Are journalism schools preparing graduates for the newsroom?

The question is a pressing one especially with the reality of the journalism industry being one rooted in vocational skills – something that can be picked up along the way as opposed to having to sit through three years of university classes.

Editors from newsrooms indicate a preference not for those who have a background in journalism school but instead those who can think like journalists. A knack for storytelling, a curious yet critical disposition, perseverance and a nose for the news – these are qualities that are deemed necessary, if not central.

Malaysia saw its first journalism school established in the 1970s after MARA Director Tan Sri Arshad Ayub returned from his visit to Ohio University. Alongside with two professors from Ohio University and Malaysian journalists, the whole program was adapted locally and started to provide the industry with graduates embedded in journalistic skills.

That was more than 40 years ago. Since then, despite more journalism courses offered in local universities, when compared with other majors within the same faculty, the enrolment rate is not too promising. This can be attributed to the local stigma attached to Malaysian journalists and questionable reporting alongside a controlled media.

Of course, this does little to stop the handful of young hopefuls from enrolling in the programme. The biggest contention still remains: are journalism schools preparing graduates for the newsroom and are they relevant?

First, we have to look into the curriculum designed for journalism schools. In a field such as this, the context of what’s written is what forms the crux of the story.

Journalism graduates are given a slew of courses relative to the field of the media, dipping in advertising, broadcasting and public relations to name a few. Indistinctively, the curriculum fails to address the very concept and heart of journalism: the constituency of what happens around us.

Graduates are limited to learning within their own industry, rarely given a window to branch out unless by their own initiatives.

Journalism exists to help the public make sense of the World and what’s happening around them.

A curriculum that restricts future journalists to explore only within their industry is mind stifling if not restrictive at best. With a lack of context and basic understanding in reporting the World around them, it comes as no surprise that newsroom editors prefer those from different backgrounds.

Doctors, lawyers, artists, engineers, teachers and economists are among the few who have stepped into the field and have performed incredibly well, at that. It is this diverse and rich understanding of their background that gives their story and reporting character and depth.

We need to break the restraints of the journalism curriculum and allow cross-faculty courses. Why not offer journalism graduates the opportunity to attend if not sit through philosophy and politics courses from the Political Science Faculty? The exposure and study into different political systems worldwide will allow journalism graduates to contextualize their political reportage and give it more “meat”.

Journalism schools have to adapt their curriculum to not only equip their students with necessary skill sets but also engage them with an understanding of the World. The curriculum has to evolve to include courses such as World History, Scientific Developments and Economic Studies to not only broaden a budding journalist’s worldview but to also provide their reportage with more meaning and context.

It is one thing to write – because frankly, many people can write. But few understand what they are writing about. Ask fresh journalism graduates who were tossed into specialized desks after familiarizing themselves with the general news desk: it takes them a longer time to adapt and learn the curves of the specialized desks and reportage.

While learning is understandably a lifelong process, a basic understanding is also essential. Newsrooms end up spending more time and resources training journalism graduates the ropes to specialized reporting. It shouldn’t be the imperative of newsrooms but the journalism schools that churn them out instead.

Reduce the writing and vocational exercises and put them through more electives outside the media industry that will allow them to broaden their specialized knowledge.

One could look towards the prestigious American journalism schools that not only offer courses within the journalism industry but also encourage their graduates to engage with courses such as Philosophy and English Literature.

Journalism schools locally seem to function in a more vocational sense, teaching news writing, media technology and audiovisual mastery. While those are good endeavours, it cannot run away from the fact that it lacks context.

The tools do not shape the story, it is the understanding and context that does. As Robert Green Ingersol once said, “It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.”

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider.