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Home > Publications > Quill > Do classes make a journalist?

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Wednesday, May 1, 2002
Do classes make a journalist?

Many journalists say education is important, but not required.

By Gina Barton

Several years ago – before the war on terrorism sparked concern over border security – the American and Canadian governments tried to come up with an agreement that would make things easier for people who crossed regularly from one country to the other.

Journalists were one group of professionals who came to mind.

“They wanted to define who a journalist was, so they could get specific credentials,” recalled Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota.

One definition described a journalist as anyone who had graduated from journalism school with a journalism degree.

That standard was ultimately scrapped because one of Canada’s most prominent journalists – ABC’s Peter Jennings – didn’t qualify.

When it comes to education for mass media professionals, almost anything goes. People with varied levels of training – from high school dropouts to doctors – are working for newspapers, magazines, television channels and radio stations. While many believe a broad liberal arts education is the best foundation for reporting, even that isn’t necessary for someone with talent, drive and experience.

On the flip side, an advanced degree in a specialized area may give someone more expertise on a beat, but it probably won’t get them a bigger paycheck.

Pursuing higher education, even if it’s not in journalism, can help build interviewing skills, said Seth Effron, deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Effron graduated from the University of North Carolina and took a journalism course, but he didn’t choose journalism as a major.

“A good education makes people inquisitive,” he said. “It helps people ask the right questions – the ones that lead to more questions and more information.”

A liberal arts education also can provide valuable background for a journalist, he said. For students who know they want to enter the field, courses that focus on their future preferred beats – such as government, science or international relations – can be helpful.

A major or minor in journalism can provide additional resources, including internships, exposure to the field’s best practices taught by experts, and the opportunity to discuss the profession in an academic setting.

Susanne Shaw, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, agreed.

“For any career, education is important. But that’s not to say if you don’t have a journalism degree, you can’t be a good journalist.”

The same view holds true outside the halls of academia, as news outlets seek to hire talent.

Leisa Richardson, a recruiter at The Indianapolis Star, said college is a prerequisite.

“They need a degree,” she said of job candidates seeking entry-level positions today. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be in journalism. Something in humanities or social science would work if they have strong internships.”

The reputation of the institution only helps if everything else is equal.

“You can get a candidate from one of the premier journalism schools, and you can put (him or her) against a not-so-premier journalism school, or not even a journalism school, and the school might not matter if the work is better, the talent is better.”

People with both specialized education and journalism experience are gold in the world of newspaper hiring, Richardson said. But journalism is unlike other professions in that an advanced degree doesn’t necessarily equal a higher salary.

“If they have a journalism background and an M.D., and you need a medical writer, then hire that person. But the reality is, that person’s going to make a lot more money going into medicine,” Richardson said.

Sometimes people are willing to work for less because they burn out on their first field or want to come back to work for their hometown newspaper. People with such varied experience can improve coverage, she said.

She conceded, though, that not of all her colleagues share her views.

“I don’t ever say anybody is over-qualified, and I don’t want to tell people never to pursue higher education, but don’t think having an M.A. or a Ph.D. after your name is going to get you over the hump. ... I know people who do hiring who say a master’s in journalism – why?”

A college education matters less for more experienced professionals.

“For more seasoned journalists, I look more at what they’ve done, the body of work,” she said. “Ten years out, it’s more about how much they fit into what you’re looking for.”

Several reporters at The Star and at other newspapers in the Gannett chain have only high school degrees. But those people started years ago, she said, and the industrywide philosophy has shifted over time.

M. William Phelps, 35, is a rare exception these days. Phelps writes a monthly column in New England Entertainment Digest magazine and has a publishing deal for a true crime book – despite dropping out of high school.

“In high school, I was more into playing and drinking than anything else. I wanted to quit, work, earn money and have a family,” he said.

So that’s what he did, quitting school after three years and working as a machinist. But along the way, his love of books took over.

“All I did was read. I read all the stuff they told me to read in high school that I didn’t want to read then,” he said. “And I wrote a lot the whole time, but I never showed anybody.”

In time, Phelps decided he wanted to write for a newspaper, but knew he would never get hired without a high school degree. Instead, he went the free-lance route, buying books on how to get published and following their advice. Attending writers workshops and networking also helped.

“I could walk into a newspaper right now and get a job,” he said. “If you want to succeed in journalism, you need to be educated. I educated myself from my own mistakes.”

Still, he wouldn’t recommend forgoing a college degree to his three children.

“I know 10 other guys who quit school with me. Two of them are dead, and the others are digging ditches on the side of the highway,” he said.

David Chandler worked at The Boston Globe for 21 years, but never graduated from college. His four years on campus were spent at the student newspaper, with little time for classes.

“In retrospect it turns out I was getting all the education I needed for what turned out to be my career,” said Chandler, who retired from The Globe last year. “I can honestly say that the lack of a degree is an issue that has never come up professionally. My sense is – although this may have changed some over the years – that nobody in the publishing business gives a damn about degrees.”

