J-students lack basic skills, curriculum revamp needed

For all the technological ability in the world, journalism students fail to be able to do the basics of journalism — reporting, interviewing, and writing.

This according to a new study by Patrick Ferrucci, an assistant professor of journalism in the College of Media, Communication and Information, titled “We’ve Lost the Basics,” which was published in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator.

This study got me thinking. It has been lodged in my brain since I first read it, and the numerous subsequent readings have only embedded it deeper. 

It sent me down a path of introspection and some light research, which is why this particular post has a more academic feel to it (complete with in-text citations and references). I wanted to determine if there was a larger body of research supporting Ferrucci, and I wanted to determine if I needed to make significant changes to my own teaching methodologies. 

The answer to both questions is yes.

Basically, journalism education is not meeting industry needs. The research suggests there has been too much focus on digital technology instead of the basic tenets of journalism, such as reporting and writing. 

Ferrucci (2017) suggested “the right balance between the basics and new technologies” must be found (p. 413). I’m a technology buff. I like technology a lot, and I try to work it into my courses as often as possible. However, perhaps I’m not striking that balance, especially considering the technologies I tend to focus on.

Research suggests journalism educators need to work to keep up with technologies currently available to them while balancing the need to teach the basic skills and concepts students in a journalism program need to know in order to successfully find employment in the industry. Hepworth, Mensing, & Yun (2018) suggested “that journalism professors must strike the right balance between encouraging students to adopt industry-relevant practices and teaching online tools that students are already comfortable with” (p. 257). Their research pointed to Twitter, Facebook and Google Drive as front-runners in use when it comes to journalism education classrooms. Other tools receiving substantial attention included WordPress, Slack, Instagram, Pinterest, and learning management systems (LMS, for short) such as Blackboard and Canvas (my institution has a proprietary LMS, but we are moving to Canvas this fall).

Except for Pinterest and the two learning management systems, I use all of these technologies in my classroom. But am I using them for the right purposes? Perhaps not because, as Ferrucci (2017) said, “students currently in journalism programs are digitally native in that they matured using digital technologies, it could make sense for journalism programs to focus less on technology” (p. 417).

Other research would seem to contradict Ferrucci, especially when it comes to social media. Freberg & Kim (2017) said universities must “integrate social media as a pedagogical practice” (p. 380). This bit of research came to five conclusions as to why social media must be incorporated. Freberg & Kim (2017) said, first, content creation abilities must be cultivated because students need to know how to create videos and audio, which can then be shared via social media, and, second, students need to be taught how to use social media within professional principles and practices. The authors also said being able to use analytics and work with crisis communication was also key.

However, one point Freberg & Kim (2017) made dovetailed nicely with what Ferruci found. Students need to know how to write. “The director of communications at Discovery Cube LA and OC, Dan Natiski, said, ‘I think it all comes down to writing’” (Freberg & Kim, 2017, p. 385). Organizations are looking for employees that can write. This is because “[t]he ability to capture the personality of a brand and write in an engaging manner is a rare and sought-after skill” (Freberg & Kim, 2017, p. 385).

So, even though technological skills are important, there seems to be a clear answer as to where the focus should be. This despite the fact that Ferrucci (2017) highlighted previous research from Berger (2016) saying students entering the job market “frequently complain about all of the extra skills young journalists now need to get hired and create compelling content” (p. 411). 

Sure, this undoubtedly leaves educators wondering what skills students actually need, which is largely due to a lack of communication between the academic and the professional worlds. This is compounded by the disruptive nature of the Internet because it “significantly altered how journalists do their jobs” (Ferrucci, 2017, p. 412). 

Ferrucci (2017) conducted in-depth interviews of 29 full-time, veteran digital journalists. The study pointed to participants’ beliefs that new journalists “have more technology skills but lack traditional journalism skills, which potentially leaves them at a significant disadvantage when they enter the field” (Ferrucci, 2017, p. 411). 

