Those who can't do, teach

Fear and loathing in the journalism school

By X and Z
February 1990; pages 11, 16; Volume 1, No. 4
Polemicist

Editors note: The following article was written by two students who wished to remain anonymous because or their proximity to the subjects of this article.

 

One professor suggested that calling it a school was glorifying it. And as an ex-journalism major who defected to liberal arts, and a journalism major who decided to stick it out and regrets it, we agree. The journalism program at UT is a breeding ground for mediocrity. Students are transformed into robots by a curriculum that stresses mechanical skills and suppresses active thinking. Most of the faculty entrusted with "educating" these students have not worked in a newsroom in two decades. And yet UT's journalism department is widely considered one of the top 10 programs in the nation.

It would be nice to suggest abolishing the journalism department, in order to save the naive freshmen who believe they will learn to be journalists there. Editors from Newsday, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, Atlanic, and Washington Monthly, have suggested skipping a journalism degree, or have said journalism students should seek a broader liberal arts education than the journalism department requires. In various articles and polls, editors have asserted that the any halfway intelligent human being in six months. What cannot be taught, they say, is an ability to think and reason - skills certainly not valued in the journalism department, where training is vocational, not academic.

Unfortunately, the UT College of Communication has been around since 1914 and is here to stay. But if we must have journalism training, we should at least have useful journalism training. Between us, we have worked at five major dailies, spent more hours than required in liberal arts classes, and can say this: a journalism degree is not the equivalent of a "well-rounded liberal arts education," as the department would like you to believe. Vital classes - in ethics, alternative press, and power structures in the media - are nowhere in be found in the College of Communication, and the practical training offered by the journalism department is a waste of time.

Philosophy not Accepted Here

The Journalism Department insists that it offers a liberal arts education, as well as training in journalism. But some crucial differences exist in the requirements of the two schools. Liberal arts students must take two courses in an architecture, classics, drama, music, or philosophy. Communications students must have one course from art, drama or music. Translation: the history of rock'n'roll will apply toward your degree, but a course in philosophy will not.

Editors repeatedly bemoan the lack of journalists who know the fundamentals of economics. Although economics will fulfill a degree requirement, it's not a required subject. These same editors want journalists with strong backgrounds in English and history. The English requirement for journalism students is the only one instance of a requirement stricter than the liberal arts equivalent: nine hours instead of six, which still doesn't produce literary experts. The six hours of history required by the legislature doesn't come close to providing a working knowledge of that subject.

Liberal arts students must take 15 hours of science; journalism students, nine. Three classes in some sciences might produce environmental writers; and science writers; but with classes such as "Geology of National Parks" available to them, one can hardly blame the students for skipping physics and genetics. It is far easier to find three blowoff sciences than it is to find five. Sooner or later, even the most determined liberal arts students probably will learn something about science, because they run out of useless courses to take.

Journalism students cannot take a to specialize in a field, such as government, history, economics, science, or area studies, such as Latin America or Africa. Students can direct their electives toward a well-rounded education, but they will receive no credit for it on their diplomas.

It's no wonder ...

One of the so-called rules you are taught as a journalist is to question everything, including the "experts." So, why is it necessary for a journalism student to partake in activities that dull the senses as part of their training? The journalism classes that are supposed to offer the most practical experience are the ones that easily could be substituted with an after-school daycare program for six-year-olds. Yet the out-of-class assignments for journalism students in reporting courses - J322 and J361 - serve the same purpose minus the amusement. Assignments include writing two-page book reports (remember those from fourth grade?), which the professor does not grade, as well as an exercise in scanning a book for 100 positive statements about the field.

The course description for J322 News Reporting reads: "advanced development of skill, in gathering and writing news for the print media." Meanwhile, the description for J361 Reporting Urban News states that the class is a study of community news sources; reporting on courts and city and county government; emphasis on fact-finding and skill in writing; in-depth reporting of significant events. It may appear that after completing this program, a journalism student would be prepared to handle a major beat on any size daily newspaper. However, the syllabi for the courses project another image - an obsession with quantity over quality of work - since grades are determined by the number and length of stories the robotic journalism students crank out in a semester.

Students are supposed to learn urban reporting by doing one court story, one cops story, a legislative story, an in-depth project and a city story. Their journalism degree means they will never have laid eyes on a budget, whether for the city, for UT, or for the Austin Independent School District school board. It means they will never have attended a board meeting or a city council meeting. Although they must take a class on urban reporting, they will never have studied urban problems, such as the high-school dropout rate, crime, traffic and environmental problems, poverty, class and racial inequities. They will never have cultivated sources among grass-roots and community organizations.

