Thursday, April 23, 2009

Journalism Educatiom

I got this set of questions from Bishops University in Quebec.

Please note that I am concerned primarily with traditional journalism and its institutionalized instruction. Many thanks!

1. Considering the “low” writing requirements of traditional journalism (i.e. writing at a Grade 8 level, etc.), what does institutionalized instruction on traditional journalism have to offer the individual prospective journalist? Does a journalism program offer significantly more to the prospective traditional journalist than does practice and familiarity with the CP style guide?

A: It offers the teaching of proper structure. There is a lot more to writing news and features than simply learning CP style. It should also teach journalistic research skills, which are somewhat different from academic researching.

2. Are all journalists improved by institutionalized instruction? Can an untrained journalist be as strong at his job as a trained journalist?

A: All journalists have to be trained by someone. I believe a person with a strong academic background can be taught on the job, but employers now want journalists to be able to do the entire job on the first day. Completely untrained journalists – people simply walking in off the street – can’t do the job. They don’t have the research skills and don’t know the writing structures.

3. Does/can institutionalized instruction lead to pack journalism? Is there enough variety between Canadian programs or within individual Canadian programs to avoid this trend? Would an untrained or a trained journalist be more susceptible to pack journalism?

A: How can you tell? Just about every journalist in Canada has either journalism school and/or academic-college paper training. Certainly, there were packs before journalism schools existed. In fact, there were, in the 1930s, written institutional rules at the Parliamentary Press Gallery about “discretion,” including a prohibition of using any quotes from an MP without permission.

4. Because of the simplicity of the traditional journalistic style, some journalism students might have to “unlearn” some of their previous training in, for example, academic writing to be an effective journalist. How effective can this “unlearning” be? Would it be better for that student to be untrained in other styles of writing?

A: No. Most bright people can learn to do academic writing, web writing, news writing, feature writing, magazine writing and book writing. I know I can. When I wrote a 450 page PhD thesis, I didn’t lose my ability to write a photo caption.

5. Is it possible to over-train a journalist in the traditional style?

A: No. You can waste a person’s time. As well, I think your idea of “traditional style” is simplistic. There’s a huge difference between the “traditional style” of the Sherbrooke Record and The Globe and Mail.

6. Are there notable/famous untrained journalists? How does their work compare with that of their trained counterparts?

A: I’m still not sure what you mean by “untrained”. As far as I’m aware, there are only two important journalists in Canada who have no university education at all: Mark Steyn and David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen. Steyn is an elegant writer. Warren’s writing is very ponderous. Both are conservative commentators. Opinions on them are often based on one’s political stance.

7. If an appealing candidate for your program were unconvinced that institutionalized instruction would help his journalism, what would you tell him to get him to enrol?

A: I would tell him or her to consider law school and write the odd op-ed piece. I believe there’s room for just one or two journalism schools in Canada. My nominations would be Ryerson or Carleton and UBC (just so there’s one in the East and the West). Quite simply, no one in journalism school has any hope of getting a job that pays more than $500 a week in the next five years. No one. There are now hundreds of experienced journalists who are unemployed and who can hit the ground running much faster than any student who’s just graduated. The business would have to re-absorb them, and the trend continues to be bad.


Anonymous said...

Peter Mansbridge was a highschool dropout who was discovered at the Churchill, Manitoba airport while filling in as an airport announcer.

Bob said...

1. "No one in journalism school has any hope of getting a job that pays more than $500 a week in the next five years."

Pshaw! All they have to do is work in PR...

2. Bob McDonald of Quirks & Quarks has no university education, I think.

3. Would you call Mark Steyn or David Warren journalists? I would call them columnists. (but not fifth-columnists, bwaha). While the line is far from clear, to me a journalist's job is more based in reporting of fact and the columnist's on explanation of opinion. I make no moral judgement on either here; just don't think they're primarily "journalists".

Interesting answers to some ... odd... questions.

Ottawa Watch said...

Well, Steyn and Warren were really all I could think of. I think Mansbridge has some education, though he does not have a very deep intellect. There are quite a few drop-outs in journalism. I was one of them, for about a decade.

Anonymous said...

I get the impression the author of the questions assumes j-school is all about writing and doesn't really understand the industry. I suspect the other training that creeps up in "institutionalized instruction" (media law, ethics, interviewing technique, multimedia, access to information, etc.) doesn't count.
As for the question regarding the necessity to unlearn other styles of writing, any good communicator should have the ability to use what style is best suited to the situation at hand. And a journalist better be a great communicator, otherwise they've made a poor choice.