This breaks down into three areas: technological adoption, critical thinking, and accountability. In terms of technology, Ferrucci (2017) found the idea of technology should be taught but “universities should prepare students to work in all media, whether it be print, broadcast, audio or, especially, web, and help them understand the similarities and differences between the media” (p. 415). This would entail more focus on how to conduct interviews and write journalistic stories. In fact, of the respondents, “27 out of 29 thought that newcomers did not have enough training in traditional reporting skills” (Ferrucci, 2017, p. 414). Part of those skills includes critical thinking, which can essentially be summarized as knowing how to determine what the story of a situation is, including the newsworthiness of any event within a given context. One 20-year veteran editor said, “We’ve lost the basics” (Ferrucci, 2017, p. 416). Building upon this is the idea of accountability. The research suggested new journalists are not accountable. This manifests itself by younger journalists not asking tough enough questions, missing deadlines, and not acting independently to the point they need their hands held. 

Ferrucci (2017) concludes “a focus should be placed on the timeless skills necessary for becoming a successful journalist” (p. 418).

Ethics has to be a thought in this realm too. Place (2017) found “students required hands-on learning experiences” to develop ethical skills (p. 421).

So in order to teach those skills Ferrucci (2017) and the other researchers talk about, in an effort to better prepare students to be journalists, there must be a platform on which to accomplish it. Students need to be able to practice the craft.

What better way than a student-run publication?

This relates to the idea of service learning. “Grounded in the philosophy of John Dewey, service learning is an extension of experiential learning that stresses an understanding of one’s civic responsibility and community needs” (Place, 2017, p. 423). Service learning has “been cited as a beneficial pedagogical tool for cultivating real-world contexts and honing interpersonal skills” (Place, 2017, p. 421-422). 

In short, there are immense benefits of being able to practice real-world skills in a low-risk environment where students are still afforded autonomy and respect as they learn accountability and independence.

There is a technological fix to creating a student publication.

Littlefield (2018) proposed turning typical journalism classes into a more hands-on, applied learning experience similar to that which could be found in the medical field by way of a teaching clinic or hospital. One way to accomplish this would be to create a class website where news content would be published “to display all class-produced material for the journalism program” (Littlefield, 2018, p. 314). 

Such a pursuit would provide many benefits because “multimedia skills needed to create todays online, interactive, and immersive storytelling experiences require journalists who know all the traditional reporting, writing, and editing skills and who can code; shoot and edit video; analyze and visualize data; produce virtual reality projects; and gamify the news” (Littlefield, 2018, p. 308-309). 

One example Littlefield (2018) highlighted was a “project to bring separate reporting and editing classes together to produce a live, online news report under a 4-hr deadline [. . .] professors believed the deadline and publication pressure sacrificed other learning objectives and that reports lacked depth” (p. 311). Even so, “[t]he class website would give students a more valuable clip” to use when seeking employment or other professional opportunities (Littlefield, 2018, p. 311). Another benefit, according to a student interviewed by Littlefield (2018), it helps the learners “understand the work ethic needed to succeed in journalism” (p. 316). This demonstrates the positive impact such a structure could have. It allows students to dip their toes into the journalism world in a space perceived to be safer and less intimidating than a full-blown student media outlet. 

However, maybe classes sizes would not be conducive to such an endeavor. Or, worse yet, perhaps a given course isn’t offered every semester, which would significantly diminish the impacts such an endeavor would have on teaching those vital skills journalism students need to learn.

This then points to a dedicated student media outlet. It could be a website, which would still hit all the high points Littlefield (2018) discussed. Again, I like technology and using the digital tools available, but does a website create the opportunity to once again get distracted with the shiny bits and lose focus on the basics? Maybe. 

Also, a website doesn’t feel permanent enough by itself. Undoubtedly a website and those skills are needed, especially in this day and age and with what the professional realm does on an ongoing basis. However, the permanency isn’t the same as a print product. After all, students are learning. If they make a correction to a story published online, they should make a note on the article saying it was updated, when, and why. However, there isn’t necessarily any guarantee that will happen. A print product, though, requires them to wait and put that correction in the next issue. In this way, a print product seems to be a better learning platform. It puts the writing at the forefront of what they are doing.

