J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

“Why J-School is Too Important to be Left to the Journalists.”

Posted by chanders on January 19, 2011

Among the many things that make Dave Cohn awesome is the fact that he decided to revive the long-beloved Carnival of Journalism. The topic for this round is: what is the role of the University / Journalism School in helping to sustain a healthy information ecosystem.

I knew I didn’t have a whole lot of time this month to participate, so I was just going to bow out … but then I stumbled across this little talk I gave in the Summer of 2009 about this very topic. I still pretty much agree with everything I’ve written here, so I figured, why not update this and submit it to this to this months carnival?

So I hope this is a useful contribution — Enjoy.

Media Literacy and the “New” Journalism Education
Or, “Why J-School is Too Important to be Left to the Journalists”

C.W. Anderson

Every year, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism administers a “current affairs” test, which they say will test the “writing skill and general knowledge of current events.” It’s administered to every student applying to the school Why? Such a test seems trivial; it seems like giving a Jeopardy quiz to students who will be entering an Ivy League grad school.

My best guess is that this is test that determines whether you have an “ambient awareness” of the news. In other words, are you the kind of person who regularly consumes news content? Why might this matter? Just as you almost certainly can’t become a film director without watching film or a writer without reading literature, the most fundamental basic step to being a journalist is reading journalism. To be a good journalist, in short, being a news junkie helps.

In 2009, 2011 if I suddenly became god—if I were running the Columbia admissions program– what would I add to the current affairs test? I’d add something testing your “ambient awareness” of social media. Just as you could not be a journalist in 1989 without reading journalism, I’d argue that you can’t be a journalist in 2011 2009 without producing, or at least consuming, social media, understanding how it works, what it can and cant do, what the current debates are about it, etc.

I admit that I haven’t thought much about what the questions would be on a test like this, but they might include:

(1) compare and contrast the use of twitter to talk about Michael Jackson vs the use of twitter to talk about Iran.
(2) What are some of the implications of the new Google operating system for social media, if any?
(3) What are some hey differences between Facebook and Myspace?

I think a test like this would, in large degree, put the rather silly debate about teaching fundamentals vs teaching “new technologies” on the level it belongs. On a low level. “Ambient knowledge” and acculturation to new media would be required before you get in to J-School, not after. Obviously, this test shouldn’t make or break your j-school application. There are a lot of things that are actually more important … but this could be one component.

By starting this talk by a discussion of the admissions test to a journalism graduate program, I’m marking out the territory I hope to cover tonight, which is the border zone between undergraduate education and either graduate school or a career. Part of my focus on this has to do with my personal trajectory. I graduated from Columbia University this springin the Spring of 2009 with a PhD degree, and I will be starting at have been teaching at the College of Staten Island – CUNY in journalism, media, and communications. So a big question I’m wrestling with is this: “what can I teach my undergrads to get them on a path to either

a) get into a school like CUNY Grad, NYU, of CU? or
b) become good journalists without more school, or
c) become well-adjusted, productive participants in the media world, even if they never do a day of “traditional journalism” in their lives.

I think we often forget about the undergraduate aspect of j-school, especially in NYC, which is a home to some of the best upper-level and graduate journalism schools in the world. But think about this:  In 2007, there were 200,000 students enrolled in programs of journalism, media, and mass communications. Even before the collapse of the newspaper industry, it was clear that only a small fraction of these students were becoming “journalists” in any traditional sense. So what were they doing? A character from The Simpsons, Anton Lubchenko, once talked about journalism and communications degrees. And you can see the handiwork of the most famous not-so recent j-school grad here.

We wont begin to honestly address the relationship between journalism school and the problem of communication in the 21st century until we address the problem posed by Lubchenko: media and communication are to our era what the church was to the middle ages, it’s the container in which our consciousness is formed, but our literacy of it is trivial and often meaningless.

From the 1970’s through the 1990’s, the idea of “media literacy” was based around how to become a literate media consumer. The insight was that watching a lot of TV does not make you media literate … BUT also, as a professor who mostly reads books, you may not understand TV like your students do, and there needs to be a mutual sharing of expertise.

Now, we have to apply same lessons to world of infinite media production. Just because you use social media does not mean you have literacy in media production. BUT also, as a professor, you may not understand social media like your students do. Once again, there needs to be a mutual sharing of expertise.

What would it mean to teach basic media production literacy? Fortunately, many parts of the traditional journalism curriculum do this already. Take teaching the lede, for example. When I teach the lede to my students in my basic journalism classes – and it’s the first practical skill that I teach – what I usually do is give them a “notebook.” I tell them it’s their notebook from when they were out covering an event. And its usually got a ton of colorful information in it, and some boring but important quotes, and there are about 5 stories you could write from the notes, and some of the information contradicts.  And my assignment to them is, write a lede for your story coming out of this notebook.

