Woodstein U: Notes on the Mass Production and Questionable Education of Journalists

More than enough students are enrolled in journalism courses at this moment to replace every professional journalist now employed on an American newspaper. What explains this madcap scramble for jobs that don't exist, and how well are the students prepared? A veteran journalist reports on the state of America's schools of communications.
PROPAGANDA OR NEWS: The Journalism/Public Relations Paradox

Years ago, as a young reporter, while watching the police raid an illegal dice game in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, I picked up a gambling supply catalogue. On one page the catalogue offered a set of calipers and scales guaranteed to detect any phony dice ever made. On another page was offered a set of loaded dice guaranteed to escape detection by any device in existence.

A parallel to this paradox can be found in journalism schools where reporting is taught in the same department as public relations/advertising, as is the case in half of the 200 colleges and universities offering journalism degrees. Journalism education fosters a dedication to reporting significant public information, including penetration of propaganda. Advertising and public relations teach persuasion by paid propaganda.

The teaching of manipulative arts bothers many faculty members, including Professor John Huffman of the University of Tulsa, whose article "Can Advertising and Journalism Continue to Live Together?" appears in a recent issue of Journalism Educator, organ of the Association for Education in Journalism. Huffman wrote: "A thinking person cannot believe in the basic tenets of journalism and the basic tenets of advertising at the same time. Advertisers are one of the largest groups of users of social science findings about the mutability of man." They use this mutability, he says, to benefit the advertiser rather than the consumer.

"Journalism, on the other hand, says that man needs help in separating the wheat from the chaff, and that man must be educated as to causes and effects and their relevance in improving the social order."

The promotional teachers insist that they teach only truthful and ethical advertising and public relations, with the prime intention of helping the citizen. A recent textbook, Advertising by Maurice Mandel, describes the process:

“The consumer tells the firm his wants and desires. This information is translated into product, package, brand, price, channels of distribution and promotion. 

Such nonsense is widespread, and if students believe it they will suffer rude awakenings when they try to keep their jobs in the field. A University of Texas communication brochure on its advertising says, for example: "Advertising students concentrate on purposive communication… Their ethic is the mutuality of interests between seller and consumer, business and public." Do journalism and radio-television-film courses taught in the university concentrate on purposeless communication?

I asked Dean Danielson why he taught advertising and public relations. He said that for one thing, students want it. They like commercials.

“One of the most popular student shows is the rerun of prizewinning commercials. Students pay admission to watch and hear two hours of commercials. When freshmen see a favorite commercial from their childhood they burst into applause. When the little man jumps out of the Post Toasties box it is an image from early childhood. At that age what can a poet do for a creative kid? The 10-second or 30-second or 60-second sales message may serve the function of poetry or creative outlet for students."

Danielson is probably correct about student interest. In 1968 the university enrolled eighty advertising majors; today it enrolls 271. The courses reflect a cultural conditioning of American society that is forever bedeviling journalists.

"Ad students are among the most creative we have," Danielson said. "The use of symbols, music, and words has a big appeal. Students are very skilled in image use. Don't forget that when they come to us they have had 16,000 hours of television viewing."

SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL: What Goes On in Journalism Classrooms

The sheriff strolled into the crowded press conference a sombrero tilted back on his head.

"Well, I understand you fellas have a few questions and I'm here to tell you the whole story, the true facts. I understand you been talking to some of the Chicano [he pronounced it Chee-cano] folks and got yourself quite a story. Now, I like those people but they do get a mite excited and they can let their imaginations run hog-wild. I completed the investigation, talked to all the eyewitnesses, and I'll answer all your questions."

A reporter asked. "Sir, what happened?"

"Subject was first seen downtown at Fifth and Main in some kind of altercation. When approached by Officer Smith subject was abusive and profane and threatened Officer Smith and then got into his pickup truck and drove off at high speed. Officer Smith gave chase and called on his radio for help. When Officer Smith and four other officers in cruisers reached home of the subject, subject had barricaded himself inside and refused to answer the door, Officers broke down the door and subject was inside brandishing a weapon and announcing he was going to kill the deputies. The deputies shot in self-defense and subject was killed by a single bullet that entered his chest. That is exactly how it happened.”

The reporters sat down at their typewriters as the sheriff strolled out.

The case was real, an incident in south Texas,  but the "press room" was a journalism laboratory in Redwood Hall in the Stanford University department of communication, and the "reporters" were students there. The "sheriff" was a teaching aide who had covered the case as a newspaperman. After the students had written their stories, another teaching aide reviewed them by asking the "reporters" questions.

