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Journalism university degree course structures – finding a model

I've spent a lot of time looking at  journalism degree course structures. The following information will hopefully prove useful for those choosing a university journalism degree course. It may also prove relevant to any academics looking at revalidation, as it contains some journal articles that I have found personally very useful.

My bias is looking at the  kind of technology we should be teaching, as this is my background.

Teaching the technology

McKean states that modern journalism is collaborative and students need to be open to 'constant change'.

On the technology front, he states:

"We do our best to train students in audio, video, photo, graphics and Web production. We emphasize strong writing skills. We put them to work in all of our news operations—a daily newspaper, an NPR affiliate, a commercial TV station, plus various Web sites and mobile services. Students blog, make podcasts, create Flash animations, design interactive databases, and widgets—things they have to know to find good first jobs in today’s media environment."

There is a lot of technology to learn and it obviously needs to be contextualised. As discussed at a recent AJE conference at City University, the 'widget cutter'- to- 'thinking journalist' ratio needs careful consideration.

Journalism as joint-hons only?

I particularly enjoy this quote from Mencher:

"Good journalism programs blend theory with practice, craft with substance. Their faculties realize that before the technology can be utilized and writing techniques applied, the reporter needs to be able to put the statement and the event in some context. Good programs teach the craft through content."

This is starting to sound like an argument for only allowing journalism to be taught as a part of a joint-honours degree.

It helps for students to have a subject specialism (i.e. 'context', 'framework', whatever you want to call it!), so why not study politics, economics, science or business etc with journalism? But in UK universities, unlike in the US, journalism is often offered only as single hons.

Mencher continues…

"The direction should be toward a required core curriculum that provides students with the general knowledge that helps the student see the patterns and relationships that underlie events, a set of courses that help the student understand the utility of Irving Kristol’s remark, 'A person doesn’t know what he has seen unless he knows what he is looking for.'"

The 'jack of all trades' challenge

McKean states:

"Our students typically decide how to solve their “jack of all trades, master of none” challenge. We don’t want them to leave Missouri until each has a strong grounding in at least one journalistic specialty."

McKean seems to be referring to a specialism in a media platform. This needs to be untangled. I’m finding that students should be operating  ‘platform neutral’ these days (and I didn't come to that conclusion lightly.) They must be as equally skilled editing a podcast, as they are in banging out 500 words for the print edition by 4.30pm. But is this deskilling?

There is a different view -  you could focus on  a pathway approach – i.e. students choose their 'mother media' (e.g. magazine production) and become highly specialised in this area. Students will have teaching in a 'secondary media' (such as web or broadcast), but not very much. But the industry surely demands more flexibility than this?

Journalism degrees need a clear USP

Journalism degree courses seem to lean in one of the following directions:

a) Platform specific:

Degrees with names that include a platform (print journalism, broadcast journalism etc) worry me. Let’s not judge ‘books’ solely by their ‘covers’, but are these degrees really converged?

b) Genre specific (news/features/documentary degrees)
These are probably based around writing and technical skills. So prospective students must think about how transferable these skills are to new media platforms. In some cases, the answer is "very".

Pavlik, John, Gary Morgan and Bruce Henderson (2001) ‘Information Technology:Implications for the Future of Journalism and Mass Communication Education’, Journalism and Mass Communication Education: 2001 and Beyond. Columbia state:

"Among the things the group listed as those that should ‘never change’ were
‘defining what constitutes a great story’; verifying facts; asking hard questions;
behaving ethically; and ‘using balance, fairness and impartiality in presenting
the facts"

c) Subject specific – BA  Sports Journalism,  motoring journalism, fashion journalism, political journalism etc
These probably have the strongest future. Students on these courses can worry that they are too niche. But too niche does not exist! It is about having the expertise in a  specialist subject, but taking a 'platform neutral' approach to output. As someone who teachers on one such degree, it provides the course some much needed focus. Students build up contacts and obtain a deep understanding of  the industry they write about.

These students are just as likely to get PR work in their chosen industry, as they are traditional jobs in journalism. This rejects the old idea  that students are trained as 'subject generalists' and output content exclusively to a 'single media' platform (e.g. newspapers). This came from the idea that entry-level jobs in journalism were mostly based in local newspapers, where a core requirement is often to be able to write about 'anything' on the patch.

D) Mainly theoretical (no practise)
Nothing wrong with these degrees as such, but they are often mis-sold to unwitting students.

In reality, the categories are not mutually exclusive. But there are so many issues to consider and we have not even started on whether journalism is actually a  'profession' or not.

See also A New Journalism Degree is born

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