Reading, Writing —and Thinking: What journalism schools should teach

What journalism schools should teach
Reading, Writing —and Thinking
By Yvonne T. Chua

AN ALREADY blind Joseph Pulitzer unveiled this much-derided vision in 1904. The Hungarian-American newspaper magnate was then dangling a hefty endowment to the prestigious Columbia University to start what he had hoped to be the world’s first school of journalism.

Pulitzer got only half of his wish. In 1912, a year after his death, Columbia opened its School of Journalism. But it would not be the world’s first journalism school: The University of Missouri had beaten Columbia to this, having created a school of journalism four years earlier.

More than a century later, thousands of journalism schools operate in various parts of the world. More are opening, espe-cially in developing countries and emerging democracies.

In the Philippines today, 291 colleges and universities offer journalism as a subject or as a degree, a staggering increase from the dozen institutions that did so in the early 1970s. The University of the Philippines, which began teaching the first journalism courses in the country in 1919, remains the leading journalism school, being the only one to have been chosen a “center of excellence” by the Commission on Higher Education (Ched) in 2001.

But issues raised a hundred years ago when Pulitzer broached the idea of a journalism school persist in the Philippines and elsewhere to this day. The most severe criticisms in those days came from journalists themselves, especially New York newspaper editor Horace White who asserted that journalists are born, not made. White’s other points: A journalist can only be made in the newsroom. Moral courage cannot be taught. Competencies needed by journalists are already provided in the existing colleges. Com-petent teachers are not to be found.

Parrying White’s attacks, Pulitzer produced some of the best arguments for opening a journalism school. He wrote in The North American Review: “Is the most exacting profession of all—the one that requires the widest and the deepest knowledge and the firmest founda-tions of character—to be left entirely to the chances of self-education? Is the man who is everybody’s critic and teacher the only one who does not need to be taught himself?”

Need for relevance
Many Horace Whites can still be found in newsrooms today. But as journalism schools are also here to stay, academics have agreed that the more productive thing to do is to focus on strengthening journalism education to ensure its relevance in these fast-changing times.

The United Nations Educa-tional, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) took a step in this direction in December 2005 by gathering in Paris 16 experts from around the world, including journalism practitio-ners and educators, to give initial inputs to a draft model journa-lism curriculum for developing countries and emerging democracies.

Here at home, Ched’s Technical Committee on Jour-nalism has proposed revisions to the nearly decade-old Ched-prescribed undergraduate program in journalism. Composed of journalism educators and practitioners, the five-member committee has also recommended a diploma program for practicing journalists and a graduate program in journalism.  In early December this year, the committee held the First National Conference of Journalism Educators in an attempt to upgrade journa-lism teaching in the country.

The key concerns facing journalism education in the Philippines are hardly different from those of the rest of the world, said Ramon Tuazon of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication and one of the 16 experts invited by Unesco to its December 2005 meeting.

Should journalism be an undergraduate or postgraduate degree? The experts believe journalists need grounding in other disciplines such as econo-mics and political science before enrolling in a journalism degree program. Hence, journalism is best taught at the postgraduate level. But with so many journa-lism schools already offering an undergraduate degree, they agreed that raising program standards should be the priority.

One of the biggest headaches schools have to deal with is the qualification of high school graduates who go straight to journalism schools. They “cannot read, cannot write and cannot think and don’t know anything,” noted Michael Cobden of the University of King’s College in Canada. Cobden helped put together Columbia University’s MA in Journalism program.

In addition, some students have the worst reasons for being in a journalism program.  “Math is my worst subject,” according to an unpublished study done by Cobden’s university in 1988-89 and 1992-93.

Who should teach journalism? A teacher, researcher, and practitioner—all rolled into one. Alas, this is not the case, said Hans-Henrik Holm of the Danish School of Journalism.  In the US, only 47 percent of journalism teachers have less than 10 years of experience and 17 percent have no experience at all.  There is no such count in the Philippines, but Tuazon believes that perhaps only a fifth of journalism educators boast of having had any work experience in media.

Modular team teaching may be one of the answers to the dearth of teacher-researcher-practitioner, the experts said.  They likewise suggested an accreditation and equivalency system that would give outputs of journalists academic equivalency for hiring and promotion, a practice in some American universities like Northwestern University and the University of California-Berkeley.

What’s the correct ratio between practical and general education courses?  In the US, the required percentage for practical journalism courses is at least one third. In India, about half is devoted to practical courses.

Democracy and journalism
Gordon Stuart Adam of the Poynter Institute of Media Studies pointed out, however, that journalism students need adequate background in liberal arts and sciences, which are critical foundation courses. Experts from the developing countries, meanwhile, argued that the emphasis on arts and social sciences as elective courses may be appropriate only to developed countries. Basic and applied sciences may be equally, if not more, important and relevant to developing countries, they added.

But experts also stressed the need for journalism schools to reassert the relationship between democracy and journalism, citing the limited understanding of journalism students of the role of journalism in a free society.

Are internships or apprenticeships needed? The consensus among the experts: Yes. After all, internships are often the only way for journalism students to get practical training. But a chief complaint against internships is that professionals are just too busy with their work that they do not have time to train interns.

How should journalism be taught? Cobden is a firm believer in building foundations in general knowledge, thinking, writing, and researching before teaching the techniques of journalism. “A danger of learning the techniques before appropriate foundations are laid is that one may never understand what one is doing or why one does it that way, except that ‘that’s the way it’s done’ or ‘that’s the way I was taught to do it,’” he  said.

Adam, on the other hand, opts for a three-tier journalism curriculum that aims to first form reporters, then writers and, finally, critics on top of equipping students with general knowledge in areas ranging from law and history to literature and moral philosophy to ensure a disciplinary focus. His first tier covers introductory reporting; the second tier, narrative approaches and investigative and in-depth reporting techniques; and the last tier, specializations such as politics and government, economics, and international affairs.

Digital journalism
In these digital times, there is no escaping the Internet, which has made great impact on all fields, journalism included.  It goes without saying that a core course on the fundamentals of digital journalism ought to be included in the journalism program, said Rosental Calmon Alves of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. It also means that journalism educators would do well to combine online teaching with traditional teaching methods to enhance the learning process.

Taking these points into account, Unesco has outlined a proposed program for developing countries and emerging democracies, drawing heavily from Adam’s framework.  But it is a four-tier program capped by analytical and interpretive writing and opinion writing (See Sidebar 1).  The proposed program also provides for newspaper, radio and TV practicum, photojournalism, broadcast reporting and writing; multimedia journalism, media issues, history of journalism, journalism ethics, and media law.

Although not presented as tiers, the revisions proposed by the Ched Technical Committee on Journalism to the undergraduate program incorporate the courses listed by Unesco, either as required or elective subjects (See sidebar 2).

The committee is also pushing a one-year post-baccalaureate diploma program for non-graduates of journalism and communication schools who feel they would benefit from formal journalism training.  The program was designed with practicing journalists in mind and, if approved, will be the first of its kind. A number of courses taken in the diploma program can be accredited in the master’s program, the minimum standards for which the Ched committee is putting together for the first time.

Underpinning all the three programs is the belief in the role of journalism education in a democracy: “Competent and ethical professionals constitute the bases for the development of a free and responsible press in the Philippines.  A free press is one of the hallmarks of a strong and working democracy. Philippine journalism education must, therefore, address these imperatives.” It must do no less. n

Yvonne T. Chua is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication.

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