Is journalism something you need to study?

The Six Ws of Journalism and Police Investigations
The Six Ws of Journalism and Police Investigations (Photo credit: Image Editor)

Does anyone really need to study journalism?

No, says one lifer, Bill Cotterell:

NPR reported early this year that there are more journalism students than there are jobs – not just vacancies, all jobs – in newsrooms across America. It’s not that we don’t need more j-school grads today, though we don’t. It’s that we need more reporters with knowledge of economics, politics, science, business, history and the liberal arts. And they need to love reading.

Far too many of the young reporters I’ve worked with over the past 20 years seem to get their vocabularies from TV and their spelling from text messages. Many regard reading as a chore, maybe even an infringement on their First Amendment rights as j-school grads.

Journalism education is nice, but beyond the basics, not necessary. Anyone who’s smart, cares about news and works hard can learn the five Ws – who what, when, where and why – in a couple weeks. Then, if they learn from their mistakes, they can get good at telling you what’s really going on.

And yet, we still need to agree on a few ground rules — for sources, readers and reporters.

The New York Times has just instituted a  “quote approval” ban, which now means if you speak to a Times reporter, you’re done. No after-the-fact tidying things up or, worst case, denying what you said in the first place.

It’s become normal for powerful people to insist that the only way a reporter can speak to them is if they get to approve their remarks after they have said them.

They have other choices, like:

Get media training, which anyone that powerful can afford to pay for.

Keep a flack in the room or on the phone during the interview.

Tape the interview.

Watch your mouth!

I’ve been working as a journalist since 1978 and it’s been depressing as hell to see how things have changed. I was recently interviewed, by email, by an NYU journalism student and I did insist for the first time on quote approval.

Because…I don’t know her, I don’t know anything about her ethics or values and because too many younger reporters have a very different idea what’s fair game.

And plagiarism seems to be rampant, for reasons every working journalist knows all too well. The latest accusations are against Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente, a powerful figure with a sharp tongue.

This comment is from the Toronto Standard:

I bet many an overworked journalist is panicking right now over the thought that, perhaps, in a rush to meet the deadlines that come sooner and sooner, he or she has forgotten an attribution here or there. For too many people these days, being a journalist means a perpetual Please God, don’t let me get laid off next freefall to the bottom of what was once their journalistic integrity.

So, tell me, who in their right mind is going to publicly question Wente and the Globe and Mail when, for all they know, their publication could be guilty of just the same sort of negligence?

I never studied journalism anywhere. I’ve attended many conferences, but they focused on craft or how and where to best sell my writing. I’ve taught journalism, at Concordia in Montreal and Pace University in New York, as well as to adult night classes at NYU.

I have mixed feelings about studying journalism.

I think it’s probably best done as a graduate degree, preferably after a few years in the real world after doing an undergraduate degree (in politics, economics, history, sociology, anything but journalism) or not attending college at all.

I think the most essential ingredient of being a terrific journalist — for print, broadcast, online, books — is a clear understanding of your role as impartial story-teller (for hard news) and well-informed commenter for anything that requires or allows for a point of view.

Attribution — giving full and clear credit to others for their original work — is imperative.

Here’s my list of “what it takes”, which I hand out to my journalism students.

Among the 24 qualities and skills I think every journalist needs are being:






I know some of Broadside’s readers are studying journalism, or have.

What do you think?

18 thoughts on “Is journalism something you need to study?

  1. Well, you know I’m more fiction than journalism, though i have a little experience in the latter. However, I think yes, you should study journalism if you’re serious about being a journalist, but classes should also emphasize reading, literacy, and all the other things you listed.

  2. Yes to have a passion, to know what you are talking about, to know history, to know stuff that seems unconnected. To be able and willing to learn and find new stuff to learn. I’m not a journalist, never will be. But I believe that news is what informs the decisions we make as people. Politically and in life choices. I hate made for TV newsbyte comments, I want to know the back story, the why, who, where and when. I try when possible to find out. So when I ask a question of someone, I have background to see the validity of an answer.

    Interesting piece about studying Journalism, originally you went to a regional newspaper, learnt your craft from an old soak who had done time everywhere and was now an editor or staff writer. That seems to have changed. We seem to want people who can chuck out stories too quickly in the internet age of fast flowing words. I can’t remember the quote about how far people read into a story, one paragraph? I love to sit on a Sunday with the Sunday paper and read all the sections,the news, the reviews, the editorials. Great for me, I am often saddened by the fact that much news is now actually opinion made to look like news. Hate that.

    OK, to answer your question directly, I think studying a subject means you have learnt what it is, not how it works or how to do it well, that comes with experience only. Learn as you make your way up the ladder.


    1. In the old days, (and still for some), the apprenticeship model worked…you watched and learned from (and got yelled at) older journos who really knew how do it. I remember once watching one of my editors at The Daily News edit a feature of mine within seconds, and really well. It was amazing to watch and I have since been much tougher on my on own copy — and that was in 2006, 30 years into my career.

