Ignorance Is Not Bliss for Journalism Majors

During the “Budget Battle of 1995-1996,” which caused a shutdown of much of the federal government for 27 days, I was a freelance reporter for New Jersey’s second biggest newspaper.

As a freelancer, I had no assigned desk but moved around the bureau to any available open terminal. One day, at the very height of the tension, I was working next to one of the paper’s rising stars who would soon be elevated from reporter to assistant bureau chief. Befitting his status, he had been given the plum assignment of covering the federal budget story. I noticed him poring intensely over some papers. Suddenly, he exclaimed aloud in exasperation, “No way they can balance the budget—the deficit is over three times as much as annual revenues!”

I looked up from my keyboard, surprised at such ignorance of basic economics by somebody so highly regarded in the newsroom. I explained that he had mistaken the debt for the deficit, that the debt is a cumulative amount whereas the deficit is the annual difference between revenues and expenditures. Once the light bulb appeared over his head, we went back to writing our respective articles—his on the most important national story of the day, mine (most likely) on some insignificant local matter.

One more detail: he was a graduate of the prestigious (currently ranked #18 by College Factual) journalism program at Rutgers, New Jersey’s flagship university.

Since then, I have frequently been alarmed—and occasionally amused—by the lack of understanding exhibited by professional journalists of, not just economics, but of fundamental history and political theory as well.

Which makes the recent decision by UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism to eliminate requirements that journalism majors take certain basic courses in economics, U.S. government, and American History since 1865 seem troubling.

Prior to this decision, the UNC J-School had requirements that all journalism majors take four specific courses. They were ECON 101, which introduces students to the basic concepts of both micro- and macro-economics, HIST 128, which surveys U.S. history from 1865 to the present, and two political science courses: POLI 100, a survey course that introduces students to concepts related to the U.S. government, and POLI 101, which does the same on a state and federal level.

These four courses also fulfilled the university-wide general education requirements in the social sciences—one course deemed “historical analysis” and two others deemed “social sciences.”

Students must still meet a J-School political science requirement, although they can now choose one among five political science courses instead of the two specific courses. One problem is that the fundamental course on the U.S. government, POLI 100, is not one of the five. Also cause for concern is the inclusion of POLI 203: Race, Innocence, and the Death Penalty, among the five choices: it not only focuses on an excessively narrow topic but may be susceptible to politicization.

The fact that journalism majors now only need to meet the university’s general education requirements instead of taking ECON 101 and HIST 128 may be much worse.

J-School dean Susan King told the Pope Center “[W]e have not removed any requirements on the history, economics, or social sciences front. We have offered students more choice.”

But that appears to be mere word play, smoke and mirrors. The specific requirements for journalism majors to take ECON 101 and HIST 128 are no more—whether one calls it eliminating requirements or offering choice, it amounts to the same thing. And there is a serious problem with the general education program “choices” that replace those two very important courses.

The problem is that Chapel Hill’s general education program has so much “choice” that it is meaningless. There are a total of 533 courses listed in the College Bulletin that satisfy the historical analysis requirement and another 533 that satisfy the social sciences requirements.

That means that HIST 128—certainly a crucial body of knowledge for anyone working in U.S. journalism to master—can be replaced by such non-essential fare as:

  • African, African-American and Diaspora 202: West Africa through Visual Art, Literature, and Film
  • American Studies 59: Yoga in Modern America: History, Belief, Commerce
  • Drama 470: Survey of Costume History
  • History 125: The Social History of Popular Music in 20th-Century America
  • Music 56: Early-Modern Court Spectacle

Economics 101 could be replaced with any of the following social science courses:

  • African, African-American and Diaspora 50: Defining Blackness
  • Anthropology 51: Environmentalism and American Society
  • Communications 53: First-Year Seminar: Collective Leadership Models for Community Change
  • Religion 246: Supernatural Encounters: Zombies, Vampires, Demons, and the Occult in the Americas
  • Sociology 51: Emotion and Social Life
  • Women’s Studies 410: Comparative Queer Politics

While some of the above examples may seem extreme, there are almost no courses that come close to HIST 128 and ECON 101 in importance for journalists; they were longstanding requirements for good reasons.

That opinion is hardly mine alone. John Miller, who is the Director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and a national correspondent for National Review, said the following when told of UNC-Chapel Hill’s decision:

Young journalists need to have a solid grounding in economics and American history. That’s one of the reasons why journalism is such a tricky major: Students often don’t learn what they need to know. You won’t hear a lot of professional journalists who hire young people complaining about how their cub reporters are over-informed about economics and history. It’s exactly the opposite.

