Jump to Navigation

Statement on the Future of Journalism Education

Statement on the Future of Journalism Education

April 15, 2003

At the beginning of the last century, Joseph Pulitzer bequeathed two major gifts to Columbia University: one to establish the premier school of journalism in the nation and the other to create a prize, sponsored by a great university and judged by great journalists, to honor the highest levels of journalistic achievement. These gifts came at a time of tremendous, destabilizing social change in America, a time in which the role of journalism was also changing rapidly. And they were motivated in part by Pulitzer’s belief that journalism needed institutions that would help it adjust to a new role in a new era. There can be little doubt that together these have been significant contributions to the development of journalism over the last century.

As we enter another new century, at a time of similarly profound and destabilizing changes, the role of the media in America is even more critically important to society than it was a century ago and is again in the process of rapid change. And so it seems timely to review where we are and consider afresh how journalism education in a great university can contribute to the process by which the media adapt to a new world. To that end, I convened a group of people of extraordinary accomplishment in and about journalism and higher education to consider the question of what a model school of journalism for the Twenty-First Century should look like.

The Task Force was composed of members of the School of Journalism faculty, faculty from other departments and schools at Columbia, and practicing journalists from nearly every branch of the media. We met six times from October 2002 to March 2003. Attendance and participation were remarkable, attesting to the commitment of the members and the importance of the subject. I served as chair.

The conditions for discussion were the following: This was not to be a review of the Columbia School of Journalism, or of journalism schools in general. There would be no effort to conduct new research or an extensive review of the literature about journalism education. The reason for this was not to think about the issues behind a veil of ignorance, but rather to avoid the typical problem in such discussions of spending too little time in sustained discussion, reflection, and judgment. For our purposes, the expertise represented around the table was sufficient in itself. Lastly, I said from the outset that I did not expect the Task Force to issue a report, with members expected to sign on to or dissent from a final document. Consequently, the views below are my own -- judgments informed by a remarkable group of people to whom I am deeply indebted both individually and collectively.

I start from the premise that journalism and a free press are among the most important human institutions of the modern world. Democracy, civil society, and free markets cannot exist over time without them. The quality of life within these systems is closely tied to the quality of thought and discussion in our journalism. This is truer today than it was a century ago, and it is likely to be truer still a century from now. And nothing demarcates the inexorable processes of globalization more than the growing reach of media into every city, hamlet, and home on the face of the earth. Journalism has an ascending importance in the modern world, and more than at any time in human history the character of the press is a key determinant shaping and defining national and global society.

Yet, there are concerns about the press, including a growing fear about how concentration of ownership narrows the scope of public debate and how commercial and technological forces increasingly drive the structure and behavior of the press. There is understandable anxiety that monetary pressures are threatening the quality and standards of journalism.

One of the best ways (and perhaps a necessary one) of dealing with these realities – the growing importance of journalism and the concern about commercial and other interests becoming too dominant – is for journalism to embrace a stronger sense of being a profession, with stronger standards and values that will provide its members with some innate resistance to other competing values that have the potential of undermining the public responsibilities of the press. There is nothing inherently inconsistent about good journalism operating in a market. Capitalism is a well-proven method of serving public needs and preferences, both for goods and services and for information. But like any system, its advantages turn into harms unless moderated by an internalized value system. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the electronic media were subject to congressionally and administratively mandated responsibilities to operate in the “public interest.” In the current deregulatory climate, however, as the government has relaxed its “public interest” standards, this system does not provide the counterweight it once did. That puts more pressure than ever on what remains as the primary check on commercial excesses, namely the professional identity that insists that some things simply will not be done for money.

The real question is who will set the standard against which everything else can be compared and whether those who set the standard will have the imagination to set it as high as it might be. Our great universities have a crucial role to play in this process, similar to the role they have played in the professions of medicine, law, and engineering, for example. We must take up that responsibility more than we have, by devoting our energies to developing an appropriate curriculum, by increasing our research capacities, and by fulfilling our role of serving the public good in the ways that universities can beyond teaching and research. This will, of course, require greater investments in journalism education, and we ought to be ready to make those investments. A professional school should prepare students for performance within the profession at the highest levels.