"I don't see in any of the stories what the subject actually said or did to threaten the officer. I don't see what weapon he used. I don't get any idea from the stories or your questioning of the sheriff about the details of the shooting in the home. Remember that a significant part of this community is in a state of extreme agitation over the incident, and there isn't enough detail here to answer questions or be very convincing as a total explanation. For example, how far away was the man from the officers when they shot him?"

The "sheriff" was recalled and the questions asked. The subject, it turned out—as in the real case—had brandished a butcher knife, but he had been twenty feet from the nearest officer when he was killed by gunfire. The subject had no gun in his possession.

This was the course in beginning reporting conducted by Professor William L. Rivers. Three hours each week in classroom lectures he introduces a variety of model new stories of different types—straight news, reports of meetings, feature stories, profiles of public persons, and investigative articles. 

They are taken from the best work in real journalism. Students are asked to analyze the information content and writing patterns.

This is one of the better courses in the elements of good reporting. It is duplicated in a number of good schools and departments of journalism, though not always with the student-teacher ratio of 15-to-I used in the Stanford news laboratory.

The realism of training depends partly on location of the school. Schools in isolated areas are forced to create events for students to cover. One reason for the high reputation of Columbia in journalism education is its location in New York City. Its journalism students, relatively small in number, can be assigned to real news-at the United Nations, federal courts, corporate offices, City Hall, major public events. They write stories that can be discussed internally as well as compared with accounts of the same events in the professional news media.

Some students at the University of Texas at Austin complain that their instructors tend to be from the Dallas Morning News and their standards that of the Morning News of ten years ago, standards not universally admired. Kaye Northcott of the Observer wrote of her experience:

"The worst journalism teacher I ever had taught an entire semester's course to seniors on public affairs reporting. He'd bring in a document, like the Austin city budget. 'This is a city budget,' he'd say. 'If you were a City Hall reporter, you'd have to know how to read this thing.' Then he'd read some of it aloud. Sometimes, mercifully, class would last only ten or fifteen minutes . . . The main thing I learned is Don't Rock the Boat."

From fairly rigorous and realistic training in the graduate schools and some of the better undergraduate departments, the level of training drops precipitously at the easygoing colleges and at most junior colleges where stereotyped journalism is taught. Despite long hours sitting in a mock newsroom at college and typing standardized news stories from dubious models, the students go out into the marketplace and are the chief subjects of editors' complaints that graduates can neither spell nor write and often know too little beyond the operation of their typewriters

At Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys, for example, 2200 students a year take journalism courses; their required and recommended courses are fewer than those in the hotel-restaurant manage- ment major. One course consists, in fact, of putting out the college yearbook; another of working on the copydesk for the campus weekly. Of five full-time faculty members in journalism, as listed in the latest directory of Journalism in American Junior Colleges, none has had previous professional journalism experience,  and none has ever taken courses in journalism.

In almost half the junior colleges teaching journalism, the faculty has had no professional experience; in 28 percent, the faculty has had neither media experience nor college courses in the subject.

In hundreds of junior and senior colleges journalism training consists of sitting at desks learning mechanics, jargon of the trade, bad writing, and stereotyped stories. For two or four years students are inundated with the worst possible models-wire service copy that is notoriously dull and imprecise, or local papers or broadcast transcripts that too often are examples of journalistic schlock. These lessons are frequently imposed by a retired hack who had failed as a journalist or, often, had been a mediocre public relations counselor.

In such places students are taught clichés. In one college a test consisted of stories with blank spaces to be filled with adjectives, the "correct" answers arcane or phony words used by Time magazine during the era of Henry Luce (but no longer used even by Time). In another college the blanks to be filled were the most hackneyed phrases, so that fires were always "raging," heavy rains always "torrential downpours," and recriminations always "bitter."

Students are given the impression that they have achieved their commission as accomplished journalists when they have learned to type "—30—" to signify the end of a story and "(more)" to indicate that the story is continued on a forthcoming piece of paper or can use words such as "slug" and "shirttail" and other jargon of the trade more appropriately by issuing a half-page of mimeographed terms be studied for five minutes.

Recently the mania for teaching mechanics found supreme gratification in the new electronic keyboards that produce stories on a television-like screen instead of typed letters on paper. Publishers are usually niggardly in support of journalism education or journalism research, but they have become generous in giving the new machines to journalism schools, thereby obtaining a tax write-off and saving themselves a few days of company time to teach new reporters the simple method of using machines now being adopted in American newsrooms.

In a distressing proportion of schools hackneyed journalism courses are imbedded in a curriculum that discourages intellectual growth, prevents depth of knowledge, and denies the future journalist a broad perspective on society, including the role of the news media. A number of schools proudly announce that their courses in journalism have been designed with the help of local publishers and broadcasters, entrepreneurs whose daily products in some instances are spectacular examples of rotten journalism.

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