject you study as some of the skills you obtain, like methodology/text analysis/contructing arguments etc, are transferable to other subjects. The best academic training I ever had was in philosophy, although it wasn’t what I majored in, to some extent studying politics was just routelearning. While you need to know the basics of the field you cover as a journo, I think sometimes knowing too much about the field can even get in the way of your reporting: as a journo you’re just a mediator, you need to know enough to root out the con artists and ask the right questions, but at same time be receptive and open to new knowledge and angles. I think newspaper journos almost per definition need to be all-rounders, while the requirements of course would be different for someone working for specialised publications say in medicine, science, chemicals etc.

  4. Michael Kenward says

    When you say, Kristine, “it wasn’t what I had been led to believe the course would be about,” in what way “led to believe”?

    Was the prospectus wrong, did someone feed you duff information at interview, or where the teachers just plain thick?

    Did you sign up to become a journalist? In which case, wrong place. Although, paradoxically, Sussex has turned out more journalists than most universities, despite eschewing journalism courses.

    It is disappointing to read that Sussex people “didn’t expect their students to develop the ability to think for themselves until the second year”. Way back in the halcyon days, they wouldn’t let you in if you hadn’t already shown that ability. It was my way of gaining entrance with sub-optimal A-levels.

    I understand that things have changed there. In particular, Sussex recently abandoned its “arts/science scheme” because, get this, the arts mob considered themselves “too busy”.

    Glad to read that someone of a younger generation supports the line that it helps to have a “non-vocational” first degree. It isn’t just that it gives you the ability to think, it should also give you some background knowledge to blunt the inevitable ignorance of someone coming new to journalism. In your case you come better prepared than may of the pundits who pronounce on politics and intellectual history.

  5. Kristine says

    Your’re spot on here, Michael, the theoretic nature of the Sussex course was what upset me because it wasn’t what I had been led to believe the course would be about. Besides, I was incensed by how we were instructed to construe arguments about say freedom of speech based on curriculum texts (which argued for a small iota of it or a wee bit more). When I left, the dean told me that they didn’t expect their students to develope the ability to think for themselves until the second year, implying when the Uni had taught them how to. However, it was my tutor back then who told me to apply for an MA at City or Cardiff, so all credit to him for that. Before I went to City I obtained a BA in politics and intellectual history though, and I think having a first degree is really useful for a journalist as it sharpens your critical thinking. Whether journalism is taught in Uni or independent institution: I’m not sure if it makes a big difference as long as there’s a clear distinction between media studies and journalism. There’s nothing wrong with media studies, but UK universities are recruiting foreign students to those courses (as they pay more) under the pretense that they will equip you to become a journalist.

    As for MAs versus PGdip it’s a tricky one because the PGdip isn’t recognised anywhere outside the UK.

  6. Michael Kenward says

    I have pondered this topic ever since media studies began to appear on university courses.

    At one stage my answer was an emphatic “no”. Universities should not teach journalism.

    Then universities changed.

    When I graduated, around 8% of the population went to university. Degree courses contained very little of what you would describe as “vocational” training. Learning the “tools of the trade” happened only in science courses, where we had to spend a few hours a week learning how not to break test tubes.

    I happened to attend one of the few universities with a course that had “media” in the title. At Sussex University this meant studying film and TV in the same way that English courses involved studying books. In other words, the last thing on the curriculum was how to handle a camera or to write a script. This is probably what upset “Lowe”.

    Now that something like 40% of the population has a degree course inflicted upon them, we have to accept that universities have changed.

    I disagree with Warnock that this is a bad thing. What is wrong with teaching vocational stuff at university?

    OK, that means changing the concept of a university, but if the USA has lived with this model for many many years, can’t the intelligent people in Britain’s universities, not to mention employers, do likewise?

    We just have to accept that degrees differ in what they show of the people who hold them.

    As a specialist, I still maintain that we will get better science journalists, for example, if people study for a science degree and then go on to learn the techniques needed to report on it. But there is nothing to say that bolting an MSc course, for example, on to the end of that degree is a bad idea.

    After all, journalism, like handling test tubes, needs special skills. And it is easier to teach these formally and with good supervision than it is to leave people to discover them by accident in “on the job training”. That took me years. If someone else can do it in a year, so much the better.

    This does mean that employers should look at people who leave a university with a degree in journalism in a different light from someone who graduates with, say, a physics degree. I wouldn’t give one a job on a science journal, but maybe they will do just fine on a local newspaper.

    The mistake is to think of journalism as something special. Universities teach all sorts of vocational stuff. My niece studied something to do with the hospitality industry at a good “second rank” university. It left her much better prepared to work in the industry. What is wrong with that?