It was nearly 150 years ago that Washington and Lee University inaugurated journalism education in the United States. By this action, which took place soon after the Civil War ended, the university sparked an enduring debate about the appropriate balance between a university education and on-the-job training. Not even momentous changes in the technology that enables people to communicate—the telegraph, telephone, radio and television, and now the Internet—have put an end to the arguments about the role of journalism education and what form it should take. But amid this disagreement has been acceptance of a shared goal: to prepare those who will practice journalism to be able to provide citizens with accurate and credible news and information to ensure participation in the governing process.

To achieve this end, journalism education has changed only slightly from the 1960’s until the mid-1990’s. The most noticeable change has been the rising influence of broadcast media as educators came to regard radio and television as important forms of journalism and as schools expanded to include multiple forms of mass communication, such as advertising and public relations.

More recently the Internet has upended our world by calling into question the ways that most journalism teaching happens. At a time when many universities had developed specialized sequences of courses in print, broadcast, advertising and public relations as a way to resolve debates about how these disciplines could share an academic home, the fast-moving digital revolution—with its varied multimedia dimensions to storytelling—challenged this model.

Some journalism schools have merged specialized sequences of course study into two categories. One is called “journalism” or “news and information,” and this includes reporting and writing news for print, broadcast and the Web, along with “info-graphics,” design and broadcast and multimedia production of stories. The other carries adjectives such as “strategic” or “persuasive” before the word “communication,” and this category combines advertising and public relations. Some of these schools require a generalized multimedia or visual communications class as a basic course. Others teach writing, information gathering, and multimedia production in a single course.

There are two problems with this structure:

  1. In some curricula, beneath the newly required visual communications course, much of the rest of what students study looks just the same as it did in the separated sequences. The same courses are taught, with a heavy emphasis on traditional examples.
  2. The other problem is one of depth. Can news writing, reporting skills, programs such as InDesign and Flash, along with photography, be taught in a single course? Can one person be all things to all media?

Seeking Guidance

Since I became dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in July 2006, I’ve spent considerable time talking with alumni, turning to them to learn what graduating students need to know. I seek their advice about how to best address the decline in newspaper circulation and the ascendancy of the Web. Our alumni journalists are concerned more about whether our students master substantive knowledge than they are with how students master technology. Alumni believe they should be learning more about world and American history, how the economy and business decisions affect social and political behavior, and media ethics and media law.

Journalists have offered me good examples of how such substantive study paid off in their newsrooms. I recall one of them telling me how he’d cautioned his editor to move slowly when Richard Jewell was named a bombing suspect by various news media at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He said he could hear his ethics professor whispering in his ear about leaping too fast with limited evidence. But the editor responded, “CNN is using it.” Days later, when Jewell was exonerated, the editor apologized. Jewell later sued a number of news organizations.

Given their experiences, our alumni think digitally—and they assure me that everyone must be able to “think” digitally. What this means is that we need to reorganize our teaching about how to report and produce a story across media platforms. One alumnus working for USA Today told of her trek from Basra to Baghdad; carrying a video camera and sound equipment, along with her pen and notebook, she joined the swelling ranks of backpack journalists.

Our journalism school is known for its in-depth education and for preparing students to be ready to work in the business when they graduate. Students take at least 80 of the 120 credits required for graduation outside of the school, as the accreditation council for journalism schools requires. At the journalism school, students must take a course in media law, ethics and news writing, and complete a mix of theory and skills courses.

A Different Direction

Like other journalism schools, how we are teaching—and what we are teaching—has been in the midst of change for a decade or more. Ten years ago, when educators started exploring convergence, the head of the visual communications sequence at our school, who was trained as a photographer, taught himself computer programming so he could understand better the underpinnings of multimedia. Out of this experience, he developed a superb sequence of courses; today this sequence is updated constantly and prepares students to work as newspaper and Web designers, to compose info-graphics, to be photographers, and to create multimedia documentaries and shorter multimedia news stories. Students who take these courses are much in demand in the job market. A visual communication graduate recently found himself deciding between job offers from The New York Times and MSNBC.

However, core skills taught in broadcast and print sequences are not replaced by visual communication alone. Students still need to learn to develop quality story packages for television and to study writing, reporting and editing. They need specialized information to master areas such as business journalism.

As we think hard about how to move forward—merging sequences or creating new ones—we want to add depth to our students’ education. So we are considering which nine or 10 classes are the ones to best prepare students to work in the new media world. And we are thinking about what happens if we require students to take additional credits as part of their study at this school (we now require 28 credits): Would such a requirement shortchange their liberal arts education—a vital part of the education journalists need? Would this curtail their opportunity to take business courses, which are increasingly important for journalists?

At a minimum we must make sure that students and faculty think and work across a range of media platforms. Our challenge isn’t relegated to the combining of sequences or adding new courses, but involves progressive professorial practice and interaction with working journalists as we enable students to think in digital ways. Learning such critical thinking is essential if they are going to participate in shaping the digital environment in which they’ll be working. Our approaches include the following:

  • We must teach students to work with others; students in a graphic design class and a magazine editing class work in teams across course lines.
  • Our business journalism professor writes a popular blog and is a contributing editor and columnist for a monthly magazine, Business North Carolina. In his classes, students think and work across media platforms.
  • A professor who teaches editing explores alternative story forms; he works with the Poynter Institute using new curricula to assess their impact.
  • One of our design professors is coauthor of a column on digital design for the University of Southern California Annenberg’s Online Journalism Review.
  • Broadcast students stream their newscasts on the Web.
  • A professor’s advanced design students do readability and eye-tracking tests for a new Web design at a nearby television station.

Research done by our graduate faculty reflects the new communications landscape but also emphasizes the ongoing study of journalism history and law—traditional strengths of our school. In the midst of rapid change, graduate inquiry into what has happened in the past, as well as the legal environment of this practice, contributes to shaping—and not just reacting to—the emerging digital era. This year we also will add a senior person to our faculty who specializes in digital media economics.

Just as 19th century pioneers at Washington and Lee led the way into uncharted academic territory, journalism educators today are responsible for helping their students navigate through this territory of upending change. My advice is this: While we find ways to integrate new skills into our teaching, let’s be sure to keep our eye squarely on what has remained a stationary goal—to have students leave our classrooms with the wisdom and skills they need to provide citizens with accurate and credible information.

The digital revolution, wherever it takes us, will not erase the need for educated professionals whose work is trusted by readers and viewers. The news may come to us in amazing ways. It may look different. Citizens who are not professional journalists might help construct it. It might be mixed with a thousands bits and bytes of random and even entertaining information. Establishing trust with readers and viewers is as important in digital journalism as it was before the telegraph was invented. The next generation of journalists will engage a host of new challenges and opportunities, some of which we will likely be unable to foresee. But accuracy and credibility should never feel like outmoded ideals. Passing on tools to keep those principles at the core of journalistic practice remains our greatest responsibility.

Jean Folkerts is dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Prior to her appointment in 2006, she was professor of media and public affairs and associate vice president for special academic initiatives at George Washington University. Before entering higher education, Folkerts was a general assignment reporter for The Topeka Capital-Journal and an editor and writer at other publications.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment