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Web Letters | The Nation

Where Is Journalism School Going?

Vital lessons

Michael Tracey's thoughtful piece on the future of journalism education ("Where Is Journalism School Going?” June 3, 2011) comes to the melancholy conclusion that the undergraduate study of journalism isn’t worth the time, effort or money for those seeking to enter the profession. Allow me to make the opposite case: not only is journalism school increasingly necessary for aspiring professionals, it’s vital that all students be exposed to the journalistic method. 

Tracey’s argument comes in two parts: First, you don’t need to major in journalism to become a journalist. This has always been true but is increasingly misleading. Like Tracey’s ideal prototype, I entered the news business in the 1970s with a liberal arts bachelor’s degree and no journalistic background or training. The only tools I needed to master were a ballpoint pen and the slim reporter’s notebook, quaintly designed to fit the inside pocket of a man’s suit coat. I learned what I could on my own, and a crusty old editor taught me the rest. But these days entry-level journalists need some familiarity with multiple platforms, cameras and audio equipment and a host of other tools. The crusty old editor can’t be of much help because he or she often doesn’t know how to use these devices and doesn’t have the time or money to run a boot camp. If I’m that editor, and I once was, I’m looking for newcomers with spark, passion and energy—and familiarity with the requisite tools. There are sound, practical reasons in 2011 for studying journalism.

Tracey’s deeper argument is that formal training inevitably reinforces journalistic orthodoxy, as he defines it. He’s particularly upset at the cult of objectivity that he seems to believe infects all journalism schools and their partners in suffocating orthodoxy, the mainstream news media. This, too, sounds like an argument circa 1980. Nobody is worshiping the god of “objectivity” in 2011, but many of us cling to ideals of accuracy, fairness and evenhandedness. In any event, it’s a discussion worth pursuing---and it’s going on in better journalism schools across the country.

Distilled to its essence, Tracey’s case is more a challenge to than a rejection of journalism school. He rejects journalism education that is narrow and dehumanized and that worships discredited orthodoxies. I can only agree. The challenge for journalism schools is to offer courses that engage in critical thinking and interdisciplinary study and that go deeply and bravely into multiple subject areas, including the shortcomings of journalism itself as practiced in twenty-first-century America.

Tracey believes the liberal arts offer the best intellectual preparation for a journalist. No argument from me—most journalism schools require that students take the majority of their courses in the liberal arts. But I have two questions: What makes him think the liberal arts, as taught at major American universities, are any less orthodox or any more imaginative than the journalism departments? And where exactly are students going to learn how to write? Maybe I’m just not in love with the passive voice, but it’s my personal observation that many liberal arts departments are not teaching clear, accessible, compelling writing. Many journalism schools are.

The essence of true journalism is critical thinking, original research, evenhanded, fair and accurate reporting, and delivery to the largest possible audience through good writing and other means. Thanks in large part to the digital revolution, journalism is not just for journalists anymore. And journalism education is for everyone.

Glenn Frankel

University of Texas at Austin

Jun 7 2011 - 3:04pm

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