Rick Henderson, the editor of the Carolina Journal who has worked at many publications, including Investor’s Business Daily, the Los Angeles Business Journal, and the Rocky Mountain News, told the Pope Center that the move by Chapel Hill was “terrible.” He expressed an opinion similar to Miller’s: “Reporters who are covering government, politics, or business should have more than a cursory knowledge of history, civics, and economics.”

The comments stand in stark contrast to those made by the UNC J-School leadership. Charlie Tuggle, a senior associate dean for undergraduate studies who served on the curriculum committee that made the changes, told The Daily Tar Heel, the official student newspaper, that, “no one really knew why we were requiring HIST 128 or why we were specifically requiring ECON 101.”

That comment is cause for reflection: one is tempted to ask how far removed from the real world academics are.  Even some journalism students struggled to understand why such valuable courses are no longer required. “I haven’t been able to figure out the rationale for it yet,” said James Martin, a senior from Washington, North Carolina. He said that the economics course “is important for journalism majors to take,” and that it gave him “a different understanding of the world that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t taken it.”

Martin’s comments and those of other students the Pope Center spoke to bring into question Tuggle’s comments in The Daily Tar Heel that students found the “required classes were useless and boring.” That article also quoted from one student who said, “ECON 101 was the death of me. I’m sad I had to do it….”

But popularity and easiness are hardly true measures of a course’s value: pre-med majors may not like organic chemistry—a notoriously difficult subject—but they must master it to move forward as scientists. Some students who are initially against taking challenging courses such as ECON 101 are savvy enough to grasp the importance in retrospect. Victoria Karagiorgis, a senior journalism major from Winston-Salem, told the Pope Center that she found ECON 101 “aggravating” and said “I got my worst grade in college in economics.” She said that when she was taking the course, she wondered, “why the heck do I have to take this? I’m not interested in it, and I’m never going to use it.”

But afterward, Karagiorgis said she was glad she took it. “It gave me another way of thinking about things.” She said she heard a lot of “griping” about the course from her fellow journalism majors, but added, “if you have to report on financial matters it’s best to know something about them.”

The value of economics and history courses goes beyond specific knowledge. In J-School, one learns skills and techniques, not facts, ideas, and [some] reasoning. Ideas and facts they must get elsewhere. Those facts and ideas are needed to form the most important part of a journalist’s toolkit: perspective; it is a journalist’s job to relate events and trends to the rest of society. That does not mean they should report with biased opinions, but that they must know there is often more to the picture than at first glance.

After all, if journalists are ignorant of very basic economics, how can they write about a major macro-economic topic such as government spending? In the case of my New Jersey colleague, the answer is “poorly.” Instead of presenting a balanced view that included how continually increasing government debt eventually destroys an economy, as we have seen recently in Greece, he blathered on about how it was necessary to pass a budget immediately because government workers were suffering without their paychecks.

Because of the need for perspective, most of the people who rose to the top of the journalism world in the last half-century have not had journalism degrees but studied other pertinent subjects. For instance, Anderson Cooper earned a Political Science degree, Bob Woodward studied History and English Literature, and Charles Krauthammer majored in politics and economics as an undergraduate (and later became an M.D.).

This not to say there is no value in a journalism degree. As somebody who occasionally edits student writers (and recent graduates), I always appreciate when they have had some formal journalism training, either in a degree program or as reporters for a student paper. Such writers know how to employ the proper structure, they understand that the story must be told using facts, not opinions, and their writing is not cluttered with excessive rhetorical flights of fancy or derogatory ad hominem attacks.

But there is often something missing, too. Much of that comes from the lack of an informed perspective that drives the curiosity to seek more than the facts as they appear on the surface. Too often I read articles in which the journalist accepts, without reservation, statements by public figures that do not pass the initial “smell test” and beg for hard-edged follow-up questions.

To me, the move to eliminate a greater understanding of economics and history, plus the enhanced power of reasoning induced by the study of such topics, is unfathomable. Is the decision based on an astonishing lack of awareness, as suggested by Tuggle’s comment that nobody on the curriculum committee could figure out why those courses were needed? Or is it due to cynical pandering to students who complain about challenging requirements that force them to expand their horizons?

Even worse, has the J-School become so politicized that ignorance of important topics is an actual goal? I am reminded of a quotation from a classic article on high school reading, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” by Francine Prose, a writer and literary critic for the New York Times:

Doesn’t our epidemic dumbing-down have undeniable advantages for those institutions (the media, the advertising industry, the government) whose interests are better served by a population not trained to read too closely or ask too many questions?

If the people who are supposed to keep us aware are unaware themselves, how can we know how to stand up for ourselves?

(Editor’s note: The Pope Center attempted several times to receive confirmation of the precise new requirements for a degree from the School of Media and Journalism’s leadership. Since we were provided with outdated information, we are relying on the information given an official press release from the school’s website—confirmed as accurate by a student advisor—and on comments given to The Daily Tar Heel.)