Monday, May 22, 2006

Clue-deprived at the Wall Street Journal

Damn that agenda-setting function of the mass media! One little article in the NYT about journalism school enrollment, and all of a sudden every kid has to have one. A couple of examples from the past week came tumbling over the transom today, and in their own little ways, they're worth a look.

First up is a curious entry from the Wall Street Journal: "Schools for Scribblers," by Jonathan V. Last. It's not notable for its originality. If you've been within artillery range of a J-school in the centuries since Gutenberg invented the inverted pyramid*, you've heard Mr. Last's basic question: Does journalism education belong in the university or (as the mom of an older classmate unkindly put it, back in the second Nixon term) in trade school?

No, what makes this little screed stand out is its mastery of advanced op-ed technique: When the writer runs out of stuff to support his positions, he just makes some up. Even Jayson Blair had the decency to lift things that were more or less true. Opinions, of course, are a protected species, even when loopy. But when they're built on made-up stuff ... well, let's get started. There's the lede, for example:

Those of us saddened by the declining fortunes of the newspaper industry had hoped that shrinking newspaper staffs would have at least one salutary effect: fewer journalism-school graduates. This has not proved to be the case. In 2005, newspapers cut 2,000 jobs; this spring more people graduated from journalism schools than ever before.

We could ask him what proportion of journalism school graduates are interested in jobs on newspaper staffs, but then we'd have to ask whether he knows the difference between journalism -- as in news staff jobs -- and the broader study of communication (including advertising, PR, healthcomm and many other areas that are probably included in the category he seems to be alluding to). And that'd be a pretty short conversation.

On the education of young journalists, there has been much recent debate. There is one argument over whether or not journalists should aspire to objectivity and another about the liberal bias that permeates journalism programs.
Sounds as if our expert is buying into the David Horowitz eyewash here: Voting preferences equal classroom bias. Drop us a note when you have some evidence, will you? There's a good little robot. Meanwhile, ponder a few alternatives to Mr. Last's false dichotomy -- say, that journalism schools turn out a product meant to fit into mainstream journalism, the Fourth Estate of Conventional Wisdom, rather than a horde of wild-eyed liberals. But -- oh, hell, that'd be assuming actual weighing of the evidence at the Journal's opinion pages, wouldn't it? Sorry.

... So what do aspiring journalists learn in school? Undergraduate courses of study vary, but if you survey course catalogs, there's a heavy emphasis on process and theory. (Hold that thought)

At Ohio State, for instance, a student majoring in journalism might take some substantive core courses, such as introductory American history, math and microeconomics. But a large portion of his coursework will be taken up with classes such as Principles of Civic Journalism, Topics in Public Affairs Journalism or Industry Research Methods. ** An undergraduate at Missouri can take courses such as Cross-Cultural Journalism, The Creative Process, Women and the Media--there's even a class on High School Journalism.

OK. We'll assume that most, if not all, HEADSUP-L readers are familiar with the syntactic, pragmatic and cultural arguments about the generic masculine pronoun. So let's just point out that it's particularly brainless to use generic "his" in a field in which two-thirds of the bachelor's and master's degrees are awarded to women.*** The substance of Mr. Last's point here seems to be that math are good, but research methods are bad. Really? One can't speak for Ohio State, but the undergrad methods class at Missouri covers stuff like surveys, experiments and content analysis -- gosh, the very sort of stuff that lets journalists put accepted scientific methods to use in understanding and describing empirical research. It's full for Fall '06, but Mr. Last could ask about auditing.

Is there a class in high school journalism at Missouri? Yes, but it's for high school journalism teachers -- not undergraduates. And that doesn't take a methods class to figure out -- one could, for example, ask the advising office. Which gets us to some more substantive concerns about Mr. Last's tirade. He's using a research technique called "cherry-picking" -- running his finger down the catalog until he finds something he thinks is amusing, then inventing circumstances to go with it.

At the graduate level, Missouri students get courses that are less about the theoretical aspects**** of journalism and more about the tricks of the trade: Intermediate and Advanced Writing, Newspaper Reporting and Magazine Editing are all required.

Pop quiz: How many of the courses listed in that graf are required for an MA at Missouri?
a) 1
b) 2
c) 3
d) 4
e) 0

If you answered e) -- that'll be "none" -- you're right! Exactly the square root of ZERO of those courses are required! To examine that, we start with a complicated editing technique called the "sniff test" (known as "face validity" in graduate methods classes, but the idea is much the same). An MA program is more or less 36 hours including thesis or project, or 27 hours of classes. So if these four courses are required, that's 44% of the program right there. Hmm. Smells funny for a place where advertising/PR is the biggest undergraduate sequence, eh?

The sniff test leads us to check the catalog, which makes abundantly clear that Mr. Last is employing the ultra-sophisticated method called "out-and-out fabrication." In some models -- say, advertising, media management and StratCom -- those courses aren't even among the options listed. In more traditional journalism models, you can count one or several toward your degree. But even the reporting/writing model seems to require neither intermediate nor advanced writing (let's hear it for the method called "looking things up"). Others might have the student pondering -- wow, economics reporting, or science reporting, or international reporting to fulfill that notional news slot.***** Or you can just take the research tack and ignore the news-writing side altogether.

Of course, our expert has the cure:
Yet when it comes to learning about the style and craft of writing, an education can be had for much less. Amazon.com sells the complete archives of The New Yorker on DVD for $63--it's hard to see how a classroom discussion of story structure could be much more valuable than reading and studying the work of the greats, from Truman Capote to David Grann.

Well, what were we thinking with this whole education thing? Why have music school when, like, Bach is on CD? Why study engineering when all around us, we have bridges that are still standing! And, if we're lucky, some that are failing! And why stop there when the sciences await? The archives of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience are online; Mr. Last, care to run us a nice experiment on event-related potentials and gender-stereotype violations (syntactic or semantic)?

Wow. That's a lot of time to spend on one guy who makes stuff up for -- what is it, the Weekly Standard? But you'd think the Wall Street Journal might have some interest in whether its opinion writers have the faintest bloody idea what they're talking about. Perhaps that tells us something.

It's entirely possible -- indeed, that's one of the virtues of American journalism -- to practice reporting without a license. But one shouldn't practice it without a clue. J-schools aren't the sole and certain cure for such a problem, but they seem a bit farther down the path than Mr. Last.

* Or was it civic journalism? One forgets.
** Hmm. Three classes in four years, a "large proportion" -- which, again, was the planet on which you fulfilled your college math requirement? Just asking.
*** In the latest year for which stats are available, per the Becker et al study that seems to have set this whole trend off.
**** Are you wondering why the sixth graf complains that there's too much theory and this graf complains that there's too little? It's because the writer has mastered an editorial technique called "blathering." And you thought you weren't getting anything for your education dollar.
***** If you don't have enough undergrad economics or political science, you might have to take make-ups without credit. That actually is a requirement. But don't stop him -- he's on a roll.

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11:49 AM, June 14, 2006  

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