A great journalism school within a great university should always stand at a certain distance from the profession itself. Its faculty should be made up of leading practitioners of the profession who, in the manner of other university faculty, both teach and actively explore, in their ongoing work, the greatest possibilities of journalism. The faculty should also reflect on the profession – drawing our attention to important issues, engaging in research to assist in their resolution, and communicating these findings to students, the profession, and the interested public. Like journalism itself with respect to the general society, journalism schools must maintain an independent perspective on the profession and the world. Among other things, they are the profession’s loyal critics. The habits of mind developed in the academic atmosphere of engaged reflection will inevitably suffuse the educational process, leading to an emphasis on some aspects of professional life and the neglect of others. A great university will also be able to offer knowledge and intellectual exchange with people in other fields related to the professional school, just as a professional school will contribute its knowledge and expertise to other parts of the university. Ideally, a professional school should make the university as a whole integral to its teaching and research missions.

More specifically, a professional school must instill certain basic capacities in its students. (l) Students must receive an introduction to the skills and craft of writing and reporting which are the foundation of the profession. This would include the skills of analyzing and organizing information for news stories of all lengths as well as for investigative reports. (2) Students must acquire an intellectual ability to deal with new situations, as knowledge and working conditions shift over time or as their own knowledge proves inadequate (in other words, students must learn how to “think like a journalist”). (3) Students ought to become familiar with how their profession developed. Who were the great figures and what were their contributions? How did the field evolve into what it is today, and what are the trends at work now and where are they leading the profession? (4) Students must acquire a sense of an identity as a professional, which includes the moral and ethical standards that should guide professional behavior.

My sense is that for a modern journalism school some new courses and programs to meet these objectives will need to be created. As these are conceived, it is important to remember that it often takes many years for materials and texts to be assembled. It may be possible, as one of many examples, to develop courses where students become immersed in reading and comparing significant journalistic pieces along with other materials about the same subject and then discuss what the authors tried to do, what alternative stories might have been written, and what this analysis reveals about the practice of journalism and about society. Students would be expected to articulate and defend their views in class, and then to write and produce a different story. These discussions would, of course, naturally invite considerations of journalistic ethics and norms. And, given the multiplicity of media forms through which journalists are expected to communicate, this kind of course would provide the opportunity to learn the techniques of various media and to see how structure and content change across them. While this kind of educational experience takes place now in journalism education, my sense is that it does not hold nearly the centrality nor the level of engagement that it might.

One of the most significant needs for journalists today is to have a high level of knowledge about the subject they are reporting and communicating. This raises a matter of enormous complexity and significance for a school of journalism. Of all the criticisms of the press, one of the most serious – and, happily, the most remediable – is the lack of context for stories. Journalism functions by reference to current events (just as law operates by cases and statutes and medicine by diseases). At its best, journalism mediates between the worlds of expertise and general knowledge. To do that well – to write for the present and to weave in broader meaning – is remarkably difficult. A necessary element is substantive knowledge, the kind of knowledge you cannot just pick up in the course of doing a story. Having a foundation of general knowledge enhances one’s capacity to deal with new areas and specific issues. Moreover, the deep sense of personal satisfaction in journalism, as in other parts of life, comes from probing into the heart of a matter. It is the superficial skipping from event to event that produces both sophomoric journalism and unfulfilled journalists.

Journalism may be moving increasingly to a system in which reporters have an underlying expertise, and to the extent that is true, universities ought to provide opportunities for students to develop that expertise. Specialization has its risks, and we should be alert to them. Some argue that expertise impairs a journalist’s ability to write for a non-expert audience, but that seems to me implausible. Not all experts are capable of writing for a general audience (it is, indeed, a special skill), but those who can are usually better explainers than are the best of those who do not have that expertise.

On the other hand, my guess is that it is far too early to declare the end of the generalist editor and reporter, who moves from the education beat to the Hong Kong desk and then on to national politics. For them, and for future general managers of news-gathering operations, we need to provide a knowledge base and intellectual approach that will serve journalists well over their whole careers. That achieving complete knowledge of every subject is impossible should not lead us to give up on developing any kind of deeper knowledge in a journalism school education. That a journalism school is located within a great university, which houses an extraordinary amount of expertise on virtually any subject, means that it would be an intellectual tragedy not to ensure that students partake of the feast. One way of doing so is simply to reserve space in the broader university curriculum for students to explore other fields. This requires a willingness on the part of faculty and departments outside the journalism school, which I have every reason to believe exists.

