Schooling The Media

Should journalists be professionally trained? Would it have an impact on the way they perceive themselves?


Do journalists require professional training? This is a question that has vexed not only the journalist community but the consumers of journalism as well. I believe it is apposite to debate whether journalism should be treated on par with other regulated professions like medicine and law where proper training emerging from an accepted syllabus and strict quality control are necessary, given its ever widening scope in the last few decades.

Mark Deuze, an academic from Indiana has made a very strong case for regularisation of the journalism syllabus which offers a degree of international uniformity. I attended one of his lectures in Ohio and the notes I took at the time form the basis of this column. I would like to add that apart from a few minor deviations, the views are entirely his for which he deserves my gratitude as well as felicitations.

A worldwide comparison of contemporary approaches to and programmes of journalism education also leads to the inevitable conclusion that across the world journalism education is proliferating and differentiating. Schools have been started, special programmes and initiatives deployed, new institutions or foundations erected. The world of journalism education is becoming increasingly complex. At the same time – not in the least, because of the trends as outlined above – journalism education everywhere is increasingly facing the same issues. Using the cross-national comparative work of Gaunt, one can define five distinct types of journalism education worldwide:

1. Training at schools and institutes generally located at universities (see e.g. Finland, Spain, United States, Canada, South Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Argentina, the Gulf States, increasingly in Great Britain and Australia; this is becoming the dominant mode of training journalists-to-be worldwide; some educators, particularly in Africa and Latin America, resist this model on the grounds that it has neo-colonial features, making local programs increasingly dependent on global Western ideas and economies).

2. Mixed systems of stand-alone and university-level training (France, Germany, India, Indonesia, China, Brazil, Nigeria, Turkey, South Africa).

3. Journalism education at stand-alone schools (Netherlands, Denmark, Italy).

4. Primarily on-the-job training by the media industry, for example through apprenticeship systems (Austria, Japan; Great Britain and Australia started this way, as this is a typical feature of the Anglo-Saxon model).

5. All of the above, and particularly including commercial programs at universities as well as in-house training by media companies, publishers, trade unions, and other private or government institutions (Eastern Europe, Cuba, North and Central Africa, the Middle East).

Although one should not reduce regional and local complexities too much, the literature on journalism education does suggest that most if not all systems of journalism education are moving towards the first or second model, indicating increasing levels of professionalisation, formalisation and standardisation worldwide. However, this is neither an inevitable nor necessarily linear development, and my argument should not be construed as a claim to singularity or universality as an inescapable by-product of globalisation. One also has to note that industry training exists in most if not all countries, even though investment in newsroom training tends to suffer most in times of economic downturn for the news (Bierhoff et al., 2000; Kees, 2002). The sketched trend towards differentiated and specialised teaching is not unique to journalism education, as systems of higher education worldwide are expanding rapidly, innovating and further developing existing programs, adding all kinds of new courses, curricula or even disciplines.

The relevance of journalism education ties in with the ongoing professionalisation of journalism (and the discipline of journalism studies), as more and more journalists enter the profession via a school, department or institute for journalism education. Roughly 40 per cent of journalists in 21 countries have a college degree in journalism. A closer look reveals that among those journalists younger than 30 years, college graduates are the vast majority. Considering the growth of higher education, the motivation to start, expand, or create a program in journalism education becomes pertinent again.

Some kind of training in journalism, coupled with contextual courses, at the university level is offered by a wide range of departments and disciplinary traditions, from the humanities to the social sciences up to computer science and library studies. As the average age of journalists in most Western countries is rising steadily, there may be a market for all these graduates when a whole cluster of reporters reaches (early) retirement age between 2005 and 2010. Such an economic argument does seem a bit limited as a motivation for journalism education. The discussion could therefore be more focused on conceptual arguments for a well-rounded program in journalism, after all: journalism research and education can (or should) help to build and sustain the professional self-organisation of journalism, and contribute to the establishment, development and application of quality assessment tools for journalistic practices. Although many educators insist such lofty ideals are part of their motivation, only rarely are such ideals made explicit, put up for critical reflection or debate.

Journalism students generally are trained in sequences, based on the premise that different media – television, newspaper, magazine, radio, Internet – each have distinctly different journalism practices. This is only true if one embraces a strictly instrumental definition of journalism – an approach that tends to reduce journalists to “button-pushers”, media workers who understand how, but not why. Several authors have suggested other orientations for journalism education, for example sequencing the program out along functions of news – information, opinion, criticism, entertainment – or genres, domains and types of journalism – “hard” versus “soft” news, human interest versus investigative reportage, the beat system, and so on. There is much to say for each of these orientations, but all of them suffer from the same problem: they tend to reify the existing ideas, values and practices within the constructed sequence, while ignoring the on-going hybridisation and convergence of such genres, media types and domains of the media. If anything, most if not all of the (news) media around the world are developing along two different but related lines: fragmentation and generalisation. On the one hand, specialised (and often short-lived) niche media are put on the market at a bewildering pace. Examples are new radio and television stations, portal sites or magazines dedicated to a narrowly defined target audience as profiled by a market research company or advertising agency.

Management philosopher Charles Handy (1995) suggests the direction of education and training should move towards the preparation of students for a “portfolio worklife”, arguing that contemporary professionals do not build a career within one organisation nor by doing one thing really well. They switch regularly from employer to employer, from industry to industry, whereas the quality of their work is defined by the diversity and richness of the collection of their skills and achievements. This pattern of career-building and employment is typical for information professionals, and indeed is already visible among the most recent newcomers in journalism around the world: they switch between newsrooms, departments and media more in five years than their senior colleagues have done in 20 years.

Most of the literature on journalism education starts at the curriculum. Many scholars, educators and media practitioners thus conveniently ignore the forces and decisions that defined the parameters within which any discussion of curricular matters takes place. This also means that there are plenty of tools available for conceptualising and theorising the journalism curriculum. As mentioned earlier, most of the literature draws a clear line between practical and contextual knowledge. But many question this seemingly clear-cut distinction, if only because of the impossibility to articulate where “context” stops and “practice” begins. Kovach and Rosenstiel for example, effectively argue that newsgathering is meaningless without putting the “facts” in a more or less coherent or at least thematic context. Morgan rephrases this dichotomy as a combination of procedural and propositional knowledge plus a professional capability to enact this knowledge, thereby solving the problem of drawing boundaries between two interconnected sets of values, idea(l)s, and practices. Weischenberg offers one of the most complex and articulate approaches to what he calls the ideal-typical journalistic competence, defining three particular domains: Fach-Kompetenz, Vermittlungs-Kompetenz and Sach-Kompetenz.

The first domain consists of instrumental skills (such as reporting, writing, and editing), and knowledge about journalism: media economy, law, and history. In the second domain, the student learns articulation skills: how to present information and news (genres, formulas, conventions, design, and so on). In the third, the curriculum includes elective and required courses on a variety of special topics like sociology, political science, financial economy, but also social-scientific research methods. To this mix, Weischenberg adds what he describes as the reflection on the role and function of journalism in society. Mu¨ller argues that an emphasis on either domain or element thereof in a journalism education program, further augmented by changes in the media and in the way society communicates through media, can have an immediate impact on the profession, particularly on the way journalists see themselves (e.g. in terms of their role perceptions).



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