      Without context, very few stories are worth reading. Without a great editor, context is not demanded…

  3. I don’t know enough about journalism college curriculum to comment on that, but I hope that someone is explaining to these potential reporters what objective reporting entails. It would be hard to gauge that by today’s media.

    1. The shift to online work — which is not necessarily run on the same principles — makes this tougher. I worked at three major daily newspapers and learned on the job what was expected….at websites you can have a 25 yr old teaching a 20 yr old but neither has training or experience elsewhere.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this.

    I’m just working on my application for a one year post graduate journalism program. It seems focused on the practice (students have to produce pieces of writing and broadcasting almost every day as well as attending more theoretical courses.) I’m eager to learn and I would feel more confident starting a career with a diploma in my pocket. I’m convinced that it won’t be enough though. So I work hard at developing my curiosity, my reading and my writing. However uncertain the prospects of a journalism career appear to be, I’m drawn to this profession because it’ll allow me to write as a living, learn everyday and meet a lot of different people. I hope my motivation will help me overcome all the obstacles coming my way!

    1. I think the most essential element of your career success will be your willingness and talent for constantly adapting to changing technology — radio/video/tweeting/blogging. Print standards may apply but you now have to use your “writing” skills across a much wider array of media, each with their own specific needs and demands.

      Good luck!

  5. I remain dismayed at the decline in journalistic standards, which has been noticeable since i first began freelancing. Training helps; but what counts is experience and institutional knowledge. I was lucky. I was coached, on the hoof, by a couple of old experienced journalists who had forgotten more about their profession than I’m ever going to know.

    But that experience is vanishing, certainly out of trad print media, and I am not (often) seeing that experience reappear in online newspapers. A function, I fear, of the way traditional media has been commercialised and costs slashed; the experienced old journalists are being made redundant in favour of young reporters who don’t have fall into all the traps – but who are cheap, and nobody cares how dismal their reports are, because these words are evanescent anyway.

    My last experience was salutary; I spent half an hour, talking to a reporter about my last book. She had only skimmed it and didn’t vary from her stock ‘I am interviewing an author’ question list. When the story appeared it was almost incoherent, and the quotes attributed to me were new to me, too. I didn’t complain – what’s the point?

    I probably sound like some grumbling old hack, but I don’t think the problem today has anything to do with lack of talent – it’s the slow strangulation as money dries up and the fact that institutional experience is not being passed on. Journalism is suffering.

  6. What an interesting post, thank you! It’s a big coincidence, but I was thinking about this – how useful a journalism degree really would be – just today. One of my friends was very actively involved with journalism during her undergrad, and then went to a top journalism school in the States recently to do postgrad study in journalism. I was also thinking about what you said to me in a previous comment, though, and what I’ve heard from others (people very closely, if not actually in, the field themselves) about getting laid off, offices and bureaus getting shut down (even by organizations as ‘big’ as the AP!), etc. And how websites and the HuffPo-esque model has changed the face of traditional journalism forever, and how much harder it is for the ‘news reporter’ (who writes for a big print paper or news agency) to survive. And I was wondering if she made the right decision – I don’t really know, but I am VERY curious to see how it will pan out in the long-term for her. The way things look now, and given my own experiences briefly trying to get into the industry, I don’t think so.

    I was talking with an ex-editor of The Economist once and she said the only really lucrative aspect of journalism these days was financial journalism, so that quote above, about reporters with a knowledge of economics and any field, in-depth, strikes me as particularly relevant. As an English Lit. grad, that particular branch is just totally closed off to me, and it’s something that never ever occurred to me – I guess a lot of people grow up, like me, with the unrefined idea that journalism is all about ‘writing well’, but I am learning now how wrong that conception was. (It is, but it works in tandem with in-depth, solid knowledge about a certain field or something…or so it seems!)

    (Long comment, sorry!)

  7. “As an English Lit. grad, that particular branch is just totally closed off to me, and it’s something that never ever occurred to me”….

    But no!

    I’m not sure if you’ve visited my website and read my recent work — it’s all business reporting! And I was an English lit. grad…I do not have an MBA nor have ever studied business, but (if you wanted to head in that direction) it’s all learnable…I read all the business magazines and sections and the reporting/writing essentials remain the same. Define the story. Find great sources. Make it compelling!

    All my best work in the past year has been my three (so far) business pieces for The New York Times, each of which run on the Sunday business section front page. The most recent was the third (!!) most emailed story of the entire Sunday paper. I’m really proud of that.

    Here it is…

  8. I think journalism needs to be studied, particularly in today’s world where news and entertainment so often blend together. Honestly I think all kids should learn what journalism is in order to understand what they’re watching/listening to/reading. I don’t think it necessarily has to be a bachelor’s and master’s in journalism, though.

    But, as a fiction writer, I feel the same way for all forms of writing. There are certain things that need to be learned, but more than one way to learn them.

  9. Tess Fragoulis Books

    Creative writing class suffers from the same curse of tv and texting standards. (I also have taught at Concordia, by the by…).

  10. I’ve noticed that in presentations (talks) or writing, journalists are inevitably clear, concise and coherent in the content they offer. There’s an incisiveness that journalism training brings to how you see and reveal the world.

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