But my sense is that we can do better than that. The educational goal ought to be to develop a base of knowledge across relevant fields that is crafted specifically for what leading journalists need to know: for example, a functional knowledge of statistics, the basic concepts of economics, and an appreciation for the importance of history and for the fundamental debates in modern political theory and philosophy. To address this assignment would require joint efforts of experts from around the university working closely with faculty in the journalism school. In addition to core knowledge, the faculty might decide upon a few of the most important subject areas of our time (e.g., religion, politics, life sciences, and the forces of globalization) and develop specific materials and course work in these as well.

All professional schools devote a significant part of their educational programs to having students do what they will do as professionals. Medical students diagnose diseases; arts students draw and act, and law students analyze cases. The integration of action and thought is one of the most powerful learning devices and, when done well, one of the most exhilarating. It is to be expected, therefore, that a journalism school curriculum will teach students how to be journalists by having them do some aspects of journalism. To pit the teaching of craft against the teaching of intellectual capacity is to pose a false choice. The questions are what part of doing journalism should be used for educational purposes and how should the integration with other forms of learning occur?

There are several things to keep in mind as one answers this. First, we must always be aware that we have precious little time with a student. No moment should be wasted, and everything we do should be evaluated against possible alternatives that might better prepare a student for his or her future. Second, we ought to think about what will best serve a student over the full course of his or her career. We will better serve the student, as well as the society, by laying the foundation for a professional lifetime. Third, we must beware of placing too much emphasis on the beguiling qualities of basic skills training. Students naturally seek out this training, often because they are eager to become professionals and it is enticing to perform that role right away, and sometimes also because getting a job is foremost in their minds and they think basic skills will enhance their immediate employment prospects. Although students should finish journalism school in possession of the skills required to work right away as daily print or broadcast reporters, they must acquire not only these foundational skills, but also a mastery of journalistic inquiry and expression at their highest, most sophisticated, level. This implies an educational environment where clear expression interacts with complex understanding. Fourth, there is an important relationship (one that people within a university are especially sensitive to) between the type of education offered and the kind of people we can attract as faculty members. If journalistic education is to place a greater emphasis on imparting a degree of expertise in subject matter, it will be essential to attract faculty who have demonstrably acquired such expertise themselves, in addition to their expertise in the craft of journalism.

In considering how to impart this combination of skills and capacities to students, we ought to explore ways outside of the classroom too. A major publication within the school could be edited and managed by students. It should also be possible to develop a system of one or two year clerkships with outstanding practitioners immediately following graduation.

This raises the question of the appropriate time to degree in a modern journalism school. The answer, to my mind, is that the minimum is the time it will take for students to absorb the distinctive qualities of mind that a university education can offer. It is very difficult, although not impossible, for this to occur in a year’s duration or less. Over time our aim should be to extend the curriculum into a second year, as virtually every other masters degree program in the university has done. (Of course, the program – its length and content – may vary depending upon the educational needs of particular groups of students, such as mid-career journalists returning to school). The question of duration is ultimately related both to the amount of material that a student should be expected to master and the emotional or psychological commitment he or she must have to the educational experience in order for the professional attitudes we want to instill to take hold.

The curriculum should not be constrained by the salary structure in the profession. If a two-year course of study is deemed necessary, and if the prospects of professional compensation are so low (relative to tuition and other educational expenses) that there is a significant disincentive for the most talented young journalists to undertake a professional education, then universities ought to build a financial aid program that will change this socially dysfunctional incentive structure. That is what we have done in other fields, such as graduate studies in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and other sciences. (It is interesting to note that we have done precisely this in reverse, so to speak, in fields like law, where salaries in private practice are high relative to the costs of a legal education but also high relative to salaries paid in the public service sector. To encourage graduates to pursue careers in public service, leading law schools have created student loan forgiveness programs for graduates who promise to take public service jobs for a specified number of years.)

Finally, one might ask what would be a good measure of the success of a journalism education. One vital measure should be whether the most promising and talented people entering the profession choose to attend journalism school. As I indicated before, we will never have an official system of licensing of journalists, given our First Amendment, so that the possibility of becoming a journalist without having a degree in journalism will continue. Our aim should be to create educational programs that are so compelling that the most promising future leaders in journalism decide that a professional education is critical to a successful career and life.

I would like to thank the members of the Task Force. They have my deepest appreciation for the time, energy, and advice they provided as we explored the future of journalism education. It is an understatement to say that their expertise and insights helped my thinking evolve on this critically important issue. I am eager to work with the new Dean and the faculty to see how we might shape the education of journalists in the years ahead.