Journalism Education: Cultures of Journalism/Lifelong Learning series


There are a number of schools of thought on how to teach journalism. Some advocate an in-house training program like the one the British tabloid, News of the World, runs for new cadets, and others believe in a wider ranging multi-disciplinary approach in a university setting. We hear the case for different styles of teaching journalism. Guests include G. Stuart Adam from the Poynter Institute in the USA, and John Henningham from J-School.

Lucinda Duckett: I think what’s important here is to realise that universities and newspapers are trying to do different things, and we are not in the business of criticising universities for the job that they do — because they do a very good job — but they also do a very different job from us. And I think that it’s dangerous to confuse the duty of a university, which is to encourage thought, academic rigour — and the duty of newspapers, which is to produce good productive journalists. And those two things don’t necessarily come together in a journalism course.

Donna McLachlan: Lucinda Duckett is the Editorial Development Manager for News Ltd. Hello, and welcome to Cultures of Journalism. This week we’re having a look at journalism education. There are so many different ways of learning how to be a journalist. Perhaps you learn on the job or you might learn as a Distance Education student. Or you might go to a university. So today we’re going to focus on some of the differences in approach to journalism education.

Lucinda Duckett: What we see is that many journalism degrees are very theoretical, do have much academic rigour and critical thought which probably belongs in a degree. But the mistake is to think that that will produce a work-ready journalist, because the two things are completely different. One is work training, I suppose, and the other is academic study. They’re two completely different things. And I think the universities may have lost their way a little in their direction. Are they trying to offer trade courses or degrees? The two things are very different.

Wendy Bacon: Well I think it’s about both things. first of all, our graduates have to be more than work ready.

Donna McLachlan: Associate Professor Wendy Bacon, from the University of Technology, Sydney, is also a journalist.

Wendy Bacon: At the moment we have final year students doing interviews at the various media outlets, and even to have a chance of getting a job, you need to have a very strong portfolio — sometimes across more than one type of media — and it needs to be of a professional standard. So right from day one in our course, our students are turning out stories, many of them also do subediting courses to improve their writing; they do radio, they’re actually broadcasting with breakfast shows on community radio stations — so we put a huge emphasis on being work-ready. But as well as that, in a university you can’t really pretend to have a journalism course unless you also study what journalism is about, what is its role in society, what is the media about — and also prepare your graduates to go out and be in a workplace where, if they are to put into practice their highest ideals in terms of professional practice and ethical practice, they need to understand the environment in which they work in order to maximise their opportunities to produce a high quality of journalism.

Donna McLachlan: And at the privately run JSchool, founder and director, John Henningham also believes you need to think more broadly about the media as well as the practical skills of journalism.

John Henningham: That is important. And what I’ve done in my course is I’ve boiled the curriculum down to one year, whereas university courses are generally three years, sometimes longer. And some people say, oh, you can’t teach all that you need to know in one year. Well, you can’t teach it in three years, or in a lifetime, really, and most of what journalists will need to know and will learn will be on the job after they’ve finished their studies. Some think that I concentrate entirely on the skills of writing and newsgathering, but you can’t really run a journalism course without looking at that context — the areas of knowledge that journalists need to know — and parts of this are to do with the media themselves, with the media’s role in society, and other parts are to do with the broader map of understanding politics, economics, literature, history — of having a broad understanding that a well-educated person should have in any field, really.

Donna McLachlan: How do you ingrain that in a short course?

John Henningham: Well, my approach is to do it in a hands-on way. The aim is to develop skills in writing and in recognising news. And when teaching the context I continue with these methods, so when we’re looking at politics or economics, if I have a guest lecturer, for example, the students write a story about what they’ve said, or they write a feature story on the topic. And when we’re studying politics we go to Parliament House. We spend a week in the Queensland Parliament House. They attend seminars there, they meet members of the press gallery, they meet members of parliament and ministers and shadow ministers. And so they develop an understanding of politics through being in a political parliamentary context and meeting the movers and shakers and seeing what’s going on. And at the same time, learning how journalists report on politics by talking to journalists about how they do it and making their own attempts at writing stories about what happens in Parliament House. So they have a hands-on approach where they’re learning often without realising they’re learning. They’re learning just by being there and talking to people and observing proceedings.

