Academics / blogging / Tech Talk

Get off my lawn: the tired, tired refrain that we're teaching too much tech in journalism schools

Editor’s Note: This piece has been sitting in my “draft” folder since mid-September, which means it’s ancient in blog years. But since the topic is bound to come up again sometime soon (see the rule of online journalism discussion below), I’m posting it for posterity.


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After five years of blogging about college media, I have formulated the following rule of online journalism discussion:

If you follow the “journorati,” i.e., the navel-gazing portion of the journalism industry that spends an inordinate amount of time talking about journalism, you will eventually hear the same arguments repeated, usually in 12-18 month cycles.

Which brings me to to the latest in a long-running, seemingly endless series of pearl-clutching, couch-fainting, concern-trolling articles about how journalism students are learning too much technology and not enough fundamentals.

This scene of the badly-scripted remake of “Groundhog Day” comes from Tony Rogers, a journalism instructor and journalism “Guide” at About.com (found via Dan Reimold). Rogers believes there is too much technology in journalism schools. The title of his article posted in September: Is There Too Much Tech Training at the Nation’s Journalism Schools?

NO.

This concludes another edition of Simple Answers to Simple Questions.

For a more detailed response, follow me below the fold.

One of the things you’ve probably picked up if you’ve ever hung around people who do serious, original research for a living is this: Anecdote does not equal data. Or, anecdote != data. What this means is that an observation of a single instance of a phenomenon, or even several instances of a phenomenon – does not mean that such a phenomenon is a trend, an emerging problem, or even very widespread at all. To say that something is a trend, widespread, or even an epidemic, requires some sort of research to determine how widespread the phenomenon is.

So when I see sentences like:

But some journalists and educators alike are starting to wonder if lessons in the fundamentals of newsgathering are being pushed aside in favor of an ever-expanding array of tech-related classes.

I tend to have a strong allergic reaction.

I don’t really care whether “some journalists and educators” are “starting to wonder” if something is happening. I care whether something is actually happening. And I don’t see it.

In some sense, I agree with University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Stephen Ward, who said:

Journalism schools should be creating a new generation of responsible communicators. If we go to the route of defining journalism programs totally in terms of technology and entrepreneurialism then we’re abandoning the core of what universities should be doing.

Amen. We shouldn’t define journalism programs totally in terms of technology and entrepreneuralism. But the question is: who’s advocating the position he’s describing?

I can’t think of a single journalism pundit – from Jeff Jarvis to Steve Buttry to Jay Rosen to Nick Carr – who is advocating such an approach to journalism programs.

It’s a straw man, and a very popular one, at that. But nobody is advocating replacing journalism fundamentals with a string of tech “how-to” classes.

Sure, you get stories from instructors who seem to feel that students know how to shoot and edit video but don’t know how to ask a simple question of a source.

But I want to know where these students are. Because I find a wide spectrum of knowledge and skills among students in my interactions with them. Students can be broken down into roughly four groups:

Students who don’t know journalistic fundamentals and don’t know digital skills (NJF/NDS)

Students who know journalistic fundamentals and don’t know digital skills (JF/NDS)

Students who know journalistic fundamentals and know digital skills (JF/DS)

Students who don’t know journalistic fundamentals and know digital skills (NJF/DS)

If I had to guess (and I’d be guessing just as much as the journalism professors quoted in the article linked above), I’d put more students down in the NJF/NDS group. They are not grounded enough in the “fundamentals of journalism,” but they don’t know that much about “digital skills” either. And as often as not, students who are relatively skilled with technology are skilled with these software and tools in their personal lives, but don’t connect them to their professional lives as well.

So, for instance, adding a single introductory course in multimedia skills to the core requirements for a journalism degree (as Eastern did two years ago) isn’t going to break the curriculum and create a generation of elite tech geeks who don’t know how to sniff out a good story.

And if “technology-related” courses are being added as electives, or as different concentrations, then the classes that are getting cut aren’t really fundamental, are they?

Quite frankly, it isn’t as easy to learn digital skills as people make it out to be. Sure, it’s easy to put out a 140-character text message on Twitter, and find information about people on Facebook. But telling a compelling story using multiple formats – yes, technology – isn’t any easier than writing a 4,000-word investigative article for a newspaper. In fact, combining multiple formats with an investigative story idea is harder and more time consuming than writing a 4,000-word article for the newspaper.

We can teach some very basic multimedia skills over a four-day period (as we did recently in Louisville), but you can teach someone to write a story in that time period too.

In fact, combining multiple formats with an investigative story idea is harder and more time consuming than writing a 4,000-word article for a newspaper.

And let’s be honest – some damned fine journalists didn’t even major in journalism.

Image courtesy Flickr user firepile used with permission under <a href=

Just one more thing about this “too much technology” complaint. See the picture above? Know what that is? It’s a cello. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, it can create beautiful music. But a cello is a form of technology. Keeping it tuned and in proper working condition takes a level of knowledge about the instrument. Knowing where to fret and how to bow the strings takes technical skill. But you can’t play cello well unless you know the fundamentals of musical notation, of reading the composer’s instructions, etc.

So music instructors teach “technology” and “fundamentals” in tandem. It’s the same in any creative process – from architecture to art. You can’t design an awe-inspiring building without some familiarity with the materials necessary to construct that building. You can’t paint a masterpiece without knowing how pigments interact or clay must be molded to hold its shape.

Every discipline has “technology.” We are surrounded by it, and it is not going away. And anyone who is proposing abandoning “fundamentals” in favor of whiz-bang technology probably shouldn’t be teaching journalism to begin with.

(Cello Image courtesy Flickr user firepile used with permission under Creative Commons license.)

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