In the United States, 400 colleges and universities offer some sort of journalism program. One way to set themselves apart is accreditation. Of the 400 programs, 108 are accredited, said Susanne Shaw, executive director of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. The council, which was established in 1945, reviews programs to assure they meet 12 quality standards. It generally takes three to five years to complete the accreditation process. Once a school is approved, its program must requalify every six years.

“It’s like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval or a badge of honor,” Shaw said. “It shows that a program has gone through peer review. ... Just because a program is not accredited doesn’t mean it’s not good.”

It also doesn’t mean the school is producing future reporters. Over the past 15 years, many journalism programs have shifted to include both journalism and mass communication, which encompasses everything from advertising to public relations.

“At least 60 to 65 percent of students in journalism schools today don’t want to work in a newsroom,” Shaw said. “It has to do with lifestyle issues – the hours, moving, days off.”

Another factor is the dismal job market for reporters, which is discouraging to many, she said.

According to the council’s mission statement, “the council embraces the value of a liberal arts and sciences curriculum as the essential foundation for a professional journalism and mass communications education.”

Further, “professional education offered by accredited programs should encourage dissent, inquiry and free expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

The standards address the following: administration; budget; curriculum; student records and advising; instruction and evaluation; faculty; internships and work experience; equipment and facilities; scholarship, research, creative and professional activities; public service; graduates and alumni; and diversity.

The curriculum requirement calls for “a balance between courses in journalism and mass communications and other disciplines, primarily in the liberal arts and sciences. Balance also should be provided between professional skills courses and theoretical conceptual courses.”

The standard for internships and work experience states that “Quality experience in journalism and mass communications should be encouraged. ... Journalism and mass communications internships, practicums and student publications can add a significant realistic component to a student’s education.”

The quality of the faculty is paramount, Shaw said.

“You have to have a mix on the faculty or research and professional experience,” she said. “The quality of the faculty is what makes a good school.”

Some worry that using higher education of any kind to define who is a journalist may allow the government to slowly erode the First Amendment by excluding some legitimate practitioners.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, fears the power of shield laws would be lost under such a scenario.

“The law doesn’t say that only a good journalist is covered, or only a journalist with 10 years’ experience is covered, or only a published journalist, or only a journalist with a college degree is covered,” she said. “There is no education needed. Absolutely not.”

Kirtley agreed.

“I don’t think education should have anything to do with it,” she said. “The idea that you have to have a college education to be a journalist is of fairly recent vintage.”

Dan Ferber holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University but now makes his living as a freelance writer in Urbana, Ill.

After three years as a post-doctoral researcher, Ferber became disenchanted with a lifetime interest in scientific research. A friend who was a radio reporter encouraged him to take a journalism class. Ferber applied for the master’s program at the University of Illinois, was accepted and decided to go back to school full time.

“People were accepting and encouraging, and saying we need more people in journalism who have done something else first,” he said.

By his last semester of journalism school, Ferber had enough freelance work to pay his tuition. His stories are published regularly in Science magazine.

“There are quite a few science writers with advanced degrees,” he said. “Having done research, I know what to ask. I know the process; I know the politics; I know scientists; and I know the system.”

Ford Burkhart earned a Ph.D. while working as a copy editor at The New York Times.

“I got it long after I had passed the standard career milestones,” he said. “I wanted to understand public policy. I am convinced there is immense value in getting a doctorate to understand new ways of thinking about knowledge and information and what constitutes a good theory. But just having it counts for little in our business and elsewhere, for that matter. Would you go to a movie because the writer or director had a doctorate?”

Many in the industry agree that an advanced degree in a specialized field can be helpful to a reporter, while an advanced degree in journalism may be redundant for someone with a bachelor’s in the same major.

“A lot of journalists have master’s degrees,” said Shaw, who also is a journalism professor at the University of Kansas. “They may have more knowledge, but are they going to be better than someone with a bachelor’s? It depends on the person.”

There is little incentive for people to get doctoral degrees in journalism unless they want to teach, she said.

“In most fields, more education helps financially, but I’m not sure students with a master’s would be paid more to start,” she said. “I don’t know many working journalists with a Ph.D.”

Burkhart’s undergraduate degree was a double major in history and journalism.

“I think students should indeed have an academic major other than journalism, and perhaps a minor or double major in journalism – if they go to college at all,” he said. “Some gritty life experience might do just as well, though, combined with regular reading of, say, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker and The Economist. Then you doggedly keep after editors until they start publishing your work and take it from there.”

Any practicing journalist – regardless of educational level – can benefit from professional training, said Effron of the Nieman Foundation.

“For people who reach plateaus in their careers, whether it’s through experience or achievements, continuing education is very important,” he said. “Journalists reach certain points in their careers when they need more than just practice to get better. They need to gain more perspective, to talk with others.”

Gina Barton is a reporter for The Indianapolis Star.

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