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Reforming Journalism Education

May 27, 2005

Five universities and two foundations on Thursday announced a collaborative plan to bolster journalism education. Some leading journalism educators who are not involved in the effort, however, question whether it is pushing in the right direction.

Normally competitors, the institutions using $4.1 million from the Carnegie Corporation and the Knight Foundation over the next two years to join forces will be the journalism schools of Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern California and Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy. The universities have already pledged another $2 million in the third year to continue the collaboration.

Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation and former Brown University president, brought representatives from the universities together beginning in 2002 to discuss the crises facing journalism, including surveys that show declining public trust, and apathy from the young audience. “School teachers and journalists are the most important professions to make democracy safe,” Gregorian said. “And yet journalism schools do not have the respect or standing they need within the university.” He added that of 400 journalism programs in the country, only 100 are accredited.

“We are in the midst of a revolution with no end in sight,” said Hodding Carter, president of the Knight Foundation of the changing world of modern journalism, which he said must learn to incorporate new technologies. “The dirty secret of the [journalism] industry is that we are inherently conservative about everything we do. You try to change training, and people say, ‘What the hell? Here’s the old way.' "

The new effort will focus on three objectives. First, much like the reform already undertaken at Columbia’s journalism school, the institutions said they will seek to integrate journalism education into the university by having disciplinary experts, like scientists, economists, or art historians, interact with journalism students.

Second, the Carnegie-Knight Task Force will be established at the Shorenstein Center to promote research on journalism education, and to provide a platform for institutions involved to make cohesive statements on issues regarding journalism education.

Third, the collaborators will create “News 21 Incubators.” The “21” represents the 21st century, as well as the younger generation. Beginning in June 2006, about 44 top students from the five universities will be selected for a summer program. They will collaborate on news projects that are experimental in style and substance, and professors and working journalists will seek to help them place the products in actual news outlets. To start, 10 students will spend this summer at ABC News working on a 9/11 anniversary project.

The institutions hope other multi-university projects will come from these efforts. Loren Ghiglione, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, said that efforts such as Northwestern’s Innocence Project, in which journalism students seek to exonerate innocent people on death row, “could be extended out further.”

Gregorian said he hopes that the collaboration will transform journalism education across the nation, and said four or five more colleges will be invited each fall. He invited only the five high-profile partners initially because “I believe in Jefferson’s decree of an aristocracy of talent.”

Some journalism educators are not so sure an aristocracy is what Gregorian got. “We have nine Pulitzer Prize winners. If they included Berkeley, they should include us, and Stanford” said Jim Baughman, director of the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s journalism school. Baughman added that he thinks the problems with journalism are traced more to the ownership of publications than to the education of journalists. “I’m not sure they really know what they’re talking about when they characterize journalism education. I think we’re doing a good job in the heartland,” he added. “The problem is that starting salaries are so low and working conditions so bad that many of my best students go to law school.”

Some of the people involved with the Carnegie-Knight initiative hope that changes in journalism education will somehow prod changes in the upper management of journalism organizations. David Klatell, vice dean of Columbia’s journalism school noted that there are already plenty of graduates of top journalism schools working for major networks, but that problems persist. “We want the culture to get into the newsroom and spread, much like a virus,” he said.

All of those involved in the new program seemed to agree that, in a world of increasing specialization, “journalists must be not only educated, but also cultured,” Gregorian said. His emphasis was on in-depth education for journalists in the specific area they will cover.

Not everyone thinks that is such a swell idea. “I’m not sure that I want to start assigning journalists to start working with scientists or historians directly, because I think the key to journalism is distance and dispassion,” said Robert Zelnick, chairman of the journalism department at Boston University. “The things that have gotten journalists in trouble in recent years, apart from intentional deception, sometimes involves being too close to sources.”

Zelnick said that if educators want journalists with knowledge of a specific discipline, then journalism schools should admit students who distinguished themselves in a specific discipline as undergraduates. He added that his department recently admitted students with strong undergraduate science backgrounds for their science writing program. “We only have them for a short time, and we need to teach them the technical parts of the craft, and the skills employers demand.”

Like Baughman, Zelnick does not think the credibility decline is the fault of journalism education. “One of the reasons journalism has experienced a credibility problem is because journalists are out of synch socially, and in terms of values with the country,” he said. “Unless they face up to the problem of intellectual bias, there is no approach that is going to succeed,” he said, referring to the collaborating institutions. “You can look in vain for a single conservative voice in that aristocracy.”

 

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