What’s Wrong with Our Journalism Departments?

Honest reporters and editors have asked a hard question since Election Day: How could we have been so staggeringly wrong about so much in 2016?

On December 8, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, offered one possible answer in the form of a confession: “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives,” he said on the NPR show Fresh Air. “I think that the New York-based and Washington-based…media powerhouses don’t quite get religion.”

Then he added: “I think we can do much, much better.”

That’s for sure. But how? The solution is at once simple and complex: Better education. The key to a good education in journalism is a good education in the liberal arts.

This is a minority view. Too many colleges and universities have replaced the shared experience of a core curriculum in the liberal arts with job training and specialization. This includes journalism programs, which have proliferated to nearly 500 in total, including more than 220 master’s programs and more than 50 doctoral programs, according to a survey by the University of Georgia.

What do these students learn? Next to nothing, apparently, about faith—one of the most fundamental forces in human life.

Mark Twain—who was better known in his own time as a journalist than as a novelist—supposedly once quipped: “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.” We might update his remark for the present: Never let journalism school interfere with your education in journalism.

I probably shouldn’t say this. As director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, I make a good part of my living by trying to teach journalism in classrooms. Yet I’ve come to believe that the best preparation for a career in journalism occurs outside of journalism courses.

I mean this in two ways. First, people learn journalism by doing journalism. Think of it like shop class: Students don’t discover how to use tools by listening to lectures or reading books. Instead, they pound hammers, twist screws, and cut boards. It helps to have a mentor—a good teacher—but ultimately the learning requires the doing. The best teacher is the experience.

Journalism is the same way. Students don’t figure out how to tell good and accurate stories from prattling professors. We can give pointers, show examples of outstanding work, and answer questions. Ultimately, however, our charges must struggle with the basics of reporting, composition, and editing.

The late film reviewer Roger Ebert once made an observation about good writing: “The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before.” In other words: Don’t think about the work. Don’t imagine doing the work. Just do the work. Or: Don’t waste your time listening to journalism professors. Do the journalism.

I’m not saying that students should avoid journalism courses altogether. Journalism teachers can help students identify story ideas, conduct interviews, and understand the benefit of reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. It helps if we can speak from our own experiences in the profession, bringing real-world examples into the classroom. A student recently asked me: Should I call the parents of the young man who just committed suicide? Answer: Yes, but first let’s talk about how.

We can also help our students become better writers. When it comes to the value of serial commas or the matter of when it’s okay to cuss in print, I have routines—they’re almost performances. And don’t get me started on the misuse of “literally” and “figuratively.” Or do get me started, because I’ll tell a series of jokes about Vice President Joe Biden, with the goal of making it difficult to confuse the two words ever again. I’m bipartisan: “Enormity” doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means, and to illustrate its sometimes hilarious mishandling, I rely on former President George H.W. Bush.

Ultimately, however, students should get out of classrooms and into newsrooms, where they can practice journalism: Now that we’ve discussed those forlorn parents, go ahead and make the call.

Here’s one mark of a good journalism program: It puts a campus newspaper or a radio station at its center. Here’s another: It doesn’t overdose journalism students on journalism courses. At my college, journalism is not a major—it’s a minor, which puts the subject in its proper place.

Too many courses in journalism squeezes out courses in other areas, such as economics, history, and the sciences—all of them offering excellent preparation for careers in the media.

If a problem among journalists is that not enough of them “get religion,” then the best fix for today’s students is not another a quasi-sociological course on “media and society.” It’s not even a new course on “media and religion.” Instead, it’s old-fashioned cultural literacy, as transmitted by the liberal arts: Read great books and authors, starting with the Bible itself and working through everyone from Augustine to Maimonides to C.S. Lewis.

Much of this education can take place informally. It doesn’t take a professor’s syllabus. Read Daniel Defoe’s The Storm, an early work of journalism (and a pre-alpha version of the Weather Channel) that confronts the undying question: What hath God wrought? Read about how the Christian fervor of William Lloyd Garrison inspired him to start an abolitionist newspaper. Read H.L. Mencken’s irreverent coverage of a revival meeting. Read how Fulton Sheen took advantage of television, and then listen to what he actually said. Read Mindy Belz on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East right now.

Whatever you do, though, keep the journalism coursework to a minimum and make sure to learn the right things. This approach may not help you understand the baffling politics of 2016—but it might, and more important things as well.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    You are forgetting the archetypal genius, George Whitefield.

    Much of Whitefield’s publicity was the work of William Seward, a wealthy layman who accompanied Whitefield. Seward acted as Whitefield’s “fund-raiser, business co-ordinator, and publicist”. He furnished newspapers and booksellers with material, including copies of Whitefield’s writings. Before that, Seward helped stoke the South Sea Bubble.

    And then there was Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield, who printed and sold his sermons, journals, etc.