Wendy Bacon: People talk about journalism education, but what I like to think about is journalism in a university as the starting point. A few years ago I wrote an article called ‘What is a Journalist in a University?’, because to me, that was a very big challenge when I went from the media into the university. What happened to my journalism? And I think really, journalism in the university has got to be about three things. It’s got to be about being a journalist — and that means continuing on to actually practice journalism at as good a level as you can. Now that doesn’t mean you can do it all the time, but if we move away from that as journalists and educators, we’re really not providing an example of high standard professional practice for our students. We also, amongst our staff, for example, have someone who’s in very innovative radio. So we should be in innovation and good professional practice. As well as that, we need to research journalism. We need to be seriously engaged in scholarly activity. And then we teach journalism. And those three things really should work together in an environment that because of the pressure on journalism academics to get PhDs (which is a good thing to do) — far too many journalism education academics turn away from journalism into scholars and then rely on people they’re hiring out of the industry on a part-time basis, which can be good but you’ve got to have people on staff as well — they rely on them to actually deliver what effectively very often becomes training.

What News Ltd is about with their online courses — and some private universities too — they’re on about really what is a form of journalism training. It’s not really about a journalism education, which must include thinking about journalism as much as doing journalism. And you’re not going to do journalism very well unless you think about it.

Donna McLachlan: Wendy Bacon is an Associate Professor of Writing, Journalism and Social Enquiry at UTS. One of the key thinkers and writers in the area of journalism education is G. Stuart Adam, a journalist who crossed over into journalism education. He helped to establish the Carleton School of Journalism in Ottawa, Canada, in 1973. And Professor Adam is now at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida.

You wrote a piece for, I think, The Columbia News, about a task force that was set up to look at the future of journalism education. And I was really interested in the idea that it shouldn’t be an ‘either-or’ situation, you know, like trading off the trade and the craft of journalism for intellectual rigour and the ability to be critical, and I wondered if you could just talk to that kind of idea in terms of the future of journalism education.

Stuart Adam: Well, I think in one respect, very straightforward. It takes the classical idea of a liberal education and understands it as an education for public life. And then it tries to build, as it were, a curricular model that forges a relationship between the two things. And as you indicated in your question, it constitutes a remedy, I think, to a problem that has vexed journalism education and has been a continuous subject of discussion amongst journalism educators. There’s been this estrangement between the professors of professional practices and the professors of academic research. And my model, in a nutshell, just says that the classical disciplines of what I would call political science, economics and law, the cognate disciplines, the civic disciplines, married up to a kind of literary education. And forged in the context of a vision of how you form journalists it will add up to something that is stronger, more interesting, more powerfully educating, and bring the disciplines of the university into contact with journalism students and professors of professional practices into contact with the discipline.

Donna McLachlan: Professor Stuart Adam. And in his model for journalism education, understanding context, be it political, scientific or social, is crucial.

Stuart Adam: The way I break it out is that I think of something called ‘the editor’s lexicon’, or the writer’s lexicon. And a portion of it has to do with the language of craft which reflects the experience of craft and the experience of making and knowing and judging journalistic work. So that’s one piece of the educational process. the second piece has to do with tying the mind critically to the content and meaning of the world’s events and the shape of the world. And in a sense you can think of journalism as an application of the forms of understanding that are born in, as it were, non-journalism subjects (to take a conventional example, like political science, or any part of the civic disciplines) if you require people to come to terms with those concepts, even with statistics, so that they’re numerate. In due course this turns up as an incorporated part of their understanding. And so context, then, is not something that is separated from the act of reporting.

Donna McLachlan: And I think what you’re describing there is as students gain knowledge and intellectual ability — and this is again a quote from your article — that they ‘learn to think like a journalist.’ Is that what you’re getting at?

Stuart Adam: Yes. And I think one of the things that we’ve always struggled with in journalism education is that there’s not a natural understanding, in the minds of academics, of news. News is the thing that, as journalists, we own — and the understanding. And so what we’re doing is in a sense quite unique in the university. We’re taking something that is born in the practice of journalism — namely the idea of news judgment. And then forging a relationship between it and the forms of understanding that languish in the academic disciplines. But the academic disciplines themselves aren’t going to, as it were, tutor an understanding of news — or breed the journalist. That’s something that we have to do.

Donna McLachlan: One of the great aspects of the in-house training program at News Ltd is the on-going training available to working journalists.

Lucinda Duckett: We have a number levels for training. The most notable one is an online training school which is national, which all our journalists have access to and which is exclusive to them. At the moment, at any one time, we have about 200 people enrolled in courses in our online program. Obviously we have many hundreds of graduates. We have a number of courses ranging from subediting to law reporting, court reporting — and there are other courses under development. Journalists can log in to those courses at any time, to suit their deadlines. Aside from that we have on-the-spot training at various sites, particularly the bigger ones in major cities. And we have people coming in for courses every now and again as well. So there’s a sort of range of courses being delivered on site by departments at various of our newspapers, but also nationally through the online program.

Donna McLachlan: Lucinda Duckett points out that it’s the editors of newspapers who choose the journalism cadets. But what has she observed about the qualities they may bring to their new job?

