Journalism/Literature degree vs. a college journalism education

During a graduate class in methodology, I recall my professor Dr. Willie Braun saying that our literature degrees weren’t worth anything unless we produced some kind of tangible product that benefited society. (At least, this is “how I remember it”.) Of course, he was referring to journalism. He even booked a (Edmonton Sun? or Edmonton Journal?) newspaper writer to give us a class presentation, although she never showed up.

Why did Dr. Braun bring up journalism? Well, we had to hand in tiny articles, summaries or abstracts, that were more akin to journalism articles than our minimum 14 page argumentative MLA essays. Now a lit. degree does not make a journalist, then again a journalism degree doesn’t guarantee substance in any area of knowledge –just that you can “try” to effectively communicate and water concepts down to a high school and elementary reading levels. I’m intrigued by this, in how one explains complex concepts in a simple and precise manner, without butchering those concepts or patronizing readers.

I’ve read some awful journalism, that butchers subject material. When a magazine or newspaper author writes half-truths or mis-represents fields of study in which I majored, it’s apparent there is a failure to research, edit, or properly explain/simplify to aforementioned reading levels. It’s times like these, when I want to write emails to writers and/or editor-in-chiefs to remind them do their work properly. These problems I refer to are not solely idiosyncratic of writing, but also documentaries.

There is another issue that interests me, this being the difference between a literature degree or a university journalism degree versus an applied knowledge education in journalism, such as from a college/institute. I have my own preference (or is this a bias?). I think a writer should have a liberal arts education, and then learn the job skills, well …. on the job. This way, you not only develop good form, learn to effectively communicate, and learn what is newsworthy –things that are learned on the job– but you have something to say and can do so with some authority (because of your liberal arts education). If you want to minimize the job skills learning curve, then one could complement one’s liberal arts education with an applied knowledge college degree. Liberal arts education is first and primary –whether it be a literary or a journalism degree– otherwise you run the risk of being fairly ignorant on a lot of topics.

The Australian website <> has a thirteen episode audio/text series investigating different “cultures” of journalism. Episode twelve contrasts university journalism education against the applied knowledge college journalism route.

My own experience writing for the general public has so far been a positive one. Although in university, I’ve never been told that I have too many references. On the other hand, I had a terrible time writing for a university journal, which pit me against anal retentive, legalistic, prescriptive editors. Of course, differing ideologies surely contributed to the strife.

Maurice Cepeda

Note: For those of you writers blogging to learn something about writing,
whether you want to sharpen your communication skills or improve your
journalism, the following link should also be informative (in addition to the previous one).

Learning activities/Journalism – OLPC

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3 thoughts on “Journalism/Literature degree vs. a college journalism education

  1. I disagree with you that a liberal arts education trumps a narrower focus in journalism. I have a journalism degree, and because of this I was able to get those on-the-job skills. I suspect that if I had a liberal arts degree, I would be unemployed.

    It helps me as a journalist in small newspapers to have no expertise in a particular subject area. It means I must listen to the true experts, my sources, rather than impose my presumptuous knowledge on a moderately educated public.

    Thank you for the link, it’s always helpful for me to review the basics.

  2. About being unemployed with a liberal arts degree, I think you’ll see that newspapers and magazines are now hiring people without any literary education or writing experience. It’s been suggested this is because “newbies” are more suggestible to the working environment than opinionated (university educated) writers that are more likely to rock the boat. I think this is talked about in the series mentioned in my blog entry above.

    So if they’re willing to hire people off the street, why would a liberal arts degree leave you unemployed? Maybe your experience in your local community or field of work differs.

    As far as not being an expert and thus this allowing you to listen to the true experts (and write without bias), doesn’t this predispose you to being prematurely swayed? Of course to remedy this, you can interview both sides of the argument, but a previous education in the field of study –even a BA– helps.

    The other problem I see with your model, is what is demonstrated with the telephone game, where the material is “corrupted” every time it passes a person’s lips. This is the problem of translation/interpretation, in which each person puts into his own words what he perceives correct. In the end, the message corrupts so badly as to not be identifiable as the original. This is what you’re doing when interviewing experts. You’re trying to translate from academic language to the vulgar, and you have to interpret along the way.

    If you don’t have any formal previous education on the material, I doubt you have the means to circumvent this corruption, even if it just passes through just two sets of lips (to continue with the analogy). There aren’t as many sets of lips concerned in journalism, but the failing to have a formal background in the concerned area, surely contributes to the corruption. I see this time and time again, a lack of capacity to water concepts down without introducing inaccuracies and outright errors. After all, you’re trying to condense years of knowledge into a tiny article that is written by someone entirely new to the subject material, the college educated journalist.

    Regarding employment, it’s not unknown that someone with a comparative literature degree gets hired to write in the (pseudo-)religious or New Age section of papers and magazines, just because they studied religious beliefs/systems, and superstitions as part of their liberal arts education.

    Last thing, if one’s worried about not having practical knowledge, it’s now typical to see people go to university for their degree and then compliment it with an on-hands college education –at least in Canada.

  3. Melissa Bower: Lastly, You seem to think media writers and reporters are unbiased.

    I don’t think all journalism is investigative but that it is opinionated writing –some subject material more than others. This also varies from time to time and from area to area. If I recall, American colonial reporting was opinionated and helped lead to the colonies breaking away from England.

    It’s also been said that there is no such thing as unbiased investigative reporting. Even documentary films, a form that touts itself as unbiased, closely resembles an argumentative essay, in which the director attempts to sway the viewers to his point of view (the film’s conclusion).

    How does this happen? It’s in the editing, and –as in photography– it’s also in choosing what you’re going to shoot, what you’re going to leave out, how, when, etc. Perhaps, the most extreme form is this is called “framing” (let’s call it “opinionated writing”). To illustrate the degree of “framing” –if I can use the term loosely– found in film making (to draw an example), I recall film makers being called and calling themselves “liars” in jocular fashion in my film studies class, but (also in a sense) admitting that there is a lot to the idea of lying in the media.

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