Do Journalists Need a Journalism Degree? Educators, Practitioners Disagree

    by Susan Currie Sivek
    August 12, 2013
    Image courtesy of Sidewalk Flying of Flickr.

    The age old question has cropped up again, but this time with a digital angle: Does a journalist today still need a degree in journalism? Journalism educators and professionals aren’t necessarily on the same page about what journalism students need to know to succeed — or whether students even need a journalism degree.

    According to a new survey released late last week by the Poynter Institute’s News University, journalism educators and professionals think differently about the effect of a journalism degree on the job preparation of graduates, and about whether journalism education is keeping up with dramatic changes in the industry. That difference of opinion might point yet again to the need for innovation in journalism education.

    "The bridge between the professional community and the academic community ... I don't want to say it's burned down, but if you've seen an Indiana Jones movie where they're trying to cross a rickety bridge -- it's kind of like that." -Howard Finberg
    Howard Finberg

    Howard Finberg


    In a presentation at the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Washington, D.C., Howard Finberg, News University’s director for partnerships and alliances, discussed the survey results. A full report [PDF] was also released on the News University website. Finberg’s interpretation of the survey data suggests that the days of journalism education as most know it — organized into four-year degree programs within university departments or schools — may be numbered, if these programs don’t swiftly and thoroughly modify their structures and their instructional strategies.

    Just as the journalism industry and other businesses have faced dramatic change due to technology, so too will journalism education, Finberg argued.

    “Journalism education is not going to be immune to this disruption,” he said.


    The Data

    About 1,800 people answered the News University survey during the last three months. About 38 percent of the respondents were journalism educators; another 38 percent were employees of media organizations (broadly defined); and the remainder were independent media workers, students, or other respondents.

    Most noticeable in the results are the significant gaps between educators and professionals in their regard for the importance of journalism degrees — not journalism education, as Finberg would elaborate — in helping graduates get jobs and be ready for work in the field.


    Asked whether a journalism degree was important for understanding the values of journalism, 96 percent of journalism educators responded that it was “very” or “extremely important.” Only 57 percent of the professionals thought the same. And asked whether that degree was important for improving a new hire’s news gathering abilities, 98 percent of educators said it was very or extremely important; just 59 percent of the professionals shared that view.

    Media professionals had a mixed sense of whether journalism education was doing enough to keep up with changes in the industry: 48 percent said it wasn’t at all, or only a little, while 43 percent said it was “mostly” keeping up. Educators’ opinions were similarly divided, with 39 percent offering the “not at all” or “only a little” ratings, and 46 percent in the “mostly” category.


    Finally, a question on whether journalism degree recipients made appealing job candidates also received diverging responses. Just more than half, 53 percent, of journalism educators thought having a journalism degree was very or extremely important for their students to get hired, but only 41 percent of the professionals thought the journalism degree was very or extremely important as a hiring criterion. And — a result that might say a lot about the journalism curricula of today — only 26 percent of the professionals said that the last person hired at their organizations had most or all of the skills they needed to succeed in their work.


    Mind the Gap

    Finberg argues that the opinion gap revealed by the survey points to a growing divide between the professional and academic journalism worlds.

    “The bridge between the professional community and the academic community … I don’t want to say it’s burned down, but if you’ve seen an Indiana Jones movie where they’re trying to cross a rickety bridge — it’s kind of like that,” he said.

    Accreditation of journalism programs was meant to ensure a good fit between graduates’ experiences and journalism employers’ needs. But accreditation no longer seems to ensure that coherence.

    “Perhaps accreditation has slipped out of the grasp of the professional-academic partnership,” Finberg said. “It is now being driven more as an academic process. I know that professionals participate in the accreditation process, but … my experience tells me that very few professionals are engaged and [that professionals] care very little about the accreditation process today.”

    A few attendees at the presentation wondered if some embittered journalism professionals, whether employed or working independently for lack of job opportunities, might have skewed the survey results after finding their degrees had not helped them succeed in the layoff-prone, poorly compensated industry. Yet the opinion gap appears large enough to have other explanations.

    Finberg recommends renewing the connection between journalism academics and professionals through innovative changes both within classrooms and in the larger organization of journalism education.

    Right now, he said, “We’re not teaching innovation. We’re dancing around the edges of it.”

    Flipping the Journalism Classroom

    Digital tools could change the focus of faculty members’ classroom time and allow them to share resources with other institutions. Online materials could replace some of the direct instruction in journalism topics, and face-to-face classroom time could be used for other kinds of teaching — as in the widely discussed “flipped classroom” approach.

