What Do Journalism and Education Have in Common? June 12, 2011

What Do Journalism and Education Have in Common?

Michael Tracey, a former Secular Student Alliance group leader, has a controversial piece in The Nation about journalism schools in general, whether they’re necessary, and whether they’re even teaching the right things.

Allow me to rant for a bit:

Obviously, there are exceptions, but too many journalists are just good for gathering basic information and spitting it back out. I can recall several instances where groups I work with have sent out press releases to newspapers, only to receive coverage that’s basically a copy/pasting of the entire release, quotations and all. It’s fantastic for us, since they’re getting our message out for us, but it’s poor journalism… and I wonder how I’d feel if a religious right group sent them a release of their own and the same thing happened.

When it comes to religion, journalists are notoriously bad. There’s this unstated, blanket rule that everyone’s beliefs must be respected and reported on as if the beliefs were true. If a mainstream journalist reports on, say, someone who holds a belief in reincarnation, how often do you see a statement in the article about how there’s no evidence that reincarnation is true? When you read a story involving the Catholic practice of communion, journalists never point out that it’s just a wafer and not actually the body of Christ. Why? That’s not injecting opinion into the story — that’s just a basic fact.

But it’s someone’s belief and therefore it must be respected, right…? That’s why, when it comes to stories involving religion, I rely on blogs more than I do newspapers. I want to read what people who actually know what they’re talking about have to say about the matter. It’s entirely possible to be objective without letting theists get away with stating bullshit.

It’s the same problem with politics. I can’t watch the nightly news anymore because they treat both parties as if they have something relevant to say on every topic. They don’t, at least not on every issue.

I understand the desire for being impartial when covering a story, but good journalists should be able to make a point, and you can’t do that when you’re focused on being “fair and balanced” instead of really informing the audience about an issue. There’s a reason people trust Jon Stewart more than they do network news anchors. There’s a benefit to being aware of a person’s views and then hearing what they have to say. That’s why I love watching Rachel Maddow and reading Matt Taibbi.

I’ll admit that I never ask myself where any of the journalists went to school. It just doesn’t matter.

Tracey writes:

“Formal training in journalism isn’t necessary,” [NYU journalism professor Jay] Rosen told me last fall. “It never has been. The percentage of professional journalists who attended J-school has never been more than 60. Compare that to law, medicine or accounting and it’s clear that there are other ways to join this field than getting a degree in it. And that’s the way it should be. Requiring a J-degree would be a regulation and we have an unregulated press in this country.”

Clearly, the journalism major is unnecessary for entry into the industry. But I’d go a step further — on a whole, it’s actually bad for the craft. Think about the social function of the journalism major. Overtly or not, it creates an implicit regulatory structure, endowing journalism students with the right to manage the university’s newspaper by virtue of their participation in important seminars on media ethics and interview techniques. Conversely, non-journalism students are left with the impression that reporting is best reserved for those who’ve been formally trained to do it.

I think he’s right. Some bloggers do a far better job of reporting a story, getting the facts in proper context, and even getting interviews than mainstream reporters.

The other thing that Tracey’s article made me think about was how important it was to go through formal training for one’s job. Naturally, I began to think about schools of education.

I went through a year’s worth of classes in order to get certified to teach high school math. What was it good for? I’m not sure.

I learned how to write a lesson plan — something I’ve never done in four years of teaching. I learned about the state standards in Math — which tell you nothing about how to teach any of the topics. I learned the basics about some issues in the education world — but I don’t recall discussing the effects of unions or tenure or charter schools, things I’ve paid far more attention to on my own over the past couple years.

I never learned how to be a more effective speaker/educator. Or how to talk to parents about their kids’ grades (especially when they’re failing). Or how to get kids to really learn how to do math instead of just memorizing a formula. There was no class called, “How to get kids to shut the hell up when you’re trying to teach them.” Or how to negotiate a contract.

Most of what I needed to know in order to teach, I picked up during student teaching. That was a useful experience, far more than anything I learned in a classroom. I learned a lot more during my first year on the job.

