Saturday, May 20, 2006

Put the pompoms away

When you start by asking the wrong questions -- even if you're the New York Times -- the odds are quite good that you'll end up with wrong answers. As in the case below, which is a bit late but still worth a caution for the journalism dodge : Don't buy into myths. Especially our own.

Here's the tale, and you can see why it was a big deal around here:

Times Are Tough for News Media,
but Journalism Schools Are Still Booming
COLUMBIA, Mo. — These are tough times for journalism.

The newspaper industry cut more than 2,000 jobs last year as it continued to lose readers and advertisers to the Internet. Network newscasts are being propped up by older viewers and continue to lose market share to cable. Regular reports of ethical breaches are undermining public trust in all news organizations, bloggers accuse the mainstream media of being arrogant and clueless, and Wall Street expresses little confidence in its financial future.

But there is one corner of the profession still enjoying a boom: journalism schools.

Demand for seats in the nation's journalism schools and programs remains robust, and those schools and programs are expanding. This month, they will churn out more graduates than ever into a job market that is perhaps more welcoming to entry-level multimedia-taskers than it is to veterans who began their careers hunting and pecking on Olivetti typewriters.

Amid the Parade of Cliches and the warmed-over conventional wisdom, there's plenty of stuff to make the tale popular. It quotes Diego, who's a pretty good reminder to the Lesser Schools of what they can expect should the national copyediting tournament ever take place, and lots of other cool folks besides. And it's heartwarming to know that younguns are still flocking to the underpaid ranks of dragon-slayers and truth-tellers, right?

Well, put away the pompoms. What we have here is the Research Intensive version of an Arkansas Traveler joke: Flatlander asks wrong question, gets perfectly correct answer, sets off for Little Rock by way of Fujian. And thereby hang some tales that are useful for the reporting dodge -- and not coincidentally for the Thin Red Line that is Your Copydesk.

Point I: A survey is only about what it's about (have we been over this one before?). This isn't a study of j-schools; it's a study of journalism AND MASSCOMM schools. That's not quite the same as the difference between Smokestack Lightning and Vincent Black Lightning, but it's close. Not until the 11th graf of the story do you find out that the study* might involve something other than, you know, meeting Deep Throat over at the Hitt Street parking deck.

Does that make a difference? Well, yeah. The biggest journalism/masscomm program in the country, Penn State, comprises departments of advertising/PR; film/video and media studies; journalism; and telecommunications. The runner-up, Michigan State, includes ad/PR/retailing; audiology and speech sciences; comm; journalism; and something called "telecomunication, information studies and media" -- but apparently the apparel and textile design majors are walking with the CommArts folks at commencement this spring. (Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite. No, make that Nordstrom's.)

What about straight-up J-schools? Glad you asked. At Missouri, the biggest share of diplomas this month went (again) to StratCom, which is the nice way of saying advertising and PR, at 34% (it's been between 30% and 36% the past four years). News-ed was at 18% and has varied from 16% to 20%.

How does that compare nationally? Well, there's nothing like reading the study for finding out. For Fall 2004, whence come the data for the latest installment in Prof. Becker's annual take on j-comm enrollment, 26% and change of students were in a "traditional journalism core" -- news-ed, broadcast or journalism (general). About 24% were in advertising or PR. For the 2003-04 year, 24% of degrees were in the traditional core, with 31% in advertising or PR. "Variation in these figures of a few percentage points has been quite common across time," Becker et al. note. So the correct answer to "Is enrollment in journalism growing?" is "We have no way of knowing."

But that's not going to stop your New York Times reporter on the trail of a Trend (give the Times credit for using an honest graphic with a zero baseline; you can see how small an increase the 1.4% really is). After all, we've got quotes!

"Students are interested in writing," he [Becker, the lead author] said. "They're interested in the broader sense of what the media are and what role they play in society, and those are the things that drive them, not hearing about Knight Ridder dealing with a stockholders' revolt."

I don't doubt him for a second. I can't walk across the street for lunch without running into a student (or eight) who has a deep and abiding interest in writing, media, society -- even editing, huzzah. But that's not what the study is about, which leads us to:

Point II: "Study says" and "researcher says" are not the same thing. This isn't a survey of what students are interested in. It's a survey of journalism/masscomm schools to see who's enrolled. Lee Becker's an astute guy, but he's not clairvoyant. We don't know the context in which those comments arose, but no matter how correct they are, they don't say anything about the motives of journalism/masscomm students as a whole.

But you have to admit: it just totally wants to fit in with the Myths and Legends of King Journalism's court, doesn't it? Like the good old days of Watergate? Step forward, Michael Schudson:**

Watergate did not initiate a wave of interest in journalism among students. The best available data show that the number of students majoring in programs in journalism and communication began shooting upward in the mid and late 1960s. Undergraduate degrees awarded in journalism doubled between 1967 and 1972. ... One can always argue that, without Watergate, it might have tailed off more quickly (enrollments plateaued in the late 1970s but picked up again in the 1980s). But Watergate clearly did not start the rush to journalism.

The Watergate Boom thing is a mistake, but as Schudson puts it, a "mythic mistake": Watergate can't be teased apart from all the other developments of the surrounding decades that it stands in for, in part because ... well, it had a movie, didn't it? Thus

Point III: Cultural myths are powerful things. Be careful of mistaking them for an accurate accounting of events.

We could go on at some length*** here about related topics -- specifically, what other sorts of artifacts are captured by rising enrollment. It's possible to get some big downrange effects from fairly small tweaks in the admissions process, but without a lot of careful groundwork -- and spending -- there are likely to be a lot of unintended consequences in the bargain.

Which might have been much more useful for the Times to ask about -- as would the data on female and minority enrollment (or, say the title of the article in question). But meanwhile, sure -- that road'll get you to Little Rock.

*Becker, L.B., Vlad, T., Coffey, A.J., & Tucker, M. (2005). Enrollment growth rate slows; fields's focus on undergraduate education at odds with university setting. Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, 60, 286-315.
** Schudson, M. (1995). The power of news. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (pp. 149-150)
*** Yeah, OK -- some more length.


Anonymous Amy Fiscus said...

Funny how quickly one can go from being interested in writing and the broader sense of what the media are and what role they play in society to being just as interested in Knight Ridder dealing with a stockholders' revolt. More interested, even.

11:01 PM, May 20, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

Yeah, ain't it weird? It's almost as if the media and the role they play in society were _actually affected_ by the K-R putsch.

11:27 PM, May 21, 2006  
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