Tuesday, November 10, 2009...9:30 am

Journalism vs academia

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Following up a post on Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog recently, I argued that journalism sits awkwardly in the higher education pantheon, and there are an awful of a lot of courses on the books – too many perhaps.
Steve Hill has weighed in to suggest, broadly, that journalism should indeed be the subject of academic study, and that we shouldn’t split hairs about defining our courses.

I just get lost with this debate about which courses are considered to be ‘academic’ and which are ‘practical/vocational’. Is medicine academic? Or is that practical? What about fine art? What about engineering?

It’s a good question – but crucially, in referring to medicine, fine art and engineering, it is not comparing like with like. A Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Engineering or Bachelor of Science qualification is very different from a Bachelor of Arts. 
I did a BA in English Literature, and I remember having no more than 10 hours of tuition a week. It was probably more like five hours, certainly in the second and third year. I had some lectures, the odd seminar and tutorials. The rest was research. Because that’s what a BA is, really. 
In the same way that it wouldn’t work for, say, engineering, that doesn’t work for journalism. (Well, it doesn’t work for journalism practice – a culture and media studies-type research degree would be very different.) You need to put in a lot of hours and you need a lot of, well, practical education to be able to do it.
It’s best to learn to do journalism in a newsroom-type environment – being given assignments and then editorial feedback on what’s wrong (and right) and how students can improve. Unfortunately, a BA course doesn’t really have the resources to be able to do that.
This is compounded by the problem that school leavers nowadays don’t necessarily have a solid foundation in English language communications skills. But if you want to address this on a journalism course, you run into a problem.
Basic communications tuition – which is at the heart of journalism practice – will run into problems with course validation. There’s a good chance it won’t been seen as BA standard by whichever panel is approving your journalism course. 
So I guess my problem with journalism education isn’t so much about studying it at degree level as about it being lumped in with the BA qualification. 
Perhaps we should have a separate faculty for comms-type  education – with a BComms at the end of it. Or if we’re going to be really precious about it, perhaps we need a special Bachelor of Journalism qualification. 
Let’s face it – if students know they’ll be getting a BJ at the end of their studies, applications will soar…


  • BJ – great idea! I’ve lost count of how many ‘journalism graduates’ of the BA variety who knew all about the theory and philosphy of journalism but could not actually find or write a story!
    I found this odd. What would be the point of hiring as plumber to mend a burst pipe if he could only theorise on the ‘philosophy of burst pipes’, but couldn’t actually fix it … journalism is hands-on, or nothing at all.

  • The best way to learn about journalism is to write and try and get published. While I have my doubts about studying a degree in journalism, at least if you are doing this to become a journalist, I do think shorter courses can teach students some of the basics. I teach two courses at Birbeck College, and I think the students get a good understanding of what’s involved in journalism and learn about some of the skills needed to become a journalist.
    My own degree was in English and history. I learned about journalism when I joined a religious weekly newspaper as a reporter. This taught m more than I could ever have learned on a degree course.

  • Although I think parts of the NCTJ are outdated, particularly in the news writing exam part, the NCTJ is still the best way to learn the basics of journalism, and if you are on a course which actually gives you the grounding in how to get a story (they actually tell you to go out there and talk to people to a deadline, then all the better. That’s what noSWeat JT’s magazine courses taught me. Learning theory is of course interesting, but nothing is more useful than actually doing….After all, on a magazine or newspaper, that’s what you’ll be doing anyway!

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