Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another reason to be suspicious of journalism schools

Anyone who has followed my sporadic musings about journalism will know that I have mixed feelings about the academic takeover of journalism training.

My misgivings start with the fact that I have been privileged to work with, and learn from, a long list of great journalists who had no academic training. They learned by doing.

Prior to the establishment of the first journalism school at what was then Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey University) in 1967, people drifted into journalism via a variety of routes. Many came straight from school, working their way up from menial jobs as messengers or copyholders in reading rooms. They were generally not the sort of people who had been swots or academic achievers at school but they either had, or soon acquired, the instincts and skills that made them great reporters.

To use a cliché, they had a bit of mongrel in them. They included a disproportionate number of misfits and non-conformists, drunks and womanisers. But they knew how to unearth stories and they were free to develop their own individualistic style and flair.

I’m not totally set against formal journalism courses but I suspect (and I know some other journalists of my era do too) that some of the people described above wouldn’t have entered journalism had they been compelled to complete a one-year course of study first, as is now required. And I wonder how many potentially good practitioners are deterred from entering journalism by the thought of having to jump through academic hoops. The qualities that make a good journalist aren’t necessarily those that produce conscientious students.

I also suspect that the selection process for journalism schools filters out potentially good rough-diamond candidates, instead favouring goody-two-shoes types who tick the right boxes and are unlikely to make waves. You can sense how radically the culture of journalism has changed the moment you walk into a modern newsroom and note all the earnest young faces staring intently at their computer screens. Old hands, accustomed to the shouting and swearing of a previous era, find the silence unsettling.

I’m not alone in thinking this. Warwick Roger wrote a column years ago in which he pointed out that, like me, none of the journalists he most admired had been to journalism school. More recently, Deborah Hill Cone lamented the prevalence of what she called “white bread” journalists and the disappearance of the bolshie eccentrics and lowlifes who populated newsrooms when she entered journalism.

So there’s one good reason to wonder whether the academic teaching of journalism is entirely a good thing. I’m not arguing that it should be abandoned, but I think it would be in journalism’s interests to leave the door ajar for people who don’t necessarily meet the academic test. (I should again point out here that Jane Bowron, whose dispatches from the Christchurch quake zone in the Dominion Post have won her legions of fans, slipped into journalism through the back door when she retrained as a sub-editor after the old Dom’s proofreading room was disestablished. We should all be grateful for the fact that she twice failed to get into journalism school, because I doubt that her idiosyncratic style would have survived the tut-tutting of the journalism tutors.)

That leads me to another of my concerns about journalism schools. They tend to encourage a bland orthodoxy, with the result that everyone comes out writing in much the same style. I search the papers in vain for the individualistic and sometimes slightly anarchic flair that once encouraged readers to hunt out the bylines of particular reporters. When you do find examples of such writing, it’s usually under the name of people who are not trained journalists, like Joe Bennett. I fear that the graduates of our journalism courses have any endearing quirks drilled out of them.

Then you have to look at the people doing the teaching. There are a few very good journalism tutors, usually people who have done the business themselves and teach from experience. But there’s also an awful lot of second-raters – some with minimal practical experience, others with nondescript CVs who have been drawn to teaching as a soft option. I remember years ago being on a selection panel charged with appointing a head tutor at a journalism school and despairing at the pitiful paucity of talent and experience among the candidates.

Even when good journalists become tutors, they almost invariably mutate into academics. Over time, they stop thinking and talking like journalists and lapse into the unintelligible jargon of academia. I reckon it should be a condition of all journalism tutors’ appointments that they be required every three years or so to work for at least six months in a newsroom, just to put them back in touch with reality. Some hope.

If anything, the insistence on academic credentials serves to discourage the appointment of experienced journalists. The appointment system is skewed in favour of candidates with qualifications, such as masters’ degrees and even doctorates, that virtually no working journalist possesses. This increases the risk that over time, the teaching of journalism will become ever more concerned with theory and more distanced from practice.

This suits some journalism academics very well, since it permits the intrusion of leftist ideology into the lecture room. Academics such as associate professor Dr Martin Hirst, who rejoices in the grand title of curriculum leader in journalism at Auckland’s AUT University, approach the teaching of journalism from a highly politicised standpoint. An avowed socialist, Hirst is of the school that believes journalism is all about challenging the established order. He and others like him sneer at the notion of objectivity that for decades has underpinned mainstream journalism in Western liberal democracies.

Media studies departments are even more vulnerable to political contamination. Marxism as an economic theory may be dead and buried, but what is known as cultural Marxism, which applies Marxist class theory to society and culture, is firmly entrenched in academia. Dr Sean Phelan, who teaches media studies in Massey’s Department of Communications, Journalism and Marketing, specialises in “post-Marxist discourse theory” and regards the teaching of journalism as an “instrument of the existing hegemonic order”. He thinks journalists need more instruction in critical (read Marxist) theory.

