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.
CHI-SQUARES VS. GREEN EYESHADES: What Is a Journalism Education?

Reporters and editors argue over whether journalism school is the best way to create good journalism, so it is natural that journalism educators, too, are bitterly divided over how they should educate. Some teach the techniques and background of journalism; others teach research techniques for studying journalism, journalists, and the public reaction to communications.

The contention between the two factions is known in the trade as "chi-squares versus the green eyeshades." Chi-square is a mathematical formula for measuring the degree to which a series of statistics conform to an expected pattern. It is a favorite technique of quantitative researchers and has become the symbol for the journalism academics who use social science and mathematical methods to study the field. The "chi-squares" study a wide range of subjects: the characteristics of journalists (so long as it can be done mathematically); the psychology of individual reception of messages (so long as it, too, is subject to objective tests of mathematical precision); the propagation of messages through a social group; survey and sampling techniques-all following quantitative psychological and sociological methods. The training includes a great deal of mathematical method and quantitative research.

The "green eyeshades" get their label from the celluloid visors now almost extinct but once widely used by copy editors to shield their eyes from the glaring lights over the copydesk. The term has come to mean training in the practical techniques of reporting and editing.

The angry man of the green eyeshades is Curt MacDougall, a seventy-three-year-old, six-foot-one scourge of the "communicologists." He is the author of A College Course in Reporting for Beginners, retitled Interpretive Reporting, now in its eighth edition ("It sent five children through college"); has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin; and thinks that journalism training should stick to journalism.

"Until a short time ago, it was safe to assume that college students majored in journalism . . . with the intention of becoming journalists . . . . Today it would be presumptuous to assume that half the enrollees in journalism classes have the slightest intention of becoming journalists . . . . In any shakeup of journalism curricula the most essential step is to clean house of the communicologists who have been infiltrating for about two decades now. They are Ph.D.'s in theory and methodology, actual or virtual disciples of Marshall McLuhan, who insists 'the medium is the message.' Translated that means it's more important the way you say or write it than that you have something worth saying or writing.

…Today young Ph.D.'s in communicology teach reporting and other practical journalism courses even though they have had little or no professional experience . . . . The internal fight by those of us who warned against and resisted the influx of chi-square fiends is over. We did our best and we lost . . . . Let the J-schools do what they please as long as students know that they're not learning journalism and nobody ever would hire them . . . somebody should do something about it."

Somebody did something about it. Professor Karlen Mooradian of the University of Oklahoma at Norman, at last year's meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism, called for a "Division of Qualitative Studies" to promote the growth of nonmathematical methods as opposed to "quantitative" or mathematical analysis of journalism problems. The response to Mooradian was overwhelming. More than sixty-five university departments of journalism supported the idea of fighting the dominance of mathematically based research.

Nevertheless, the chi-squares remain strong, arguing that they take the study of mass communications out of hunch, guess. and personal impression into scientific objectivity. They say that they have promoted what is now called "precision journalism," replacing the universal cabdriver as the old-time reporter's "public opinion survey" with proper survey and sampling techniques.

Chi-squares apparently have another advantage. Having more access to research money and being closer to power centers on faculties, they seem to be paid more than green-eyeshade teachers, though that is a generalized impression. Some journalists with distinguished careers can command faculty salaries equivalent to research professors with similarly distinguished professional accomplishments.

But usually this is not the case, and within most university minimums and maximums for each stage of faculty status, journalism professors tend to be in the lower brackets.

About half the journalism teachers in colleges and universities hold Ph.D.'s, usually in some chi-square subject. Almost all the rest have master's degrees. Mature and experienced journalists are the prime source of knowledgeable teaching of journalism. But having spent most of their working lives in their profession rather than in academia, they usually hold only bachelor's degrees. Yet, according to a survey by the American Association of Schools and Departments of Journalism, holders of only a bachelor's degree constitute but 5 percent of active journalism faculties in colleges and universities.

Journalism faculty members, like leadership in newspapers and broadcasting, remain mostly white male (88 percent). Some schools now require Ph.D.'s for all new teachers in order to circumvent pressure to hire women and minorities. They also circumvent the best journalists.

