Is it time to close journalism schools?

Stephen J. A. Ward

Should we close journalism schools?

Here are two reasons to question — or close — journalism schools:

1.    Anyone can be a journalist in this multimedia age. So why a school of journalism?

2.    The professional journalist is discredited and dying. Make room for the non-professional journalist, or “we the media,” unencumbered by old ideals of objectivity and verification. Why have schools that teach professional journalism?

Recently, I have listened to a host of people cite (1) and (2) as reasons to question journalism schools. Their questions are understandable, prompted by a media revolution and an economic crisis among traditional news organizations. Yet, these questions need to be answered and their assumptions rejected.

One erroneous assumption is that schools of journalism exist to teach journalism in its most general and ‘minimalist’ sense — anyone who has the technology and desire to publish their thoughts on news and current affairs. This minimalist definition ignores richer notions that define a journalist according to complex methods and norms of practice.

Here’s the crucial point: This minimalist notion is not the proper sense of “journalism” in “school of journalism.”

Historically, the first schools of journalism usually had the higher ambition to teach a richer notion of journalism. Joseph Pulitzer started his school at Columbia University to create professionals with special skills and an “anti-commercial” attitude – an allegiance to the public good.

The real issue today is not the fact that more people are able to publish. The issue is whether there is still a need for the education of critical, informed and ethically guided ‘publishers,’ better known as professional journalists. The answer is: Yes.

Democracies in a global world continue to need a core of professionally trained journalists devoted to the public good. They need journalists motivated not simply by the desire to express themselves publicly.

The existence of more ‘minimalist’ journalists today in the form of citizen journalists is not an argument against schools. It is an argument for schools. Schools have the heavy responsibility of creating skilled journalists to counterbalance the misuse of new media – to counterbalance the ranters and self-absorbed publishers swimming in a sea of misinformation.

The second erroneous assumption is that we are forced to choose between schools for traditional professional journalists or new media journalists who don’t need schools. This is false dilemma.

Professional journalism is not going to disappear any day soon, despite the brutal cutbacks.

Furthermore, the future of journalism is not the universal ascendency of minimalist citizen journalists. The future is a journalism of mixed journalism. Mixed journalism will see new forms of journalism that combine professional skills and values with amateur skills and values.  Mixed journalism calls for a new and important role for schools: to teach how to use the new tools responsibly and for democracy.

How to adapt?

Defending schools of journalism based on a richer idea of journalism is important, but it is not enough.

ClassroomSchools need to say what good journalism means today and how it is connected to the new media environment. Schools should be at the forefront of redefining what “journalism in the public interest” means in terms of distinct skills, attitudes, and norms.  

Once they have clarified what journalism they teach, schools can get on with the practical task of embodying this journalism in their curricula. My view is that, in addition to practical skills and internships, schools should show what is distinctive about journalism education by offering instruction in the following five areas:

  • Special knowledge and methods: Development of knowledge-based, research-capable journalists, with special knowledge and skills in such areas as health journalism and investigative journalism
  • Critical thinking and epistemology:  Analysis and evaluation of information, methods and claims in different areas of society, such as in the sciences and in the professions
  • Ethics and law: Construction of new frameworks for mixed and global media
  • Social-institutional knowledge: Knowledge of society, political processes and institutions. Critical perspectives on the role of media in society
  • Cultural interpretation in a pluralistic, global world: Knowledge of cultures, religions and traditions to allow sensitive, informed interpretation. Analysis of the role of news media in conflicts and peace-building

For those who think there is nothing special about doing good, in-depth journalism, I ask them to consider these five demanding areas of journalism instruction. I also ask them to consider whether, in general, such skills are best learned in schools of journalism.

My advice to anyone thinking about these issues is to not let the pace of change distract you from the goal of good journalism (not merely ‘publishing’) through appropriate education. Don’t be swayed by rhetoric about the ‘democratization’ of journalism by new media, or to fall prey to easy suspicions about something called “mainstream media.”

In such disorientating times, keep your balance by remaining critical, philosophical, and broad-minded. If you do, I hope you will come to see that rich notions of journalism taught by dynamic schools of journalism remain a vital force for deliberative democracy.

(Photo by phxpma. Used under Creative Commons license.)

J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in
the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British
Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of
Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of 
UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.