Journalism education: does it provide the skills? (Extract)

Mick O’Regan:

Right now, thousands of Year 12 students are pondering what to do next year. Among those with aspirations to attend university are many who will choose to study journalism. So this week on the program we’re interested in how well served those students are likely to be by the range of tertiary journalism courses.

One recurring theme in the debate over the adequacy of journalism education is whether tertiary graduates have the skills necessary to find work with the limited number of employers.

I began our discussion by asking John Henningham about his recently-published criticisms of journalism education, which focused on the lack of industry involvement. And what he had learned from speaking with senior people in the media, such as newspaper editors.

John Henningham: Well many of them I find are astonished that after three years of a journalism education, recruits still don’t, in many cases, have the level of practical skills to be able to produce copy quickly and to have quick turnaround of copy. You know, quite a few editors said Well the students know the theory of news writing, but not the practice of it. And this isn’t universally the case, those who work on course newspapers often do have that experience in writing stories, but many editors say that journalism students spend too much time on feature writing, or areas of journalism that aren’t all that useful to them when they’re employed as cadets on provincial daily newspapers for example, where they want to see them produce a lot of stories very quickly.

That’s one type of area. They mentioned shorthand, the fact that this is a necessary skill for newspapers still today, in our day, and they feel that this is something that ought to be taught in a journalism course, but most universities thumb their nose at that as seeing it’s too technical and too practical in a sense, to be inflicted upon students. And yet if they don’t have a shorthand speed, they have to learn that while they’re cadets, and so this is a problem for them.

Mick O’Regan: And one of the other points you made in an article that was published in the News Limited Media Supplement some weeks ago, was that the whole nature of I suppose the humanities model, university model, where students have in a particular subject, they might have two contact hours in a lecture each week, followed up by a contact hour in a tutorial. Now tutorials these days can be upwards of 25 people as opposed to, say, 10 or 12 people from a generation ago. Just briefly, why is that model inadequate in your opinion.

John Henningham: Well clearly, it’s not at all suitable for teaching skills in journalism, to teach reporting and writing skills, because the students just don’t get enough practice, they don’t get enough attention from their teachers. And so to be one of 400 students in a large lecture for two hours, and then have a 50-minute tutorial where you’re one of 30 students, it’s difficult to any individual student to even be noticed. And the problem is in the turnaround of stories that they write, the marking of their stories, it’s woefully inadequate, and in many cases students might be writing only about five stories in a whole semester.

And their first day in journalism, they’ll have to write that many stories on that day. And so of course they can’t develop the skills, they can’t learn from their mistakes with that kind of imbalance between teachers and students. It’s really quite appalling, and I contrast this with the funding that actually is provided by the Federal government, by the students themselves through their HECS payments, and the very small proportion that is actually spent on providing them with the education.

For complete program see: Journalism education (ABC Radio National)

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