What Is Journalism Education?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   January/February 2003

What Is Journalism Education?   

A college president rekindles the debate.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


One could argue that the faster we produce journalism, the more time we should be thinking about journalism, but of course the reality is just the reverse. Our breakneck, 24-7 media environment simply allows no time to contemplate what we do, or why it matters, or how to do it better. There's only time to keep shoveling--which has grave repercussions, which we should be thinking about, but there's no time....

Journalism educators face something of the same problem. Juggling the demands of teaching, researching, writing, managing--and for some of us, raising money--we too seldom make the time to reflect on our core mission: how best to make new journalists.

That's why I was happy to oblige when Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, approached me last year to write about the challenges facing journalism education. It forced me to exhale a moment, close the door and actually compose some thoughts about my job.

The piece appeared in early July. Then weeks later, in what I can assure you was an entirely unrelated development, the new president of Columbia University caused everyone in our discipline to start thinking about journalism education. He did so by raising questions about the fundamental mission of his own storied J-school.

This was controversial stuff, given Columbia's iconic status and President Lee Bollinger's rekindling of the evergreen argument over the appropriate role of a professional school at a research university. The controversy has scarcely abated as a blue-ribbon committee has picked up Bollinger's charge to scrutinize and perhaps reimagine the Columbia program.

Now and again I'm asked by reporters to comment on the Columbia matter. I'm no more comfortable doing that than a counterpart would be talking about the Maryland program. Certainly I have tried to avoid specifics, and I will do so here. But under the circumstances a few general observations about journalism education might be in order.

First, I think it's important to remember that there's no monolithic entity called journalism education, any more than there's a monolithic "African American community" or a single type of teenage girl. There's a broad spectrum of programs devoted to journalism and mass communication, as there should be, and they all have a demonstrated validity.

Consider a (by no means inclusive) list of some top journalism programs--say Columbia, Missouri, Cal-Berkeley, Northwestern, Maryland, Indiana, Syracuse and North Carolina. The differences among them are at least as pronounced as the similarities. Some offer the full range of degrees; others are master's-level only, but with differing durations and emphases. Some are mass-communication programs, while at Maryland we focus on journalism solely. Some put heavy emphasis on academic research by faculty; others do not. Some operate centers and reach out to the profession; some do not.

But for all that, it's the similarities that matter. Each of these programs is committed to its goal. Each has outstanding faculty. Each is making substantive contributions to journalism knowledge. And at day's end, each is turning out remarkable journalists.

So there is no magic formula. Still, in my view a journalism program that skimps on its reporting, writing and editing curriculum serves its students no better than a medical school that goes easy on the anatomy lessons. By the same token, a program that doesn't firmly fix these skills within the context of journalism history, ethics and law, or that ignores the impact of new technology, is being just as shortsighted.

That journalism education--certainly at the undergraduate level--should be subordinated to a heavy-duty grounding in the liberal arts. Though we could all perhaps do a better job on this front, our field's accreditation standards at least guarantee that strong liberal arts exposure.

The ideal journalism program also has a faculty that is producing incredibly innovative research and commentary on the news media. Not every program is positioned to do that, and in any case what constitutes new knowledge is open to wide interpretation. But there isn't really any argument that, as a group, the journalism academy must continue to research, and to provoke, its practitioner counterparts.

Journalism, like so many of life's endeavors, is part skill, part craft and part art. It makes no more sense to try to reduce it to an algorithm than it does to diagram a sentence from "Ulysses." However we elect to do it, we are obligated to teach our students certain skills, to help them think critically, to prick their consciences--and then send them bravely into the world.

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