Doing this exercise is both a lesson in how to journalism but also gets at some key aspects of how journalism works in a “media literate” sense. How might this exercise be adapted for the digital era? Well, you could add things to the exercise, for instance, what is a lede when the news is disaggregated and searchable? What is the relationship between a static news lede and the fluid world of social media?

All this is just an example of how media production literacy can overlap with basic journalism education. You’re learning how news gets produced, and how that production has changed over time.

All this has been rather abstract so far, so I want to sum up with a few concrete proposals about what journalism school needs to do to stay relevant. I haven’t had time to discuss all of these topics, so I’d be happy to take questions on them.

(1) Media production literacy should be the cornerstone of undergraduate programs in journalism and communication, and one aspect of this literacy should be an intelligent ambient awareness of the world of social media

(2) The focus of upper-level undergraduate and graduate programs in journalism should continue be: the gathering, evaluation, dissemination of publicly meaningful information …  but when an acculturation to social media operates in the background, what “gathering, evaluation, and dissemination” means starts to change. Many of the current debates about “teaching tech” vs teaching the fundamentals will seem odd or silly once this shift occurs.

(3) All graduate journalism education programs should require their students to minor / take classes in / form partnerships with other professionally-oriented schools, such as schools of international-public affairs, business school, computer programming. These partnerships should take the place of medium requirements currently in most schools (ie, magazine, newspaper, broadcast, etc). Indeed, I think out of all of these, a dual major in computer programming / journalism is a big part of the future. There is a new world out there for journalists who code and coders who can write / speak the language of journalism. Some schools are already doing this (Northwestern) and others should start.

A paradox of the current media moment is that, while journalism jobs are disappearing, j-school enrollment is up? Why? I believe its because people are curious about the media, practically oriented, and fundamentally want to both understand and contribute meaningfully to the world around them.  Over the next decade, fewer people may become “journalists” than ever before, but more people than ever will commit “acts of journalism.” To thrive, j-school must understand this and embrace it. Journalism school will stay relevant by training students to produce publicly meaningful content in a world of rampant media making, DIY content, and fragmentation.

Let me conclude with a deliberately provocative example to summarize my basic point. The last few Deans and Presidents of Columbia has all had an opinion about RW1, reporting and writing 1 the venerable core of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism education. In 2002, the current President of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, angered thousands of alumni along with the editorial page of the New York Times, when he said publicly that such a class was “unworthy” of an Ivy League University.  Other has poked and prodded RW1 in the past, without ever figuring out what to do with it.

My solution would be somewhat different. RW1, or something like it, should be a required class for every freshman entering Columbia. This doesn’t mean that the class is irrelevant; in fact, it means quite the opposite. It means that the fundamentals of what the entity formerly knows as j-school have to teach us are too important to be locked away and reserved only for journalists.

UPDATE: Video from the Gelf talk is now online and can be seen here. Obviously, the words below were meant to be read, and may come across a little oddly for that reason.


11 Responses to ““Why J-School is Too Important to be Left to the Journalists.””

  1. […] helped organize a lot of future of journalism conferences this year, and have done some research for a few policy-oriented […]

  2. Digidave said

    I remember that test well.

    Another part of the test is a map quiz. You get a question like “find 11 blue states” or “Sacramento is the Capital of this state.” Usually the maps are international (point out the “stan” countries in the Middle East.

    I studied geography for WEEKS in advance. I could name every African country, their capitals etc.

    My map question was……

    Name and locate the five boroughs of New York. I was pissed……

    (I know this has nothing to do with the subject of your post – which I agree with, but I wanted to share this story – I thought you’d get a kick out of it).

  3. […] j-prof C.W. Anderson pointed to a 2009 lecture in which he argued for education about the production of media (especially new media) to be spread […]

  4. changingnewsroom said

    Chris, this is totally brilliant and elegantly said, I love this: “Media and communication are to our era what the church was to the middle ages, it’s the container in which our consciousness is formed, but our literacy of it is trivial and often meaningless.” Completely agree with all points.

  5. […] contributed by un-earthing a post he wrote in 2009. Two funny things stand out about this. First: Everything still holds water. Second: I commented on it back […]

  6. […] contributed by un-earthing a post he wrote in 2009. Two funny things stand out about this. First: Everything still holds water. Second: I commented on it back […]

  7. […] contributed by un-earthing a post he wrote in 2009. Two funny things stand out about this. First: Everything still holds water. Second: I commented on it back […]

  8. […] “Why J-School is Too Important to be Left to the Journalists.” (journalismschool.wordpress.com) […]

  9. […] “Why J-School is Too Important to be Left to the Journalists.” (journalismschool.wordpress.com) […]

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