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From AJR,   June 1993  issue

Getting It Wrong for 16 Years (At Least)   

The latest goofs on the J-school story fit an old pattern.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

The popular mythology in our field knows no bounds. Here are examples both recent and hallowed.

The New Republic ran a rollicking story in April about journalism schools, with a tabloid-style cover that said: "J-SCHOOL ATE MY BRAIN." It said these "trade schools" offer thin gruel, but don't worry. Newspapers don't hire from them anyway. It bashed Columbia in particular. A number of journalists were quoted.

Never mind the facts, Ma'am.

A survey of editors in 1989 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that 80 percent or more of the young people taking newspaper jobs are journalism majors. An ASNE brochure says "this applies across the board for newspapers large and small." The figure is consistent with previous surveys by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund.

And about the gruel: Three-fourths of a journalism major's undergraduate work in accredited schools must be outside journalism and communication. Within the major, between half and three-fourths of the work could be reasonably described as liberal arts.

Whether any part of this is good education depends upon the school and the university. (The ASNE survey showed that 43 percent of the editors make it a point to know whether the job applicant's journalism school is accredited; a simple thing, but not to be assumed.)

Flashback: In 1977 the Atlantic publishes a story by Ben Bagdikian that will remain imbedded in the brains of some journalists for at least 16 years to come. Although Bagdikian is careful with the facts, his editors are not.

"Woodstein U.," the story was called. The art showed Dustin Hoffman (Carl Bernstein) saying to Robert Redford (Bob Woodward): "Would you believe it! More than 60,000 kids studying journalism!" Redford replies: "Yeah. And they're all after our jobs."

The liftout at the top said: "More than enough students are enrolled in journalism courses at this moment to replace every professional journalist now employed on an American newspaper."

In the article, Bagdikian referred not to enrollment "in journalism courses" but to students "in some kind of journalism major." By "some kind of journalism major" he meant various pursuits (advertising, e.g.) that are not directed toward newspaper reporting. He noted that the number of students had jumped from 11,000 in 1960 to 64,000 in 1977.

Bagdikian, an exceptional journalist who already had joined Berkeley's journalism faculty, wrote that the Woodstein model had proved "irresistible," as if this explained burgeoning enrollments in journalism programs.

In truth, most of these students were never seeking newspaper jobs, and certainly they were not trying to be the next Woodsteins. But a myth was born.

The main reasons for greater enrollments were: (1) Women were surging into this academic field for the first time, and (2) advertising, public relations and broadcasting enrollments were booming in these schools, a factor directly related to the young women's choices.

Within a year or two you will see some new takeout on J-schools. Whether or not it is by a journalism grad, you probably can bet that it will be badly reported and edited. Never mind the facts, Ma'am. l