  • DrOfnothing

    There are some excellent points made here, and one fervently hopes that more students will read (and follow) Strunk & White. Students, indeed all people, need to read more _good_ writing (which would include the classics, but also the writing of a broad range of authors, from Suetonius and Montesquieu to Achebe and Murakami) and learn how to communicate better themselves, journalism is most certainly _not_ literature. It is a specialised form of communication. First and foremost, journalists need to be good researchers and committed to an impartial investigation of their topics.

    But you want to start a journalism course with the Bible? Really? That sounds like ideological indoctrination, which the Pope Centre always claims to oppose. The entire idea that Journalism must be reconciled with faith is an anathema to the principles of the discipline. Pulitzer must be rolling over in his grave, good Jewish lad that he was.

    If religion is to be a topic engaged by journalists, then they have to commence with a critical distance from it, not by using it as a guide to approaching the activity itself.

    • Frederic Fransen

      I don’t believe John suggests that journalism courses should include the Bible. On the contrary, he’s suggesting that future journalists be liberally educated in non-journalism classes. So much of our culture at least used to be permeated by the Bible that you couldn’t understand our culture without being familiar with the Bible, whatever your beliefs. But you get that in a liberal arts class on religion, not in a journalism class.
      I couldn’t agree more with John!

      • DrOfnothing

        “So much of our culture at least used to be permeated by the Bible that you couldn’t understand our culture without being familiar with the Bible.” Not true at all, I’m afraid. There’s a lot of folks out there who claim to be “Christian,” but most have a profoundly thin understanding of the Bible and the history of the faith. It gets quoted widely, but understood poorly. Out government and civil society are also based, explicitly on the separation of Church & State (to protect the former).
        The Constitution, on the other hand, is the founding document of our society, and an excellent piece of writing to boot. But Dr. Miller never suggests that students should be required to read it. Since the American ideal and principles of the free press are based on it, they should be!

    • banshee

      I took two courses on the Bible in college. It wasn’t indoctrination. American journalists should at the very least know what’s in the Bible. It influences American culture in many ways. It’s part of basic cultural literacy.

      • DrOfnothing

        That’s fine, as long as one takes a dispassionate stance on the topic. If you look at Hillsdale, that is simply not the case, though I cannot speak specifically to the author’s place on the faith-based teaching spectrum (he could be very liberal about it).

  • Douglas Levene

    A lot of this is good advice. What also would be helpful would be for reporters, not only at the New York Times but elsewhere, to discard pre-conceived narratives and just go out and look for stories without preconceptions. Readers can tell when you’re pushing a party line and at any given moment, half of them don’t like it. So stop.

  • TDJ

    Many good points in this article. I’d like to pick up on one made just in passing, that journalism students should take more courses in the sciences. Science journalism is in a parlous state, and the frankly anti-science attitudes of the incoming Trump administration mean that well-informed critical coverage of science-related policy issues will be vital in the coming years. A good source is “The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It,” by Shawn Otto (2016). Otto is highly critical of the ways in which schools of journalism and many working journalists and editors view science coverage.

    • Lou Sander

      Do you REALLY believe that an entire administration is “anti-science?” Maybe some members of it are anti-fake-science, just as some are anti-fake-news, and maybe even anti-fake-outrage.

  • I am a conservative. A real conservative. I’m also a college professor. And, I was a journalism undergraduate major… and former reporter and news director for NPR stations. My journalism training at the University of Arizona taught me to WRITE CLEARLY. It is a skill I use every day. The program taught me to think. And, to evaluate sources. The program also taught me professionalism. I was a young reporter BEFORE going to college and the “J” program at the UA taught me all the things I was doing wrong. That was in the 70s. What I see now makes me sad. So many of our “news” outlets are merely mouthpieces for the DNC. I see very little balanced reporting with the exception of one news outlet. I do not teach journalism any longer; I teach business and I.T. I’m not sure that I’d recommend a journalism major now. I do recommend internships and jobs while in college. DC, New York, LA bias? Oh yes it is out there. I remember having meetings at NPR headquarters in DC. All they wanted to get from me were “cowboys and Indians” stories. For women and men who want a career in television: make sure you have nice hair and major in theater arts. I’m only kidding a wee bit on that last suggestion.

    • DrOfnothing

      Let’s be realistic–nice hair is a useful asset in _any_ profession.

  • Roger Freberg

    Journalism is the tail wagging the dog in many schools. There are no jobs for their graduates… who if smart, major or minor in related fields that actually have a career outcome… like public relations or social media.

    Journalism as it was once presented is dead… new media is not understood by them… which has captured a following except for the very old.

    By the way, is 70 the most common age of a newspaper subscriber??

  • machinephilosophy

    What could possibly be wrong with a system that punishes belief in the notion of standards for anything?

    Modern education can’t justify itself—or anything else.

    Only dumbass losers still believe in the percentage-of-mastery fallacy, and brick-and-mortar collectivism will never be considered a science of anything but VAGUENESS.

    Private certification of knowledge will destroy all get-high go-to-group education within a few years.