Lucinda Duckett: The majority of our intake these days have a degree but we don’t insist on it, and we actually like to see some people coming in who do not have a degree. They have a certain freshness that we don’t see always in people who are graduates. We also like to see people who come in with a variety of degrees — we’re not just looking for people with journalism degrees. We’re looking for economics, for medicine, for law, for all kinds of things that reflect the diversity of the things that we report and write about in our papers. If anything, I would say that we are beginning to become slightly disillusioned with people who have journalism degrees, and to focus ourselves a little bit more on people who don’t.

Donna McLachlan: So tell me more about that disillusionment — what is it that is being presented in the young cadets who have journalism degrees that isn’t matching what you need, or what your editors obviously need for particular newspapers?

Lucinda Duckett: The most striking would be the amount of theorising on journalism that they have done. To give an example, we have just gone through the process at our Melbourne newspaper group (The Herald and Weekly Times) of selecting cadets. We had 130 applications from people who sat the exam. And it was very noticeable, there was one question which was, ‘under what circumstances do you think it would be acceptable to refuse an assignment?’ And people who had done journalism degrees or journalism courses were able to answer that question very fully, with large numbers of answers about the circumstances in which they would not cover a story. The people who had not done a journalism degree cited very few reasons that tended to be around, I wouldn’t do a story if it broke the law, I wouldn’t cover a story if it threatened my personal safety. And that’s what we’re looking for. It appears to us that the theorising that’s going ahead in the university journalism courses is actually paralysing people’s ability to cover news. It’s paralysing action. They’re thinking of more reasons to keep things out of the paper than to put things in. And what we’re looking for is people who are passionate to expose things, cover them, tell the truth, get it out and write about it.

Donna McLachlan: [Wendy Bacon], do you think there is an overemphasis on theory in journalism degrees?

Wendy Bacon: Not at all. I think it would be a disgrace if you thought that you could just study journalism any more than you could study medicine, law or engineering in a university and not actually think about what it is you’re going to do and what role that profession plays in a society. And the whole idea that you can think too much about it, I find quite abhorrent. Now what I find also really quite interesting is that we had at UTS presenting our awards Chris Mitchell who is editor-in-chief of The Australian, and he began his speech, actually, by saying, look, ‘some of our best young journalists on The Australian are recent graduates of your course’. I would say, though, the idea — I can understand from a company perspective how someone might say they want to turn out compliant journalists who don’t question when they’re asked to do a particular story. But that’s not in the interests of the public, and we’re educating to be able to produce journalists who can perform their role in a democracy. And it is not in the interests of democracy for us to produce students who will go into newsrooms and ask no questions. Because if you can’t ask any questions of the editor and the person who’s asking you and telling you what to do, you won’t be able to ask any questions of the powerful either and you’ll become a generally compliant being.

Now that said, you do need to — and we always emphasise; to students a newsroom is a complex place — you need to learn how to work in that environment, but unless you understand where news agendas come from, which is part of what we would look at in our theory subjects, you understand really what news is and its relationship to audience — you’re not going to operate in that environment effectively, you’re just going to become a fairly compliant person who turns out very often what is basically PR. And that is the other feature of our courses, is that we are one of the universities in Australia to have been able to resist a pressure within the universities to merge at least part of the courses with public relations — or what we call at UTS ‘public communication’. At UTS we keep those two things very distinct, and I think that’s again in the interests of the public that we make a strong distinction.

Donna McLachlan: Wendy Bacon is Associate Professor of Writing, Journalism and Social Enquiry at the University of Technology, Sydney. And on this question of democracy, Professor Stuart Adam from the Poynter Institute. I’m interested in that kind of feedback loop, I guess — we’re talking here about the language of reporting and how that’s been informed by the growth in journalism education and understanding that. But I’m interested in the impact of public debate on journalism and then how the language of journalism feeds back into public debate. How, in fact, journalism helps to form social policy.

Stuart Adam: Well, that’s a very complex question, and the answer, I hope, will not sound too glib. But the most fundamental thing I think we do arises out of the creation, as it were, of public consciousness and understanding — not so much the process, I mean obviously there’s an impact on public policy, but I’m very much a fan of George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. And it’s really about the relationship between the quality of language and the ways in which we express ourselves, and the degree to which we’re clear. I’d be very interested in the relationship between that and the quality of politics. And so there’s a basic assumption that occurs before in a sense the activist understandings of journalism and having an impact on reform, and so on, which has to do with the clarification of understanding, the creation of a world of understanding which people inhabit, and have a map of the world they occupy. And I think it’s enormously challenging to train people who can translate complex understandings and bring them forth into the public domain, so there is a — however large or small — a public that understands and can engage political questions in a meaningful way. I’m really talking about the fundamental architecture of democracy, how you stitch this together and make it work. Well, there have to be people, to put it in kind of an Orwell fashion, who write and think clearly and don’t face the political system by burying the world in cliches or abstractions or fancy ways of saying things that can be restated and understood.