Bockino (2017) shows how college newspaper fit into the defined objectives of teaching journalism and mass communication students. The study looked at 231 college news outlets. It reported almost “all the papers were distributed via both print (97%) and online (94.8%)” and nearly “half (44.2%) were printed weekly” (Bockino, 2017, p. 74). Some were funding by the institution, some generated their own revenue through advertising sales, and some operated with a combination of the two. Regardless of where the money came from, though, Bockino (2017) reported the newspapers had high levels of autonomy. This supports the idea that a newspaper is “an important pedagogical tool for the development of a fledgling journalist” (Bockino, 2017, p. 77). Other research also supports this as other studies “suggest the pedagogical aspects of the college newspaper should remain more ‘normative’ in nature, helping the budding journalist earn the processes by which to disseminate information, facilitate social and political processes, and serve as a voice independent of vested interests and established institutions [. . .] more important is the correct use of sources, a proper sheen of objectivity, and a general enthusiasm to pursue topics for the public good” (Bockino, 2017, p. 80).

This isn’t a new concept, either. Weston (1981) looked into a partnership where students were able to produce pages for a 40,000-circulation daily newspaper in Gainesville, Fla. This study found, in citing the Gainesville Sun managing editor, “the keys to greater cooperation between newspapers and J-education programs are close involvement of the journalism faculty with the student news efforts and student understanding of the demands and responsibilities of their ‘live news’ coverage” (Weston, 1981, p. 60). Though there were concerns with how accurately and professionally students could perform in a daily environment such as this study investigated, the research showed the concerns were unfounded. The students did their jobs, and they did so well.

There is clearly solid backing for the importance of college newspapers. They clearly serve a valuable role in the pedagogy of journalism and mass communication education because “students learn best be ‘doing’” (Bockino, 2017, p. 80). To put a finer point on it, as Bockino (2017) explained, “Learning within the college newspaper environment, in fact, can be seen as a hybrid between true apprenticeship — in which the students learn directly from the college newspaper adviser — and cognitive apprenticeship — in which the students apply the lessons learned in class to issue at the newspaper” (p. 70). 

Like Place (2017) said, this is all about service learning. As Bockino (2017) wrote, “college newspapers exist in the first place, often as an expected and valuable complement to a journalism and/or mass communication program [. . .] the college newspaper can be thought of as a tangible training ground at which a student can practice lessons learned in the classroom” (p. 69).

Students need to be able to work on a college newspaper to adequately learn how to be a journalist, at least in terms of the general practices of journalistic production. College newspapers “encourage a learning environment that revolves around ‘experience by doing’” (Bockino, 2017, p. 68). This fits into the ideas of experiential learning theory that is, as defined by Kolb and Kolb (2005), “above all a philosophy of education based on what Dewey called a theory of experience” (as cited in Bockino, 2017, p. 69). The mission statements of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel and Loyola University’s The Maroon both state, in part, that the newspaper serves “as a learning laboratory” (Bockinon, 2017, p. 67-68). 

That is how the newspapers view themselves, and that is how academic institutions should view college newspapers across the country. 

Consider this. The Higher Learning Commission serves as one of the accrediting bodies for colleges and universities for 19 states in the United States, many of which are located in the Midwest. Many of the criteria they look for in accreditation support the concept of a journalism program and subsequent journalistic product. However, one criteria stands about the most. Under “Criterion 2. Integrity: Ethical and Responsible Conduct” is listed Core Component 2.D., which states, “The institution is committed to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.” 

By this logic, there should be a student newspaper on every campus.

So what does this all mean for me?

Well, clearly I need to focus on the basic tenets of journalism instead of getting distracted by the latest shiny tool the digital world has to offer. After all, all the tools in the world cannot help if students cannot do journalism.

