The Future of Journalism Studies and journalism education: a time for serious debate?

Posted: July 9, 2011 in Academia, Media & Journalism

There’s a big academic conference coming up in September at Cardiff School of Journalism on the Future of Journalism. The call for papers has long passed and the draft programme (available here) was published before the NotW phone hacking scandal and the closure of the paper on Thursday afternoon (7 July). However, I have no doubt that at least some of the papers on the draft schedule will need to undergo revision in light of these recent developments.

But more importantly, the conference looks like an excellent opportunity for the Journalism Studies community in the UK to rethink not just the whole debate around the role and nature of journalism in culture, society and economy but to also reconsider the relatively recent paradigm shift in journalism education in UK universities: from an academic orientation (as a sub-discipline of classic, critical media studies) to a vocational focus and the proliferation of accredited courses that that has brought with it.

Journalism studies: the critical paradigm vindicated?

Over the past 20 years or more, Journalism Studies research and teaching has been dominated by two clashing paradigms: the critical, pessimistic perspective that sees journalism, as a form and a profession, to be in crisis – politically, economically and culturally; and the pluralist, optimistic perspective that celebrates the death of deference in journalism in the face of power and status and plays down the corrosive influence of market forces on journalistic independence. After years of being on the back foot in this debate, has the critical paradigm been vindicated by the hacking scandal and related revelations of corruption in the journalist-source relationship? By the economic crisis that has befallen the journalism “industries”? By the challenge of new media and the so-called “citizen journalism” that they make possible? And, conversely, does the pluralist paradigm carry credible weight any longer? Is it time for serious revision? I think it is and hopefully the Future of Journalism conference will provide some space to begin debate and discussion on these important questions for the discipline.

Journalism education and the shift to vocationalism

The conference must also address the parallel shift in journalism education at university level, that from an intellectually based relationship between theory and practice to the increasing emphasis on vocational training and industry accreditation.

At present, I am an academic under pressure to put my very successful, undergraduate degree forward for accreditation by the journalism “industries” and, and here’s the really difficult bit, SkillSet “approval”. Why? Because that’s how it’s going in the FE sector and so therefore, the mad logic of the market goes, we need to come down to their level just to compete.

Now, the NCTJ and SkillSet are not concerned with prescribing academic content on the courses they approve, just so long as these courses meet certain practical/professional benchmarks. This is somewhat disingenuous because in order to do that it’s necessary for a course director to redress the balance of content in favour of practical/professional learning outcomes. Not enough practice modules on your course? Then out goes one of your academic modules. Journalism History maybe? Or Sociology of Journalism? The Journalism Dissertation even? And in goes shorthand, online journalism or investigative journalism in its place.

My course is a Major option that enables students to combine with minor options in subjects like History, English, Photography, International Development and Marketing. Employers like graduates with a wee bit extra, you see, but even from my own point of view as a teacher, it’s good to see journalism essays and dissertations that are informed by a wider knowledge base. But industry accreditation and vocationalism, and the bogus rhetoric of “employability” that underwrites this shift in journalism education, militate against the development of just such well rounded, intelligent graduates who might actually have an edge over journalism trainees in a very adverse job market.

The shift to vocationalism and the rhetoric of employability have also had a negative impact on the balance of staff on journalism courses, with increasing numbers of former journalists employed to deliver increasing amounts of practice content. I don’t have any hard evidence to hand to back this up at the moment but I would guess that the majority of such staff, good and valuable colleagues as they are, do not carry out research in or teach critical journalism studies. So what long-term impact will all this have on the discipline in terms of teaching and research? I really don’t know but I’m not terribly optimistic it will be a good one, not even after running my eyes over the very broad range of interesting and relevant research papers on offer at the Future of Journalism conference.

While I think it’s encouraging to see such scholarship alive and well now in 2011,  I guess what I’m leading up to here is a call for a thorough debate about not just the future of journalism in the UK but also the long term future of Journalism Studies and journalism education in our universities. Any colleagues out there agree?

  1. Rab says:

    The government’s white paper on HE envisages the student as consumer making rational choices about the course he or she pursues, and part of that rational choice is made in light of the promise of ’employability’. That means students are expected to select courses on the basis of graduate employment records. Cue universities falling over each other to show the success of their alumni in the jobs market. So courses within the field of media studies are looking to industry licensing and accreditation as bona fides of the potential employment prospects of students. As you say that means that HE is obliged to prefer the vocational over the academic; training over education; skills over intelligence. In effect the very concept of higher education is at stake.

    But there is another pragmatic problem with the consumer model and the emphasis on employability. Arguably the course a student does has less influence upon his or her employment prospects than the economy, the local job market and the student’s dedication and aptitude. What’s worrying here is that universities and the courses they offer are expected to be judged by criteria they have no control over. A media studies course outside the metropolitan centres, where jobs in the creative and media industries are relatively scarce (indeed, where work generally might be harder to come-by than in London or Manchester, for instance) may be a very good, well run course, but assumed a poor choice or a bad course because of it’s location.

    Within the government’s plans for HE is a recipe for the concentration of economic wealth and cultural power in the cities and regions that already have it.

    The wee six could get a lot colder. I hope the Mafia of the Mediocre up in the Assembly understand what is at stake here. Also, and this is just a thought, with fees in England set to rise, could lower fees over here attract students from other parts of the UK. Will England’s difficult be our opportunity. Brian drains work in both directions. I’m just saying, like.

  2. UKRadar says:

    The News of the World debacle has done for journalism what child sex abuse did for the Roman Catholic priesthood. The press and media at best courted influence of the ruling elite or at worst were its willing tools. Any caring parent confronted with a child pondering a career in journalism should consider advocating dug dealing as a socially less destructive career option. The press silenced freedom of speech by controlling not what could be said but by what could be heard. They censored through editorial opportunity. Their demise came with the internet which showed again and again how irrelevant they had become. In the end the News of the World debacle demonstrated how scum like journalists are not only by what was exposed, but also by their cannibalistic gluttony for each other.

    Goodbye journalism. Please find a warm corner. Go there and die quietly. Good people will not miss you so may you rot in hell.

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