Donna McLachlan: Someone who’s come at the idea of journalism education from a slightly different perspective is Michael Schudson, with a background in researching the history and sociology of the American news media. What does he think is essential for teaching journalism?

Michael Schudson: I’d have two thoughts about that. The first thing I’d say in the education of young journalists is they should read newspapers. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I’ve taught a course for 20 years here on the sociology of the American news media, and last year for the first time ever I required students to read The New York Times every day. And so many of those students don’t follow news very much at all. And if they do it’s rarely print media. And I can’t tell you how many ‘thank you’s I got from students who said their eyes were opened. They had no idea there was so much good, complex, apparently fair-minded reporting out there. And this from just one newspaper that landed on their doorsteps every day. It was a major task for them to get through it, and I actually asked them to time themselves, how long it took them to read just the front page of the newspaper. Just the front page and the continuation of those front page stories. And that was about a 45-minute activity for most of the students every day. When you think about that, that’s an enormous amount of time if someone is really to try to follow the news that way. But few of us read the news with that kind of care unless we’re professional journalists already. So that would be the first thing I’d say, is read the newspaper, and ideally read more than one. The second thing I’d say is do some studies besides journalism. Editors I’ve talked to, at least at better publications, are really looking for someone with curiosity, with some broad base of general knowledge – journalists are thrown into all kinds of things in which they have to be very quick studies. If they have some broad base in the wide variety of humanities, social sciences and sciences, they’ll do better. That’s a tall order, but that would be the other thing I’d recommend.

Donna McLachlan: Professor Michael Schudson from the University of California, San Diego. But for all the thought that’s gone into understanding how to teach journalism in universities, a degree isn’t always desirable for an employer such as News Ltd.

Lucinda Duckett: some of our best journalists have no degree at all, and most of our group editors in the country do not have a degree. A degree is not a requirement to be a good journalist. What we need from a journalist is somebody who can find stories rather than wait for them to be given to them. While the critical thought and the academic rigour at universities is valuable, does it really teach you how to get somebody to talk when they’ve just been bereaved? Is that a skill that the universities are teaching? Are they teaching people how to write at great speed? They may be teaching people to write to a point, although I have to say one of the biggest elements of our reporting course is called News English, and it’s about the absolute basics of grammar and spelling and writing, and we’re seeing that that has not been taught properly in universities — and I think probably goes further back — has not been taught properly in schools. So I think much too much emphasis is given by people who look outside-in to newspapers on the writing element of it. We need good, sound, basic writers, people who can communicate at a simple level. But beyond that, we need people who can really sniff out stories, who can go beyond and find out what’s really going on. No university has a monopoly on the people who have those skills.

Donna McLachlan: Lucinda Duckett is the National Editorial Development Manager at News Ltd. On Cultures of Journalism today we’ve been looking at journalism education. But I’d like to end on a note about ongoing training for journalists. Lance Polu is President of PINA, the Pacific Islands News Association.

Lance Polu: Our professional development in terms of training and looking at raising standards targets the whole region, so whether they are journalists or photographers or media practitioners who are working for a newspaper or media outlet that is foreign owned or owned by somebody outside the Pacific region, it doesn’t stop what we are doing in terms of training and upskilling for everyone who is working in the media in the Pacific.

Donna McLachlan: How important is it for their identity that there is a news service that’s representing their own stories?

Lance Polu: It is very important for that identity to be kept. And I think it’s an area that in the training and the programs that PINA has been running in the past, it has been looking at this particular issue. So that the training of journalists who are based in the Pacific countries to write their own stories and interpret what’s happening on the ground for not only for the community newspapers or radio stations or television stations, but they can also write these stories for a wider or global market.

Donna McLachlan: Lance Polu, president of the Pacific Island News Association. I hope you can join me next week for a vibrant and provocative discussion about the future of journalism, with Chris Masters, Andrew Bolt and Barbie Zelizer in the hot seats. My thanks to Bruce Jacobson for technical production and I’ll talk to you same time next week.


G. Stuart Adam

Stuart Adam is the Journalism Scholarship Fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Florida and Professor of Journalism at Carleton University, Ottawa

[email protected]

Wendy Bacon

Associate Professor of Writing, Journalism and Social Enquiry, University of Technology, Sydney.

Lucinda Duckett

National Editorial Development Manager, News Limited.

John Henningham

Founder and Director of J-school, an independent school of journalism in Brisbane, Queensland.

[email protected]

Michael Schudson

Professor of Communication and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Califronia, San Diego.

[email protected]

Source: Journalism education (ABC Radio National)

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