When it comes to being a more effective teacher now, I learn more by reading the blogs of fellow math teachers than I ever did in a classroom.

Did I need to go through the certification classes? The state requires it, but I would probably have been better served working directly with an experienced math teacher or two over the course of a year.

(Do you know where your teachers got certified? Does it matter?)

Tracey has a similar solution for journalists:

So what’s the solution? My sense is that the aspect of journalism education most worth preserving is the hands-on experience with seasoned writers and editors. Instead of sequestering journalism into its own academic program, then, why not incorporate it into the teaching of other subjects? Bring in professional journalists who’ll emphasize to students in the humanities and the sciences that they are just as entitled to “do journalism” as anyone else. And it’s not nearly as complicated as they might think.

I love that suggestion, too. Not everyone wants to be a teacher, but we could at least Incorporate the idea of communicating one’s area of expertise across the board. If you’re studying economics, you ought to learn how to effectively communicate economic issues and theories. Same in political science classes. Most of the people I had my math classes with had no intention of going to grad school in the subject, but we would have been served well if we learned how to express mathematical ideas in a clear way. (FSM knows we could use those skills in the science world.)

Rant over. Your thoughts?

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  • Pony

    Two thoughts:

    One, maybe Journalists should get a degree in the field they are planning to report on, so they have a working knowledge that will allow them to ask meaningful questions.

    Two, perhaps teaching should be a trade, with apprenticeships and on the job training.

  • Gordon

    I did teacher training, and I (honestly) failed because I couldn’t write a “good” lesson plan. My tutors agreed I was good with the classes I was teaching and I was teaching good lesons, but that the “framework” wasn’t there in the lesson plan.

    The fact that no actual teachers wrote lesson plans didn’t matter, nor that nobody could show me what they wanted in my plans.

  • I completely agree with the teaching point. I am an undergraduate student in biology that is considering teaching as a profession, and I have experience teaching my peers in workshop type programs. In the state of Florida I don’t need to take education classes, but anywhere else does. We aren’t encouraged to go into teaching (I am at Miami, a pre-med farm) and I have friends in the education program that really just don’t understand the subjects they are wanting to teach. I think that is one of the largest contributing factors to our problems with education in this country. So many of the people teaching, especially in the subjects people most struggle with. the maths and sciences, have no formal training in that subject, and thus don’t understand the material at a level higher than they need to teach it, and if you don’t understand the subject well enough to be able to come out of every year knowing much more than your students, there is a problem. How are educators supposed to excite their students about what they are teaching when they don’t understand it? I would not feel comfortable teaching biology with the requirements they have in place at my University’s education department, and I wouldn’t want someone that never took more advanced classes to be explaining things to my future children. Taking the upper level graduate courses that I have thus far while working towards my BS have allowed me to understand the subject well. However, more importantly, I have come to love biology even further, and feel as though that is what is truly important when teaching children-to convince them that it is worth studying and spending time learning the material you are talking about, and you cannot do that if you don’t enjoy the subject. That is more important than learning how to write lesson plans, and you (mostly) don’t find that passion in people that are getting degrees in education.
    Sorry for the rant, I just think you completely nailed on the head one of the largest problems with American education.

  • dauntless

    Science journalism is notoriously bad since a lot of the journalists interpreting scientific papers don’t have a strong background in the disciplines they are reporting. Often, the editors are similarly uneducated. This sets up a system where it’s common for science articles (in newspapers) to be published with sensational headlines which completely misrepresent the data being reported.

  • Simon

    That’s why I watch Al Jazeera English: http://english.aljazeera.net

    More adversarial, better researched, more reporters on the ground, less ads. Here in DC they’re available over the air and on regular cable, however they are getting picked up by other cable providers I understand.

  • Excellent rant. I’m a graduate student in electrical engineering and am required to take one communication course (and an option second one). I can’t report on what exactly it teaches yet, but it’s there. As an undergraduate, all of the English requirements were extremely irrelevant to my future. Other professors/professionals have definitely taken notice though. I last heard that MIT was going to require their engineering communication courses to be taught by engineering professors, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Hopefully other schools catch on.

