Should Mamas Let Their Babies Grow Up to Be Journalism Majors?

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According to a recent news report, Kevin Li is an accomplished high school student who thinks the leadership and management experience he got from editing his school paper is more important for his future career than the fact that he aced his AP biology exam. Despite that (or perhaps because of it), he says his parents might not pay for college if he majors in journalism

As a journalism professor and former science writer, I'd love 10 minutes with Kevin and his parents. If they're like the students and parents that my colleagues and I talk to regularly, I'm pretty sure I know their reasons for being skeptical about the value of a journalism degree. It's not exactly a secret that traditional journalism jobs are vanishing. Despite some recent softening of demand, however, enrollments in journalism programs have gone up - mystifying even industry leaders such as Court TV Founder Steve Brill. According to a report from the Asian American Journalists Association convention last August, Brill said the increase in J-school enrollments meant: "[P]eople are just behaving stupidly." 

Brill's problem is that he is thinking of journalism study as vocational training, but a journalism major is really an interdisciplinary liberal arts major that uses theory and practice to equip students with knowledge and skills applicable to a variety of careers. The curriculum guidelines for journalism and mass communications programs accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications draw upon political theory, ethics, history, rhetoric, literature, art and design, mathematics, English, sociology and -- increasingly -- computer science. 

Further, the guidelines require that two-thirds of an undergraduate journalism major's credits should come from outside of major. Just over half the credits must be in liberal arts subjects such as history, math, science or modern languages. That ratio is typical of a liberal arts major. Contrast that to the requirements of a pre-professional, such as accounting or nursing, for which it's not unusual for nearly half the student's credits to be within the major.

Because journalism is a liberal arts major, it shouldn't be surprising that many journalism majors never end up in a newsroom.  After all, not all English majors become teachers. Like other liberal arts majors, journalism graduates pursue a range of careers and programs in graduate study, such as law, education, business and public relations. Regardless of where they end up professionally, I agree with multimedia journalism professor Mindy McAdams that there are certain things that we should expect a modern journalism major to know: how to communicate clearly and effectively in word and image, how to check facts, how to dig through public records and how to conduct interviews.  

It's become common for journalism programs to require or encourage students to pursue at least a minor in another field or often a second major. International study is also encouraged. We've long recognized that while it's important to know how to tell a story, craft an argument, understand the fundamentals or press law, it's even better to practice authoritative journalism within a particular knowledge domain. That's why I would tell Mr. Li not to be so dismissive of that great AP bio score -- we desperately need good science writers. A July 2009 survey by the Pew Center for People and the Press found that scientists consistently fault the quality of science journalism. 

That said, there are a lot of things that good journalism programs can do to help students who do aspire to journalism careers. Many of our programs require that students do professional internships, which in turn require active involvement in campus news organizations. As Li pointed out in the Chillicotte Gazette article, his high school journalism experience taught him "how to be a good leader and manage people." 

We're constantly updating our own skills and talking about how to do our jobs better. (Poynter, JMC Educator, Nieman) And we are working hand-in-glove with industry professionals, including our former students, to produce the innovations that will ensure that the fundamental civic mission of the profession will be sustained, even as the methods of newsgathering and delivery change.

Different programs approach that challenge in different ways -- some are stressing entrepreneurship, others are launching hyperlocal and investigative reporting ventures with local news organizations and still others are collaborations with middle school and secondary educators to promote civic engagement and media literacy.

The bottom lime, I say to Kevin and his parents, is that a journalism major can be a path to many careers. For some, that that might path might lead to a traditional newsroom -- or the opportunity to invent what comes next.

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Kim
BlogHer Contributing Editor|KimPearson.net|

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