The classroom component of a journalism major also leaves much to be desired. Because students avoid Werner Severin, the professor most notable for two years ago, they will not have examined power structures in the media. They will not have had a class in ethics, except for the class in media law and ethics, which is taught by a man who worked for years as a public relations agent for UT. While this class is one of the few in the journalism school that requires journalism students to do any reasoning or thinking, the ethics component is certainly scant.

Alternative press is not discussed in the journalism department. The New York Times is held up as an example of fine journalism, although students are not required to read it, and many do not. But even more graduate without having looked at The Nation, In These Times, Mother Jones, or even conservative publications, such as the Economist, which do not fit the department's remarkably narrow image of "real" media.

If a single professor ever wrote for alternative press - any publication that was not a daily newspaper, in fact - their resumes don't admit it. Perhaps because they left the field before New Journalism evolved, they do not realize that newsrooms do indeed contain and are influenced by The New Republic, The Nation, and other publications the UT journalism department ignores.

Those who cannot succeed ...

The level of experience among those molding the minds of student journalists is, for the most part, abysmally low. Most professors ended their careers before their current news-sequence students were born. Take Thomas Fensch, a feature-writing teacher who has written at least as many pages of book as articles. Fensch, who has taught journalism since 1970, worked at a newspaper with a current circulation of 12,000 for one year, in 1961-65. He claims over 100 freelance articles and countless books, but this can hardly account for the fact that he has not been an employee in a newsroom in 25 years. But Fensch is undeterred: he considers that single year of experience as an assistant sports editor qualification as an expert.

Fensch is not alone in his presumption. James Tankard, who has taught at UT since 1972, spent ten months as a reporter at the Raleigh Times, and another eight as a broadcast news writer for AP. Yet, despite this thin bit of experience, he published a book on basic news reporting in 1977. Severin, who lists his professional experience on p. 6 of his resume, worked as a photographer for the Army and for several magazines. His only writing experience is at the Columbia Daily Missourian during college, a requirement for all journalism students at the University of Missouri. Even Max McCombs, the chairman of the journalism department has only two years' experience as a journalist, at the New Orleans Times Picayune. And again, he has been out of the field for close to three decades, having quit the Picayune in 1963.

For anyone who thinks the press should play an adversarial relationship with government and other institutions, it is a slap in the face to he lumped together with public relations students and advertising students. But obviously, many professors lack such ethical qualms. Marvin Olasky, who leaches the history of journalism, spent more years as a public relations flack for DuPont than he spent working for newspapers, even if his experience on his college paper, the Yale Daily News, is included in the total. Tankard worked for the U.S. Information Agency. Gene Burd, a feature-writing professor, worked in public relations for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in 1960.

But no one in the department can rival Mike Quinn, associate dean of journalism and teacher of media law and ethics. Quinn worked eight years as a reporter for The Dallas Morning News - and three as a flack for Humble Oil and Refining Company, two as director of UT News and Information Service, two as executive director of the same service, and several more as spokesman for former chancellor Charles LeMaistre. Quinn has a law degree, obtained in 1981, but even a law degree does not settle the question of whether someone who was buddies with Frank Erwin, former UT System regent and UT president should be teaching media ethics. And, although he has only a bachelor's degree in journalism, Quinn is associate dean of the college of communication, and according to the 1989-90 UT budget earns nearly $30,000 a year more than the other associate deans, both of whom have doctorates.

But even those with ample experience in journalism and little or none in public relations have been out of the field for two decades. Martin Gibson worked nine years for several papers such as the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, and the Houston Chronicle, but left the field to teach in 1969. Gene Burd worked in the field for nine years, but held his last job in 1965.

There is a general belief, among people in newsrooms, that those who teach journalism are those who could not succeed in the field itself. The facts indicate this, or else a general lack of interest in the field itself. In either case, it should serve as a warning to students, as should the curriculum that is supposed to turn them into journalists. If you can't think, you can't debate the truth of what you are told. You just print it, as you were taught to do.

Strangely enough, a number of journalism faculty hold non-journalism bachelor's degrees, as do an even larger number of practicing journalists. We have only one question for them: If you didn't buy into it, why should we?