    I’ve also attended a local rant by one of my graduate professors. He was arguing that the four-year undergraduate college “institution” is not sustainable. There is just too much irrelevant material, and as prices go up that’s going to become all the more apparent. Society also hasn’t effectively integrated the internet into education. If you’re intelligent and pretty self-motivated, you can practically pick up an engineering discipline from all the free resources online. At the very least, the first 2-3 years of undergraduate engineering courses. The issues are having external resources (knowing which engineering books to buy and access to professors) to clear up confusion and keeping yourself motivated. But even attending a college doesn’t remove those issues. Plenty of students still don’t ask for help even when they’re struggling (i.e. failing, D, C, even B’s) and paying 10-30k, and most have no idea why they are there except that they ought to be.

  • My youngest brother graduated from university this past April with a teaching degree, and his Speech classes were specific to classroom presentation, methods classes were designed to deal with just such problems, ethics dealt with speaking with parents, etc.

    Also, every teacher in the school district I volunteer in is required to turn in lesson plans for the week every day. Of course, it was a private religious school, so take that with a grain of salt. It depends on where you go, I suppose.

    If you’re studying economics, you ought to learn how to effectively communicate economic issues and theories.

    As someone in the field of economics, I’d like to emblazon this on a banner and have a plane fly it through the sky. Economics is the worst when it come to reporting accurately and interpreting according to theory. There’s a lot of really bad science reporting too.

    I took a few journalism classes, at one point considering that field, but I found that they were quite inflexible in ‘the way things were done’ and highly sexist which surprised me. Of course, I eventually chose a field with even worse records for women, so perhaps I’m just a glutton for punishment.

    I always think of the news as a tidbit buffet. They offer you little nibbles of the issues and then it’s your responsibility to go find out all the facts and such yourself.

  • Clarity: My brother’s university is private religious, I volunteer in public schools.

    I should not write stream of consciousness replies, especially before my second cup of coffee.

  • JoeBuddha

    Maybe teaching (and journalism) should move to the Apprenticeship model and become more of a trade.

  • It’s true that J-school is not strictly necessary in order to become a good reporter or editor. But there’s value — or there should be — in learning about journalism, in honing one’s writing, in learning how to conduct research, learning how to confirm one’s findings, learning how to write objectively, etc. Yeah, these things can be learned on-the-job or in other ways outside of J-school, but that doesn’t make J-school irrelevant. It just means it’s one of several paths one can take.

    But that has nothing to do with the state of journalism as a whole, which is abysmal and growing worse. It suffers from two afflictions: First, a lack of personnel and the time to properly write meaningful stories (the “press-release journalism” you mention is a great example of it). Media outlets are spending less on journalism, hiring fewer reporters, and spreading them thinner … and it shows. Second, it suffers from the devaluing of the objectivity ideal. Many journalists now believe it’s acceptable for them to be propagandists for their own views, rather than impartial reporters of the facts. (If one needs evidence of this, I need only point one in the direction of Fox News and MSNBC — among many others.)

    The question of whether J-schools should come or go is — compared to the overall collapse of journalism — a tempest in a teapot. Before this issue can be addressed, journalism as a profession needs to be “fixed.” And I don’t see that happening, as the dual forces of corporate downsizing and propagandizing continue to yank journalism around and bring it down.

  • Hrrm.
    This is extremely interesting for me, as I’m about to start a journalism MA in the autumn. I’d have a lot of similar issues with journalism as it stands- which is why I’m planning on going into the field, actually. I’ve a couple of sociology degrees and I work as a social researcher. I got sick to death of the way that the sciences- particularly social science, psych, evo psych and whatnot, given my own background- were reported. So I signed up for a journalism course!
    For me, it’s more that as someone who currently works in research and who has a more academic background, I have tons of research/writing experience. But it’s all the wrong kind of experience. I can write a paper, I can put together a tutorial or a workshop. But writing a news report? Wouldn’t know where to start. Understanding how the field works? Haven’t the foggiest.
    I think that journalism-as-an-MA is a very good idea- and not just because it’s what I plan to do. If someone already has a bachelors’ degree under their belt, they already have expertise in something else. With any luck they’ll know a bit about research methods. Otherwise they’ll probably have a good background in criticism of texts and whatnot. Having that awareness of how things work is definitely something that’s missing a lot of the time.