    “Let the Internet do the heavy lifting,” Finberg said. “You do the most important part, which is the coaching and mentoring, the personal, the one on one.”

    Online instructional materials could be developed once and then shared by multiple institutions. These materials could take a variety of forms, including journalism MOOCs.

    “Are there ways to collaborate across universities, to create curriculum that is shared among universities?” Finberg suggested. He alluded to “rivalries” among j-schools that provoke competition instead of cooperation. “Can we leverage the power of technology to allow certain things to happen centrally for the benefit of everybody?”

    Students could learn online and then come into the classroom for follow-up and practice. The student’s perspective would be that the “MOOC is where I absorb information and methods, but I bring all that knowledge to the classroom where a mentor, a facilitator is helping me understand how to apply that,” Finberg said.

    (The survey sponsor, News University — part of the non-profit Poynter Institute — offers its own online training materials, both free and paid, with a variety of levels and styles that include non-degree certificate programs.)

    As Finberg noted, the survey was at “the 50,000-foot level,” and raised more questions about what specific topics educators should teach. Some of those questions will be explored in an upcoming follow-up survey that will ask educators and professionals more specifically about skills and attitudes needed by prospective journalists.

    Journalism Degree or Journalism Education?

    More radically, Finberg suggests divorcing journalism education from journalism degrees — or at least weakening the connection, so that training in journalism skills can be made more widely available to not only college students, but to the wider public, including those who commit what Jeff Jarvis calls “acts of journalism.” Documenting that training might come through achieving a digital “badge” in journalism — a recognition of knowledge and training in a field that is separate from any degree program, but that can be shown to employers and others to demonstrate ability.

    “People could show their body of work without a degree … We’ve had a lot of good experience with certificates of proficiency. Can we develop, with academic institutions, a digital badge that would show you understand the important things, including ethics, as a student, or as a professional who’s changing careers?” Finberg asked. He said that journalism skill is measurable. “We have ways we can judge the nature of a well-written story, in terms of ethics, proficiency, the ability to take information and turn it into something.”

    Opening journalism education to a wider customer base, so to speak, could also help it remain financially sustainable, even as college costs increase and journalism jobs become both fewer and lower paid. Though Finberg didn’t discuss this rationale for creating new non-degree journalism training opportunities in his presentation, the News University survey report does address it: “When it comes to value for dollars invested, journalism degrees may have much less value than they did in the past.”

    Though new modes of digital instruction and new institutional collaborations would be significant and challenging changes for many educators and their programs, Finberg argues that having the “spirit of a startup” is necessary for journalism education to match the innovation of the professionals already in the field.

    “If we fail, we need to try again. That’s what startups do,” he said. “Let’s take something and just try it. We need more failures. We need more failures in journalism education to teach us what we need to do.”

    Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. She teaches media theory, writing, and editing, and does research on magazines, social media, and political communication.

    Tagged: moocs news university open badges poynter institute
    • micheleweldon

      As an instructor at The Medill School since 1996, I think the great news for the journalism students we train and graduate every year is that on three critical questions, fewer than 10 percent of professionals dismiss a journalism degree as “not at all important.”
      Slightly more than 8 percent of professionals say a journalism degree is not at all important. Fewer than 8 percent said journalism education is not keeping up with the industry and 9.5 percnt said a journalism degree is not at all important when hiring.
      Thequite sunny flip side is nearly 92 percent say a j-degree is of varying levels of importance; more than 92 percent say journalism education is keeping up with the industry and more than 90 percent say a journalism degree has varying levels of importance when hiring. Yeah!

    • Bob F

      What’s often lost in these discussions is that the purpose of a journalism degree is not only to land a job for the grad. Important as that is, journalism isn’t a mere trade school for talented faces who know how to put a few words together. Journalism is a way of thinking,and its bedrock values are dedication to informing the public and accuracy in published works — print, broadcast or electronic. Those values should be embedded in every budding journalist headed into the news or writing businesses from the classroom. The best J-school educators strive for that level of commitment. I’d hope that the pros in news do, too.
      ( Disclosure: I’m a Northwestern MSJ grad and was a career newspaper reporter.)

    • apfwebs

      How long in history have there been journalists? How long in history have there been journalism degrees? I propose that some of the most noted journalists in history had no such degree.

    • Mark Plenke

      Not saying the study’s conclusions aren’t important (J-schools should be doing all they can to keep up with changes in the field), but what’s the news here? It’s always been true that many media professionals don’t see the value of a journalism degree. It’s also equally true that journalism professors overwhelmingly would see the value of what they do for a living. And Howard Finberg isn’t exactly an unbiased source on the value of alternative methods of journalism instruction (as Susan Currie Sivek notes). J-schools were founded to encourage professionalism in the profession, and I believe they continue to do a good job of that.