Economic trouble in higher education has influenced what is taught. Most universities prefer faculty members who bring with them foundation and government grants, which help maintain salaries and fellowships at no cost to the institution. Professional journalists are less likely to be the recipients of these grants than are Ph.D.'s in the social sciences. Once hired, the quantitative researchers also carry more weight in the ferocious combat for status and money within the campus, since they have conventional degrees and come closer to meeting the requirement of publish or perish. So the teaching of "communications research" has been steadily increasing in senior journalism schools at the expense of courses in the practice and ethics of journalism. This has left much of the training of journalists to the junior colleges, which re the least qualified in acuity and course standards.

Intellectual standards vary in four-year colleges. Most reflect the nature of the university as a whole, but some journalism departments are so close to the local media that their training is geared to demands of local editors who want first-day production from graduates rather than careers of high quality more likely to come from good intellectual and creative education. In those departments intellectual standards are low and narrow, work uncritical and repetitive.

On the other hand, the more demanding courses combine laboratory work with serious reading. A Berkeley course in mass media and society, for example, requires reading in the standard journals related to journalism-Journalism Quarterly, The American Sociological Review, Social Forces, Current History, Journalism Monographs, Public Opinion Quarterly-but also in books, including Psychology of Rumor by Gordon Allport; The Rights of Americans edited by Norman Dorsen; The System of Freedom of Expression by Thomas I. Emerson; The Early Window by Robert Liebert and John Neale; The Selling of the President by Joseph McGinnis; About Television by Martin Mayer; A Free and Responsible Press, the report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press; News from Nowhere by Edward Jay Epstein; Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley; Hollywood, the Dream Factory by Hortense Powdermaker; Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann; and the Surgeon General's Report on Violence on Television.

But for most schools the main reliance is on the standard how-to journalism textbooks. Titles are important. "Journalism" and "Reporting" used to be required in a title for successful sales. Now "Mass Media" or "Mass Communications" is preferable, since such books can be used for teaching print, broadcast journalism, public relations, or advertising. Perhaps the biggest contemporary seller is Introduction to Mass Communications by Edwin Emery, Philip Ault, and Warren Agee, first issued in the lean years of journalism text publishing but now in a fourth edition that sells about 10,000 copies a year. A popular book is The Art of Editing by two authors named, appropriately. Baskette and Sissors.

The decision of a professor to assign required texts in an introductory course at the University of Texas can make a publisher happy. For example, three books are required, each at a cost in hardback of about $17, for 1100 students a year, a sale of $56,000 a year.

A CONCLUSION: What Journalists Need to Know

Two justifications persist for journalism training in higher education.

One is to give sufficient technical training to let the beginner know the true nature of the work so that he or she can decide whether the appropriate career choice has been made. But technical training does not require a university setting. Anyone who can't learn that part of journalism in a few months belongs in another line of work. Nevertheless, newspapers and broadcasters refuse to do systematic on-the-job journalistic training for inexperienced beginners because it would require money and the time of senior professionals. The trade prefers to let the cost be borne by the students or their parents or, in public institutions, the taxpayers, all the time becoming more strident in its demands and complaints about "ivory tower professors."

The other justification is more appropriate for institutions of higher learning: to impart to the potential journalist a knowledge of the proper role of journalism in society, the ethics implied by this role, an encouragement of empathy with people they will study for the rest of their careers, and some advice on what academic programs will provide lasting insight into society. Technical training without this comprehension is meaningless-it merely makes propagation of ignorant journalism more efficient. The charade of "journalism education" in places that teach mostly technique and typing will simply perpetuate the curse of what Walter Lippmann called "untrained accidental witnesses."

Most newsrooms are not suited for training and inspiring young entrants to journalism, even if they choose to try it. News companies are increasingly corporate giants, bureaucratic and impersonal. They are in danger of sterility unless they are constantly fed generations of new journalists lively in spirit and mind, formed by something other than the corporate ethic. This kind of men and women will not come from journalism schools turning out typewriter jockeys trained largely to avoid embarrassing their alma mater during the first week on the job. They will come from institutions that still nurture the humanities and creative teaching and that produce journalists who, whatever problems they have the first week with an electronic typewriter and computer, will, ten years later, still have the capacity to understand a changing human condition.

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