  • littlejohn

    As for an aspiring journalist getting an education in the field he “plans” to cover; that’s bullshit. The newspaper doesn’t ask you what beat you want – you cover (as best you can) what they assign. The only exception is sports.
    As for pointing out that it’s just a wafer, no newspaper can afford to do that because 25 percent of you customers will call your switchboard and cancel their subscriptions. Lower circulation means lower ad prices, and, ultimately the paper has to lay people off and produce a worse product – or even go out of business.
    Writing is something everyone thinks they can do. Most people suck at it. J-school does a very good job of teaching the inverted pyramid, AP style (which virtually every paper uses), basic research skills and libel law.
    I will say this, though: It’s not enough to know how to write if you don’t know anything well enough to write about it. I would recommend that budding journalists minor in journalism and major in whatever substantive field really interests them. I, for example, carried a second major in philosophy.

  • Annie

    For years, I’ve thought that the field of teacher training should shift towards a vocational program, and away from a professional one. But, I’ve learned not to say such things when speaking with academics, as they feel that the field of education will only improve if it is considered a professional field. Bull. They have tried that for years and it doesn’t work. When I adjunct at the COE at a local university (science methods), I let the students read the book themselves and never mention Vygotsky or Piaget. Instead, I have them do the same lessons I do with my elementary kids. At first, they think I’m babying them… until they start to realize that they are actually learning science! I test them on their understanding of science process skills, how to ask productive questions, and how to elaborate on lessons to match student interest and needs. What I teach, is clearly more vocational in nature, but I also think they take so much more away from the course this way.

  • JJR

    Agree, Hemant. Reminds me of a parody skit I remember from somewhere with a journalist hosting a discussion between a NASA scientist and “a man who believes the sky is merely a tapestry with holes cut in it through which the celestial lights of the heavens shine through.”, with the reporter being straight faced and neutral, as if both persons had reasonable views.

    Sometimes the weight of the evidence really does fall disproportionately on one side. Reporters should be cognizant of that, cognizant of objective reality. The necessity for Ad revenue sometimes runs counter to this, however. Selling eyeballs and ears to advertisers is job#1 in the news biz, while performing its service as the 4th estate is strictly a secondary consideration, and always will be when news organizations must survive as capitalist, for-profit enterprises.

    While the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was a noble idea, allowing for news reporting that isn’t dependent on commercial advertising, the Right Wing has effectively conflated “public supported” with “government controlled” in the public mind and been able to relentlessly chip away at funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, forcing them back into increasing dependence on Corporate underwriting and donations from viewers. Anyone else notice that NPR has recently changed its tag line from “listener supported” to “listener funded”?

    Right-wing Conservatives don’t like independent/truly objective media because it exposes their lies and deceits…as Stephen Colbert jokes, “reality has a well known liberal bias.”; As Rachel Maddow puts it, “this is ultimately about what’s true in the world.”; I do have my own disagreements from time to time with Rachel Maddow (I find she’s very hawkish on Foreign Policy, and I don’t care for her gun control ideas–for example decrying the fact that people on the terrorism watch list can still legally buy guns but ignoring just how politicized and unconstitutional and egregiously civil-liberties ignoring that watch list always has been since Bush created it!!), but for the most part she does her homework, does the research, and is willing to use valuable air time to go into fairly complex arguments about policy issues, etc, that I just don’t see anywhere else in mainstream media. How much of her viewing audience is actually educated enough to follow her arguments is an open question, but I do applaud her efforts to raise the bar in mainstream cable TV journalism.