    For your own future and safety, get OUT of the politicized mediocrity machine ASAP. “HIt CANCEL for CREDIT.”

  • dave72

    What’s wrong with our journalism departments? They are full of dumb people.

  • edotmp

    What should journalism schools teach:

    How to think critically and logically — Without this they cannot tell a reasoned discussion from propaganda, or fact from fantasy.

    How to write clearly — Without this they cannot explain what they have learned. They should not write to impress us, or to persuade us, but to inform us.

    The difference between an analysis and a narrative — If they cannot present a correct analysis, then all they can do is tell stories.

    Enough basic knowledge to understand what they are writing about — This is critical because if they don’t understand it well enough to at least understand what the question is, then they cannot possibly explain it, or even know if it is true. All they can do is parrot what they have been told, but they are unable to verify it or understand its limits in any way. They may have been told the truth, but they have no way to know.

    The first and last are the most important, but seem to be the least common. Without these what is the difference between journalism and rumor mongering?

  • Really Preposterous

    The single greatest failure of journalism in the US is that they are no longer reporters, they are advocates. The ‘just Cause’ corruption that has fouled the waters of many socially-concious science efforts has nearly destroyed journalism.

    Describing a destructive mod as protesters reduces the reporter’s and the outlet’s credibility to those affected by the disruption and destruction. Using obvious talking points and defiantly defending the plagiarism, intellectual emptiness and failure to perform in the interests of the audience (the group he reporter has the actual performance contract with) severs any interest in further consumption of the reporter’s services.

    People with a stake in a game are not interested and deeply resent being sold (that service contract.. remember?) advocacy for a third party. If included with information, they want insight separated from it. As a partial agreement with your diplomatic assessment of the parlous state of Journalist’s general education, knowledgeable readers are generally better equipped with knowledge and ability to synthesize than the ‘journalist’ reporting and don’t want the product polluted or diluted.

    They want to be able to assess the accuracy and relevance of that information. They want to be able to build a relationship of trust with the reporter. Most of all they want the reporter to be a reporter, not a smart ass, smug, self-gratifying attention-seeking, crowd-following, data-indifferent card-carrying, narrow-minded cheerleader.

    That a majority of the people that are potential consumers of journalistic output have to a greater or lesser extent concluded that is who is providing the service and that resulting service will be thus polluted and diluted is the basis for the response spectrum that ranges from disinterest to disdain. Who needs you? That question is not well answered by saying thatyou are a member of the 4th estate and that you are special. trust is earned, not gained by associating with the cool kids in school… or by being part of the in crowd that can ‘manage the narrative’.

    In the world most Americans live in, managing the narrative means you are occluding the realities of their lives with the things that matter to you. With that dynamic, can there be any doubt about why journalism is right up with with used car sales?

    Finally, for the terminally illiterate amongst your students, here is an analogy to ponder. The human body has two immune systems. An inherent one and an acquired one. The purpose of both those systems is to identify organisms and substances that are within the body that are inimical to it. Specialized cells raise the alarm, then other specialized cells identify and attack.

    When that mechanism is off, you get AIDS… no alarms at all and anything can take over. When that system is raising false alarms, you get auto-immune disease where the specialized cells start attacking other parts of the body because they identify them as undesirable… to the detriment of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis, Crohns disease. ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, etc.).

    Right now, a majority of Americans believe there is ample evidence that journalists have lost the ability to raise the alarm about things that are actually inimical and are instead causing and encouraging other organs within the body politic to attack thins that are merely out of favor with the journalists and the people they care about being in the favor of.

    What you are seeing is that the body is starting to reject the immune system. the special relationship… the 4th estate mythology is true only when journalists and outlets actually perform the function of watchdogs, not as bullies and social justice warriors. Social justice is a tenured faculty (the ones with the guaranteed income and the private police force and the place where the First Amendment is apparently suspended in favor of groupthink enforcement) term for mob rule.

    Anyone capable of functioning as an American citizens understands at a base level that what has happened to journalism is a failure mode. That the information being provided as part of the fourth estate service contract is tainted, under-performing, poor-quality and utterly unoriginal. It represents little or no inherent value to the consumer and is therefore being treated as EXACTLY THE VALUE IT PROVIDES.

    Columbia ‘J’ school is no longer a place to look for a grad that has ethics, ability to reason or represent a readership that is not a clone of their professors. Thomas Sowell is quoted as saying that ““The most fundamental fact about the ideas of the political left is that they do not work. Therefore we should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive.”

    Whether your students or the rest of the journalistic groupthink agree or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the people that purchase your services agree now and are starting to agree more and in greater numbers with that conclusion. That is the existential threat that journalism must address. The people that pay for the services think you are selling inferior goods.

    That won’t go away because the cool kids get in the faces of their customers and demand that they respect the ‘special relationship and position of the fourth estate’. Failures can and will be replaced as long as the constitution is relatively intact. The constitution is still in workable condition… are the journalists?