The extent to which some journalism schools have fallen under the sway of leftist ideology became startlingly evident with the appointment earlier this year of Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury as editor-in-residence at the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec), which teaches the national diploma in journalism. In a press statement proudly trumpeting Bradbury’s appointment, the head of Wintec's School of Media Arts (a person I'd never heard of - nothing new there) said he would be a “mentor and advisor” to Wintec’s current crop of journalism and communications students.

What are Bradbury’s qualifications for “mentoring” budding journalists? You might well ask. I’d describe him not as a journalist but as a leftist polemicist, albeit a very noisy one. (Bradbury has variously been described as “the man who will not shut up” and “the most opinionated man in New Zealand”.) His home, the Listener revealed in a profile in 2005, was decorated with posters of Marx, Che Guevara and Mao, which suggests a man who never matured beyond the undergraduate phase in his political views. If Wintec wants to be known as the journalism equivalent of an Islamist madrassa, it couldn't have chosen a more perfect appointee.

Bradbury probably can’t believe his good fortune at being given a state-funded job in which he can indoctrinate impressionable students. I get the impression, from occasionally reading his blog and listening to him loudly declaiming on Jim Mora’s afternoon panel, that he’s interested in journalism only as a means of advancing a leftist, anti-capitalist agenda. This of course makes him ideally suited to academia, where antipathy toward the corporate mainstream media and all its bourgeois values – such as balance and neutrality – runs deep.

The paradox, of course, is that the same corporate mainstream media will be expected to provide Wintec graduates with jobs, assuming they survive the formidable endurance test of being ear-bashed by Bradbury for a year. Not for the first time, I marvel at the media industry’s benign tolerance of media academics who are hostile to it. Media companies don’t fund journalism courses, but they employ their graduates. This surely gives them some influence over the way courses are run and who teaches them. How much longer, I wonder, will they remain silent on the subversion of mainstream journalism values by leftist theorists?


Pdogge said...

Karl, kindly remove mote from are a right wing person and others are not but does not make them no hopers, only a person of different opinion and not always without an opinion of merit.

James said...

Pdogge.....kindly develop some reading comprehension skills.

Bradbury is a biased lefty par excellence.....he had the gall to cry like a baby about David Farrar getting a column in the Herald as some form of subversive "rightwing bias" when everyone and his dog has known for years Farrars political leaning to National.The left bleat whenever an alternative viewpoint to their envy ridden class hatred is allowed to see daylight in our media....they are pathetic.

Anonymous said...

I found myself agreeing with much of the first half of the piece, until we got back to the self-censorship part. In other words, all leftists should be excised from the media. At least the enemies within academia have finally been identified, though they are not there to teach the actual craft of journalism. The fact is that, for all the so-called objectivity, the corporate media are part of the entertainment industry and serve the political right. It is also obvious from the reporter babes that populate TV3, and TVNZ to an extent, what the criteria for job selection is. If you saw Russell Brown's programme on TV7 last night, the real question for the academic system is in allowing far too many students to study when there are not enough jobs, and ability is not the main criteria.

pdm said...

pdogge - the concern is not that Bradbury is a lefty.

The concern is that he is now in a position to influence the minds of the people he lectures so they go into the proffession without having a balanced outlook.

Geoffrey Miller said...
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Geoffrey Miller said...
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Geoffrey Miller said...

Here's the perspective of a keen media watcher (note that I do not work in the media, these are simply comments from an interested bystander)

Times change. I don't think it's such a bad thing if journalists undergo some sort of training before taking a position. Some journalists might have succeeded learning on the job, but I'm sure there are many others who floundered.

However, I do wonder if "journalism schools" really provide the right sort of training. Would it not be far better to make it compulsory for journalists to do a degree first? Any degree will provide a rigorous training programme in critical thinking and writing. Some NZ journalists display a shocking lack of general knowledge. No journalism course is going to impart this into them.

Overall I think the problems in NZ journalism are far more institutional in nature than to do with individual journalists, who generally do the best they can with the resources they have.

Institutional issues:-

- Lack of any substantial public broadcasting either on radio or TV (yes National Radio exists, it's better than nothing but it is minimal and despite the adoration by its fans, is not really that good by international standards). A quality public broadcasting outfit also lifts the quality of all media. Sky News UK for instance is a direct response to the quality of the BBC's news output.

- Lack of any genuine agenda-setting national newspaper which deals with serious issues.

- Lack of a two-tier newspaper structure (tabloids/broadsheets) which exists in most other Western countries. NZ newspapers cater to all and therefore don't really serve either market well.