    Of course, I also depend on blogs, outfits like Democracy Now!, FAIR and their radio show CounterSpin, The Young Turks, et. al. to round out my news diet. I sometimes catch bits of Fox News that my Dad watches in the spirit of “opposition research”, but it mostly just overwhelms my B.S. detector so much I have to walk away.

    Yes, there is lying and deceit on the Left-of-center side as well, and a truly objective journalism ought to function in exposing that as well. But I would argue the Right by necessity uses more lying and deceit because when they are honest about their policies and views, these ideas are vastly unpopular with the overwhelming majority of ordinary people.

    “I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends… that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats,we will stop telling the truth about them”.
    — Adlai E. Stevenson, Governor of Illinois & 2-Time Candidate for President (1900-1965)

    Without Religious B.S. to distract people, the Right Wing would have a much harder time getting their way in this country and round the world.

  • StarScream

    I have a B.A. in journalism and a M.A. in professional writing and I despise damn near the entire field. I refuse to ever use my degrees in any type of “reporter” capacity. I’d rather work fast food.

    Was the education worthless? No. I learned much. It is unnecessary though. I know an executive editor of a newspaper who has nothing but a high school diploma.

    The only area I’d ever consider working is science writing. But, as others have already mentioned, I’d be walking into a field of atrocious dilettantes. By simply being well-read in the literature (written by actual scientists) I know and understand science better than 95% of journalists writing on the subject. That’s why I wrote my thesis on cognitive science. I intend to try and leverage this into admittance into an actually worthwhile PhD program in the sciences.

    So yeah Hemant, you are right.

  • Joe

    I write for an ESPN affiliated website, and during an event with ESPN staff, I took about 15 minutes to discuss J-School with some of the top dogs.

    I was told overwhelmingly that it was a waste of time and money, since the connections to dying world of print journalism world are just about worthless at this point.

    The advice I was given is to read as much as I can, and write until I get better. That’s all there is to it, and thus far it’s working out great.

  • AmyC

    I’m a journalism student at UTA (minoring in geology). To be honest, my journalism/reporting classes are not very challenging, but I am learning valuable information that I otherwise would have to learn “on-the-job” if I went straight to a newspaper.

    I was an English major before I switched to journalism, and the hardest part for me was switching gears to learn AP style. It’s not a difficult way to write, once you get the hang of it, but it was difficult for me at first because I was used to writing in MLA and/or APA.

    It’s also giving me a chance to practice before I publish. Right now, if I make a mistake, nobody gets sued or fired, I just have to rewrite (which has only happened once to me in 2 years). In fact a good portion of the classes I take is spent teaching us how to avoid getting sued. If I started writing and publishing before I knew all of this, there’s a good chance I and the newspaper I work for would get sued by somebody. There is so much crap out there that I didn’t realize somebody could sue over. Who else knew that a newspaper could get sued for spelling a name “Jon Smith” instead of “John Smith?”

    I also have to say to Hemant: Every single thing that you hate about the state of the media today–all of my professors (and editors at the ShortHorn, as well as all of the guest speakers, feel the exact same way. What better way to try to help the state of the media today, then to train up the next generation?

    Look at it this way: If someone goes into the field and is not educated (I mean specifically in journalism, many people have degrees in other fields) then all they will learn is what they see on the job. All of those things you hate: oversimplifying and sensationalizing science, trying to appear neutral in a “debate” when one side clearly doesn’t have a leg to stand on, etc. will seem like the normal and appropriate thing to someone with no education in the field. They will learn to do the job the same way everybody else does it.

    Now, if instead, somebody wants to be a journalist and they go to school. They will learn from their professors, guest speakers, internships, and fellow students the correct way to do the job. That is what my school is trying to do at least. Most of my assignments (outside of actually reporting) are to find news articles in the paper and analyze them. Point out where there needs to be more clarity or where they have oversimplified or just where it is wrong altogether.