    • Carrie Brown-Smith

      I’m all for flipped classrooms, offering journalism education (not necessarily a degree) to more people, greater collaboration among journalism schools, and reform of the accreditation process, which I personally feel is the most colossal waste of time and resources ever designed. The one thing I worry about is just that in all these conversations and surveys, I’m not sure that professionals, understandably, quite realize what journalism professors deal with in the classroom, which can include significant deficiencies in very, very basic writing and digital skills. (I’m not faulting the students, here, I’m faulting what in many parts of this country is an under-invested and inferior secondary education system that doesn’t prepare students well for college.) I find time-strapped newsrooms increasingly don’t want to spend a lot of time mentoring young people – they want a ready-made rockstar. Just remember that if we don’t teach them these things, you will have to. It’s not quite so easy as it may sound.

      • Ron Comings

        I agree with you totally on the challenge you have in the classroom to prepare young journalists. Once I hire a reporter, for example, we can help them learn about covering a public utility commission hearing or a labor union dispute. But I don’t prefer to spend time just cleaning up their scripts. But we do because we must. Many are not only deficient in grammar but also in the ability to write in a clear and logical fashion. You do have a tremendous challenge!

    • eperrysf

      (Medill MSJ) Sadly, I think J-school, in its current form, can no longer prepare its students properly for a carrer in the industry. I think I benefited greatly from my experience, and profs were interesting, but the reality is not “journalism” any more. Seriously. There are a few good pubs out there, but if you take a look at what’s going on on the inside, the blogs are getting more play. Wrong or right, that’s what’s happening.

      • westwoodwizard

        It is right for the blogs to get noticed. The joke about journalism in the United States is that those on the inside have always used it as a way to keep the public informed only as they choose to see fit. In an online world, it is great that the news and opinions of anybody can be published. At the end of the day, traditional American journalists were and are biased..not objective, They report the news in a manner that their human bias directs them to.

    • Bryn Robertson


    • BMG

      For the professors out there teaching… why be there if the passion for every student to succeed isn’t there? Just like any kindergarten teacher…that teacher got them to your class! Regardless of that simple fact, just talking to my son today… I believe a history degree is important for journalist… his knowledge in any current event and in history statistics will only provide the public with valuable and factual information. It all started by watching a film made in 1927 and the difference from a film in 1948. Huge development professor… huge

    • Tina

      I believe there is a difference between today’s education and the education received in the past. OBVIOUSLY. There, for example, is a dramatic void between the early construction of America and now. We haven’t stream-lined education we have ripped down. We have devoured education. We see these degrees as vital, but what we are not seeing is the lack of education between preschool (if attended) and high school, which is dramatically impacting everyone. Do we really need four-year-degrees when we absorb the better part of 12 years in the early lives our children? Yes, not everyone will be a doctor, a lawyer, or God forbid a
      politician (a joke so don’t freak out), but what are we doing for those currently facing childhood? We have millions of opportunities to create an educated and informed society. By millions I mean our children, because our children as cliché as it is to point out are our future. They are the future. It is possible to have adolescents graduating in 10th grade rather than 12th. It is possible to have high school graduates with at the very minimum a two-year-degree by 18-years-of-age, or brilliantly enough vocational training for those who don’t want collage but want hands-on viable skills. Why can’t we have this? Why can’t we do this? We are truly holding ourselves back, because we are stifling our future generations. We need to do better for them. Four-year-degrees are not paving the way. We have momentous student debt that many may never live through to pay back. We have embarrassingly low student performance when ranked against other nations yet we pride ourselves on tenure and unions. I know what it is like to be a student who no one believed in. I know what it is like to feel below important. I don’t want that for my children or anyone else’s children. We have an obligation to give them the best possible education and we have the capabilities to do so. There is a rickety bridge, because we cut that rope. It is time to take a harder look at what we have done to put all education on thin-ice.

    • gsmonks

      Today’s journalism degree is pretty much worthless when it comes to doing good journalism. Journalism itself has gone down the toilet in the last 40 years. A person would do far better to cobble together a selection of courses, EG: Logic (aka Critical Thinking), grammar (far too many journalists these days are functionally illiterate), Creative Writing (for exposition purposes), a solid grounding in research methods, and courses that are relevant to the area of journalism you want to do professionally (aka understanding your subject).

      Beyond that, anyone involved in any way, shape or form with that “cult of personality” horse-crap in the world of broadcast journalism should be shot on sight. I’ve never seen such a mass of bush-league incompetents.

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