As such, I’m going to revamp the curriculum for a few of my classes. I’m going to revaluate the number of assignments I have my students complete to allow for more time to prepare for interviews and to edit the stories produced. I’m going to spend more time going over how to construct a news article.

By doing this, the focus will be on quality, not quantity. A slower pace will allow me to adequately approach the basic skills Ferrucci (2017) found to be lacking. 

I’ve always considered myself a writer, and I love putting a story together. The research I’ve done has made me realize I have been neglecting this part of me to the detriment of my students. I need to embrace my nerdy side and geek out over the reporting and writing that made me fall in love with journalism in the first place.

The logical extension of this, then, is to build a more robust student media outlet so the students have a platform for which to practice these skills. Currently, I oversee a small batch of students who update a news website. This offering is less than ideal. It does provide a way for students to practice, but my expectations of nearly daily updates hasn’t been conducive for the deeper learning needed to teach the requisite basic skills they lack. 

Therefore, I need to reconsider my expectations for that offering, but I am also going to work toward creating a print product to work alongside the website. My colleague and I attempted to implement a plan to fund a print product, an online radio station, and a more vibrant live events video production arm of our department. That proposal was struck down. 

However, I am not going to give up. I am going to redouble my efforts to find a way to implement a print product. This could entail a yearbook, a bi-monthly magazine, or a newspaper. I’m open to anything, but I feel the best option would be a newspaper. It would allow for news reporting and writing to be showcased along side strong visuals in the most cost effective and timely manner. Besides, I’m a newspaper guy at heart. The campus newspapers of my undergraduate degrees and the weekly I ran before becoming an educator provided me with excellent experiences. I want my students to have such a positive experience as well.

This is what my students need, and I want to do what is best for my students because I want to be a good educator. I want to provide a service learning opportunity.

After all, “literature has noted a limited inclusion of real-world learning experiences in the traditional classroom setting” [because] “knowledge conveyed in the classroom tends to be disconnected from the context in which the knowledge was created” (Pjesivac, Cantrell-Bickley, & Hazinksi, 2018, p. 354).

I hope to fix that for my students by providing an in-depth understanding of the basics while providing them an avenue to practice the craft.


References

Berger, E. (2016, January). The next generation of journalism students has no idea what they’re getting into. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/606401/the-next-generation-of-journalism-students-have-no-idea-what-theyre-getting-into/

Bockino, D. (2017). Preparatory Journalism: The College Newspaper as a Pedagogical Tool. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator,73(1), 67-82. doi:10.1177/1077695816687608

Ferrucci, P. (2017). “We’ve Lost the Basics”: Perceptions of Journalism Education From Veterans in the Field. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator,73(4), 410-420. doi:10.1177/1077695817731870

Freberg, K., & Kim, C. M. (2017). Social Media Education: Industry Leader Recommendations for Curriculum and Faculty Competencies. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator,73(4), 379-391. doi:10.1177/1077695817725414

Hepworth, K., Mensing, D., & Yun, G. W. (2018). Journalism Professors’ Information-Seeking Behaviors: Finding Online Tools for Teaching. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator,73(3), 255-270. doi:10.1177/1077695817718425

Littlefield, C. (2018). Upping the Ante at Small Colleges: Utilizing Class Websites as Journalism Teaching Clinics. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator,73(3), 308-321. doi:10.1177/1077695817720761

Pjesivac, I., Cantrell-Bickley, Y., & Hazinski, D. (2018). Digital Convergence in the Newsroom: Experimenting With Modular Production of Television News in Grady Newsource. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator,73(3), 346-357. doi:10.1177/1077695817719135

Place, K. R. (2017). Exploring Ethics and Client Work in Public Relations Education. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator,73(4), 421-438. doi:10.1177/1077695817735999

Weston, E. G. (1981). Lab-Produced Page in Local Newspaper Gives Added Incentives to Improve Accuracy. The Journalism Educator,36(3), 47-60. doi:10.1177/107769588103600312

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About toddvogts 756 Articles
My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at www.toddvogts.com and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/toddvogts.