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Are you ready for journalism education without "journalism"?

by Doug Fisher

No. 121 for January 2015

For years, growing enrollments at journalism and communications schools have meant a steady stream of young, fresh-faced and motivated applicants willing to work for less than they might have made by taking their degrees elsewhere.

There have been dips, usually associated with the overall economy's problems, but enrollment eventually recovered and often grew stronger.

"What is different this time is that the economy is in a weak recovery, but enrollments are dropping," according to the latest study by Lee Becker and his team at the University of Georgia in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator.

Overall enrollment has dropped for the third straight year, and some reduction is probably a good thing, given the industry's sharp shrinkage that has been offset only partially by growth in digital.

But of much concern to Becker and his team is that advertising and public relations enrollments – areas that had largely withstood the storm – have also dropped.

Journalism "is not a growth area in terms of enrollments, and a focus on journalism as practiced in the past is not likely to attract student interest," they write.

That's a fair challenge to both the industry and education: Evolve or die. Unless you've been under a rock, that shouldn't be a surprise.

But then Becker and his team write this: "The data even hint that a focus on journalism as the curricular core of the field, as the common title of the field – journalism and mass communication education – might be dysfunctional from the point of view of attracting students.

Let that sink in for a moment. Schools might do better if they removed "journalism" from the name.

Don't think administrators aren't aware of this as they look at enrollments at a time when they are under increasing pressure to show their students are getting jobs.

Well, you might ask, as long as we can still teach the core components and values of journalism, what does it matter?

As the ad and PR pros among us know, out of sight is out of mind. Just ask those teaching journalism in a "communications" program or as part of an English department. There are exceptions, but I hear the frustrations from those folks at every journalism educators' meeting I attend.

In the same issue is a note from editor Maria B. Marron, "Content Creation Spans All Aspects of J-Programs."

It's a "new era of storytelling," writes Marron, journalism college dean at the University of Nebraska. It's time, she continued, to acknowledge that journalists, PR professionals and other communicators "all share a concern for the First Amendment freedoms and that we have similar ethics – seeking truth, being honest and accurate, and having a mutual desire to serve the public interest."

PR students should be taught to dig and to push their companies to make "ethical and socially just decisions," and journalists should stop using derogatory terms about PR people, she writes.

Then she delivers the coup de grace: "The ideal calls for a j-school education that places all forms of storytelling – brand journalism as well as in-depth reporting – on equal footing. ...

"Given the numbers in advertising, public relations, and strategic communications, in many of our academic programs, and the growth in opportunities related to content creation or storytelling, both curricular and cultural shifts are important."

Permit me to demur.

Despite the shared goal of storytelling, journalism is a fundamentally different enterprise from advertising, strategic communications or public relations. PR's underlying theme is, essentially, "trust us." Journalism's is "if your mother says she loves you, check it out,"

This contrast is clear in the lead article of the recent issue of another journal, Mass Communication and Society. It is about "adjudication," the idea journalists should do more reporting to determine the validity of competing positions and fewer he said-she said stories

Contrary to fears of some journalists that this could promote views of bias, the researchers found that adjudication tended to improve the perceived quality of the journalism. Of course, the adjudication would be needed less if politicians and their PR aides weren't trying to "shape" stories.

Some of the best PR professionals I've worked with have embodied that truth-telling ethic Marron calls for, even at the risk of their careers. And some of the worst journalists I've known have seen it as a mere inconvenience.

I want to turn out journalists who understand they live in a "content creation" world and how to navigate it. And I want budding PR people to develop the moxie to tell their bosses they're being stupid and not looking out for the public interest.

But the reality is they operate in different philosophical worlds.

I fear journalists may have become so used to the surplus of bright, young talent that they are inured to what is happening. But the table is being set in some places to remove "journalism" from journalism education. If you sit back and do nothing, don't be surprised when you find it missing.


Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at dfisher@sc.edu or 803-777-3315.

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