A Dizzying Pace  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   October/November 2008

A Dizzying Pace   

Journalism schools race to keep up with dramatic changes in the field.

By Lee Thornton
     


I was interested to learn that Sen. John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, has a degree in journalism. Palin graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1987 from what was then the School of Communication at the University of Idaho. Today it's the School of Journalism and Mass Media. So far as can be determined, Palin is the first journalism degree holder to appear at the top of the ticket for either of the two major political parties. She used her education to work as a TV sports reporter from 1987 to 1989.

Palin's curriculum at Idaho more than 20 years ago bears little resemblance to what that institution is teaching today. (A school official told me they were still using typewriters when Palin was a student.) It's different all over. In response to developments in new media technologies, journalism education, like the industry, is morphing quite rapidly. For several years now, the nation's journalism schools have been preparing students for a whole new world. The goal for many schools, including this one, is to get students ready to work on multiple platforms in the belief that the strong will survive if they are expert not only in the print or television newsroom, but also in the Internet newsroom.

At Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism we have good evidence that the approach is working. A 2007 survey of 83 schools by the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication showed that we placed 78.8 percent of our bachelor's degree recipients. The national average for that year was 63.3 percent.

The schools surveyed included Missouri, Syracuse, Northwestern and Arizona State — all recognized among the best journalism programs today.

We place a heavy emphasis on professional practice for our undergraduate and master's students. For example, our Capital News Service students operate out of bureaus at the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., and in Annapolis, Maryland's capital, filing wire stories for area news outlets. As they have in the past, students from the bureaus reported from the Democratic and Republican conventions this year. Our "Maryland Newsline" nightly live television news programs air in some 500,000 local homes four nights a week. Our online news bureau, also part of Capital News Service, trains students in multimedia reporting and editing. Capital News Service reporters also covered this year's conventions and last spring reported stories ranging from homelessness in the state to local casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington.

This year, we've embarked on a new program based at the Baltimore Sun, where students will specialize in urban reporting. Our sports journalism specialty is evolving in line with the growth of sports networks and student demand. That part of our curriculum is now supported by three instructors, including the new Shirley Povich professor, Kevin Blackistone.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that journalism education today is not what it used to be. The challenge today is to keep up with the dizzying pace at which the profession is changing and the technology is evolving while keeping in mind the essentials of good reporting, the art and craft of the well-written story and the ethical considerations that must be the essential underpinning of all that we do. ***

And speaking of the journalism graduate who would be vice president, I decided as I watched perhaps more than my share of CNN's convention coverage that there are some clichés I'd like to ban. So here's a modest proposal: Let's do away with "reading the tea leaves." CNN's reporters read, let me tell you, innumerable tea leaves. The really interesting thing was that rarely did all of that "reading" produce a clear message.

While we're at it, let's do away with that "radio silence" they talk about. That one I had to look up. I discovered that it's a song by Elvis Costello, but also that it is a paradox implying both sound and the absence of the same. Okay. How about settling for the silence part and stop the use of this jargon?

The "head fakes" also got to me. The sports metaphor was worked until it was tired. Why, I wondered, couldn't those reporters just say there was an attempt to distract attention from the issue? I know — so many words, so little time.

Then there was the ubiquitous use of the word "guys." Why do we Americans do this? Why are reporters calling mixed gender groups of other reporters "guys"? Why can't we stop this? And if we insist on doing it, why can't "gals" have equal time? (Like that's going to happen!)

For my final rant, let's call it a day on the use of the phrase "at the end of the day." Just do it. Put away the cliché. Poof! Gone.

At the end of the day, viewers will thank you.

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