This fall I will again be teaching the introductory course to our doctoral program at Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. This may seem odd, considering that my own formal education stopped after I took a master’s degree, and one not in journalism but in the humanities. Nonetheless, I enjoy the course, not least of all because it makes me think at a deeper level about the role of journalism – and journalism schools – in society.
Joining me in the classroom will be my colleague and a predecessor as dean at Maryland, Dr. Ray Hiebert. Not long ago, in preparation for the course, he lent me a thin, well-worn monograph titled “Liberal Education and Journalism.” It was produced in 1960, at the behest of the Carnegie Corporation, which was concerned at the time about whether professional schools were striking the right balance between skills courses and the liberal arts. Similar monographs dealt with business, engineering, education, nursing and other professional schools, and the whole effort was overseen by Earl J. McGrath, a legendary educator then at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
What’s striking about “Liberal Education and Journalism” is that once you discount the fact that there is no mention of the Internet or satellites or cable television (much less O.J. Simpson or the “Naked News”), the issues in journalism education it outlined four decades ago seem as contemporary as ever.
At its core is the familiar debate: Is it better for journalism programs to take the “trade school” approach, focusing almost entirely on journalism skills, or should they instead overlay a concentration of professional skills on what is, at heart, a broad liberal arts education?
You might think that question had long since been settled, a predominant liberal arts curriculum being a requirement for an American journalism school (unlike in some other countries) to be accredited. But even today some in the journalism industry pressure J-schools to put more emphasis on skills and mechanics, especially as the profession becomes more dependent on technology. And there remains the evergreen wrangling about the appropriate faculty balance between practitioner and scholar. To this day, different J-schools take very different approaches to their mission.
The monograph’s title pretty much declares where McGrath and the work’s primary author, Paul Dressel, came down on the matter. They said journalism students needed it all – the skills and the liberal arts background. As McGrath writes in his introduction, “The professional course of study ought to be a whole in which traditional liberal arts instruction and the technical courses related to a particular occupation are joined to provide the full and relevant higher education appropriate to the needs of our times.”
They still need it all. More than ever they need it all. And striking this balance in our high-octane media environment remains one of the great challenges for journalism education.
If the past year has taught us anything, it is this: As the world shrinks, it becomes more complex. Today’s journalists, first and foremost, must be strong critical thinkers who know enough about geography, history and the human condition to understand why events play out as they do. They must be intellectually curious. They should speak a second language. They should read something other than Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews site. They ought to have a world view.
That argues for a solid liberal arts education, a substantial component of which, incidentally, can be derived from “journalism” courses – from media history to ethics to law to the theory and practice of contemporary communications in society. As is the case at many good J-programs, the students we are welcoming to Maryland are more academically accomplished then ever. But their liberal arts background, especially at the undergraduate level, is often spotty. As a group, they could be much more conversant with history and philosophy, and their writing abilities are all over the lot. (I don’t blame this condition on the students or even their high school teachers. I think in fact we universities are reaping what we have sown, which is the emphasis on teaching to the test.)
So we help along that rounding-out process where we can, and the “issues” part of our journalism curriculum runs the gamut from the iconography of war to news coverage of race. But then we turn our attention to what we really are here for – the skills part of the equation – which will allow our students to unlock all this general knowledge in the cause of great journalism.
At Maryland we focus on what we consider the blocking and tackling – reporting, writing, editing, getting the story and telling it well. Yes, technology is transforming our business, making it as complicated as it is exciting. And any competent J-school owes its students decent, modern equipment and at least a familiarity with pertinent technologies, because that’s the media world they are entering. We provide all that. But these days too many people confuse the technology of journalism with the craft itself. Our conviction is that strong reporting, editing and writing are skills that transcend “platforms” and will be in demand any time and any place.
Toward that end, the Merrill College of Journalism also has taken the unusual step of focusing on journalism solely. We no longer offer majors in public relations or advertising; we have no sequences in speech, information sciences or some of the other related disciplines that are often combined with journalism under “mass comm” umbrellas. Most of these important disciplines are still offered on campus, but in other programs. Even the media research we do – and I’m proud to say we have a roster of world-class scholars here – springs largely from the considerable dilemmas and challenges faced by our news industry.
We simply believe that journalism is important enough, and has its own distinct skills set, to warrant our undiluted attention. All journalism is communication, but not all communication is journalism. We think that’s a distinction with a difference.
I’m not suggesting our model is right for all. Every school must ascertain its own strengths and priorities, then play to them. Elsewhere in the monograph, Earl McGrath conveys this aphorism from Socrates: “If a man does not know to what port he is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
As a final point, I would suggest that that Socratic advice is just as true for the journalism industry as it is for journalism educators.
To be honest, my great abiding concern about journalism education is not so much the education part as it is the journalism part. We are training young journalists to go out and responsibly examine the complex, vital world of public affairs, but we’re graduating them into a profession that seems to have less and less use for that talent.
Network television has dramatically curtailed its coverage of public policy issues and foreign news. Local television has gone further – has basically abandoned its public trust – as it relies on the police scanner and ever-expanding Storm Center teams to scare the hell out of us instead of providing any meaningful civic coverage. Newspapers are more steadfast, but even here the commitment to such bread-and-butter matters as state government continues to erode. And while the Internet may be unparalleled for transmitting ideas and information, it still generates precious little original reporting.
Real journalism takes money, and it takes commitment.
If the leaders of the journalism industry make that commitment, then journalism schools stand ready to make sure it can be realized. If they don’t, more than the J-schools stand to lose.
Thomas Kunkel is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.