- (This follows on from the above) lack of progression for young journalists. In other countries, journalists beginning their career usually start in local media (newspapers/radio/TV), then work their way up. In NZ, they often seem to start off on TVNZ at the age of 22.

- Little regulation of anything in the NZ media sector. I'm not sure this is something this blog's author would agree with, but take a look at regulation abroad and the media that those countries have. Regulations on the number of advertisements allowed per hour (as in the UK) for instance would lead to a better quality product. Advertising within news programmes is heavily restricted in the UK, for example, and the amount of advertisements per hour are limited in general.

Anyway just some thoughts - at the end of the day, I think NZ journalists do the best job they can do. The problems are far more systemic than journalism schools in my view.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you for that thoughtful contribution. A couple of points:
1. I was careful not to condemn out of hand the academic teaching of journalism. There are good journalism teachers in New Zealand and their courses have produced some outstanding journalists.
2. I agree that changes to the way journalists are trained won’t necessarily overcome all the problems you refer to (some of which arise from the size of the country – for example, New Zealand’s population base can’t sustain the tiered newspaper industry you see in other countries).
3. I also agree that a good university education – as opposed to an ideologically loaded one – aids critical thinking, if not general knowledge (which, as you say, is often abysmal in journalists). On the other hand, a degree isn’t necessarily conducive to good writing; in fact journalists with a degree generally have a lot of unlearning to do before they can write clearly, concisely and with flair. This may explain why the industry for a long time was famously averse to hiring graduates.

The probligo said...

:D Karl. Add to that the repeated criticism that first-year students are getting to uni without the skills of basic report writing or fundamentals of grammar... in fact marginally literate.

Roger said...

It's a real balancing act. Higher educational standards have also screened out some of the deep fried bozos who once graced newsrooms and public bars. Generally, I think curiosity is more important than education for making a good journalist but that trait appears with about equal frequency in both the educated and the uneducated

Anonymous said...

check out our left wing bias at The bias isn'tflizin immediately apparent, but that's what you would expect of an Islamic madrassa

Anonymous said...

Karl, you really do need to get out more. You obviously have strong opinions, but on what do you base them?

the list of errors in your post is quite long, but I'll just point out two:

1. Sean Phelan doesn't teach journalism, he works in media studies. There's a difference you know.

2. Bomber has plenty of mongrel in him.

You slam staff and students in these courses but when did you last speak to a student or journalism tutor?
When were you last in a journalism school? Have you done any research?
For example you are quick to attack those you accuse of being no good, lacking any background in journalism and of brainwashing students; but you don't name one 'good' lecturer. You have no idea who they actually are.

If you read the Herald you'd notice students on internship writing front page stories this week and throughout the paper. Have you bothered to check with any media organisations about who they hire and why?

Do you understand what's in a journalism curriculum or how they are different at each school?

I think the student work speaks for itself.

Perhaps you need a refresher in the basics Karl, facts make a story, not unsupported opinion.
If you'd like a recommendation for a good journalism school near you, check out the JTO list.

They're all audited on an annual basis by the industry board. You should know that Karl, board members are your contemporaries.

You've had a standing invitation to visit the AUT operation for the last four years Karl, you have never even once spoken to me about the curriculum here.

Martin HIrst

Anonymous said...

Karl, perhaps you could come and visit our journalism school and realise your opinions are not in fact reality. Jim Tucker our overseer is tough and stands for no nonsense. The 'apprenticeship' we go through is HARD WORK and not for the faint hearted. There are several diamonds in the rough - including me(ask Jim). Training is a reality in 2011 - there is no such thing as on the job training. We write loads of stories and publish them on Newswire and in local papers. All stories are edited by experienced editors and many a time I have seen red! Look forward to your visit.
Samantha Ives

Sean Phelan said...

Hi Karl,

I should have said hello at yesterday's public broadcasting forum – and would have definitely said hello if I knew I was still in your thoughts. What can I say, but thank you for doing some advance marketing work for the edited book that Martin and I (along with Verica Rupar) are publishing later in the year.

As for a substantive reply to this piece, I think anything I could possibly say has been adequately covered in the following article, particularly in the section called "An anatomy of du Fresneism".

Unfortunately, the journal is subscription-based, so people outside the university system will need to pay to access. However, if you drop me an email, I'd be very happy to send you on a PDF copy.

Sean Phelan

Swimming said...

When I was in journo school I was one of a minority who did not have a degree (back then). Some had two. But it was equally hard work for us all. Of course a degree is not needed to get into journo school, but it is hard to get in without one – I got in on my third attempt and I am one of the few in that class currently working as journalist. Others in my Welli class who currently work in the media include one who dropped out, and one that failed shorthand and therefore didn’t graduate. Oh, and journalism is NOT media studies.

That said, it’s a pity you didn’t do some homework on journalism schools.