    I have to say that of the papers I have spent analyzing, the local ones are usually the best at remaining objective, while still getting the correct information out. We tried analyzing the national papers, but even in the NYT (which my professor loves) we found terrible articles rife with editorializing where it wasn’t needed.

    There is a valuable lesson here. The good journalists are leaving the national papers/magazines and networks. The good journalists are working at local papers.

    There is even a group of journalists here in Texas that has recommitted itself to investigative reporting (the respectable kind, not the bullshit “sting” operations of heavily edited footage that has become popular with certain individuals). This is a good thing. Journalists know there are problems in the media. They are aware of it, and many of them are fighting it. Imho, the best way to fight it is to start with the students. Teach them the correct way and, hopefully, there will be a whole crop of new journalists who are committed to stringent journalistic standards.

    I just don’t understand how you can see all these problems in the media, and then rail against educating the very people who are going to work in the media. It seems counterproductive.

    p.s. I’m doing my minor in geology because I want to be a science journalist. I know how terrible half of them are, and I think a big reason for that is most of them are not educated in the science they cover (or any science for that matter).

  • randyman72

    A lot of great points were made here. A few points that I would like to comment on-I first noticed the lazy journalist syndrome a few decades ago. One example is from Frank Zappa’s “The Real Frank Zappa Book” where he shows how a haphazardly written review which was first published in the early 1970s had been basically copied and pasted by subsequent “journalists” all over the U.S.A. over the next two decades.
    Around this same time, I read an article assigned to us in a Freshman level Political Science class. The article dealt with the phenomenon of “Investigative Reporting/Investigative Journalism”. The writer pointed out that these terms are obvious redundancies, as all reporters and journalist should already be investigating claims, as opposed to merely doing what amounts to taking dictation, or regurgitating wire coverage, or old source material.

  • Jasen777

    How do you get kids to shut the hell up when you’re trying to teach them?

  • Charon

    The benefits of background education prior to vocational or on-the-job training include vastly better flexibility, and understanding broader context. This isn’t true for every discipline, and I don’t know if it’s true for journalism or K-12 education. I do know it’s true in fields like physics and astronomy. (E.g., my daily research requires no quantum mechanics, but when QM does come up occasionally, my prior courses in it give me a strong base to start my analysis from.)

    That said, my university also just got rid of its journalism school.

    And yes, Rachel Maddow is freaking awesome. She does have strong personal opinions, but she’s also scrupulously honest and polite to even the most rabid right-wing guests. Which is why I blow a gasket whenever Fox and MSNBC are equated, as one commenter did above.

  • Brian McCarthy

    I can’t agree with you more about the teaching certification. I taught for five years in a private school before moving to public and getting certified. What a waste of time and money! I learned nothing that would help me in the classroom and I seemed to be more knowledgeable about the practice of teaching than my professors. Many students in their student teaching phase came to me before the professor with problems that they encountered. Teaching was something I had to learn through experience and being mentored by other current successful teachers. I suspect you are correct that such a model is appropriate for journalism as well.

  • Larry Meredith

    /Begin rant about Rachel Maddow/

    Rachel Maddow is quite shy on religious issues. She only lashes out against them when it’s about abortion or homosexuality. She’s never really stated her own religious beliefs as far as I know (although we do know what religion her parents raised her with), and she never comments on issues involving atheism.

    I like her show, don’t get me wrong. I watch ever episode. But she does have her flaws. Her bias either completely prevents her from commenting on a story or unfairly nudging it in a positive direction for democrats. The day Anthony Wiener admitted to cheating on his wife with girls online and on the phone (one of whom was only 17) she spent a big first segment of her show just reminding liberals that he’s a fun likable guy and never even mentioning her interview the week before where Anthony lied right to her face about it.


    teachers and journalists both produce fact information.
    they both discuss and explain a certain topic or subject, and they must give real information s.

    I am an education student who is actually searching for what are the differences between teachers and journalists because I am conducting a research.

  • Frederickbutic

    Is required for a teacher to make a lesson plan for him/her to be ready and at the same time it will be use in checking for your your work by the principal or any individual who is in charge for tha said work

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