Is there any point to studying journalism?


This writeup will discuss the overall value of a journalism degree. The writeup will discuss some of the pros and cons of successfully completing a formal journalism education, and linger at the necessity of a journalism education connected to a university, as opposed to a vocational or autodidactic approach. As a part of this, the writeup will investigate if students had been better off pursuing their journalism careers without any formal education.

Journalism is not a profession

Journalism is not a licensed profession. Strictly, one could argue that Journalism is not a profession at all, certainly when compared to other occupational groups such as physicians, nurses, engineers and solicitors. These groups of professionals cannot practice their profession without a license. If they violate the rules and regulations of their profession, they may have their license suspended. With their license, they also lose the right to practice their profession. In other words: The definition of a profession includes the ability to regulate who practices the profession, and journalism has no such ability.

Most western countries have a constitution with articles protecting freedom of speech. Although there has been a lot of discussion about the fact that you do not need to have a license to practice journalism, issuing such licenses would be practically impossible. Especially, in the USA this has been an issue. However, introducing licensing on journalism practice would be an infringement on the constitution ("Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" (US constitution, 1st amendment, 15 December 1791).

Although some countries lack laws defending freedom of expression, most countries have officially agreed to the Human Rights declaration, which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression through any media" (19). This effectively makes it impossible for countries to introduce licensing on journalism practice.

Anyone can practice journalism

Anyone who has means of distribution can practice journalism. A photocopier machine or, more recently, the internet has made distribution easy. This brings us to the true question: Can one advocate spending time and money when an education is not technically or legally necessary?

The most recent survey on this topic reveals that although it is important to have skills in the journalism field, journalism school graduates are "perceived to be prepared only for entry level positions and are only marginally if any better at the craft after they have gained seasoning at smaller newspapers" . Despite of this, there are some strong arguments for having a journalism degree. Most evident, having an education is never a disadvantage, regardless if you are a journalist or have a different profession

Recently, media studies have taken quite some criticism. Some claim that courses "do not provide students with the skills they need to get a job." However, the criticism seems to go more on the individual students, and lack of responsibility of the institutions offering a journalism degree. "(no) tutors had ever sat down with (their students) and explained the bitter facts of life: You can't write, can't sub, can't interview, won't ring around - you're unemployable in journalism" (newspaper article in The Guardian).

Pros of following a formal education in journalism

What the educational institutions do offer, however, is to give students a possibility to gain practice without a deadline threatening. There is the advantage of access to a wide range of facilities such as books; abstracts, journals and internet access. Less obvious but possibly more important is experience: Personal experience in writing and journalism practice is always an advantage. Far more important is the possibility to draw on the experience of others. Primarily this applies to tutors who have experience in the field of journalism, offering invaluable tips and sharing experience. To a lesser degree, this applies to fellow students. Chances are that several of the fellow students have experience in the field of study already, sharing experience seen from a student's point of view, which might help putting issues raised during lectures into context.

A study shows that most media professionals agree that "field experience" is more important than a formal education, especially in the long run. For example, a freelance journalist without formal education states how he initially would feel safer in his work situation if he had education in the field of journalism. He further stresses how education does not matter as much in the long run, and that it is no problem to pick up the knowledge doing practical work. Inevitably, this applies in other fields of practice as well. A Petroleum Engineer who was interviewed recalls: "one of my tutors at the university told his students that the degree in itself had no value. It merely proved that you might be able to think as an engineer and understood the minimum required basics"

Even though there are reasons not to take a formal education in journalism, there are arguments for the opposite as well. As a regional paper's web editor notes: Theory as a foundation is an advantage. It cuts down the learning time, and provides a better base for practice of profession. Besides, an education introduces ethical perspectives and a critical approach to use of sources, something that might not be as easy to pick up at a news desk. Furthermore, during the education, one has an opportunity to pick up contacts within the journalism world. "Fellow students you will always know - this might lead to assignments later"

Arguments for having a formal university* education in journalism

*) In this writeup, where University is used, I am referring to educations where you get a formal BA / MA degree, after 3 or 4 years of studying, regardless of which institution you got the education from.

Even though there seem to be good reasons for taking some kind of an education in journalism, the arguments for taking a university education might be less obvious. A number of one-year courses introduce journalism skills, which provide the necessary minimum to be able to be a part of a newspaper as a journalist. To be able to determine if there is any reason to choose a university education over a vocational training, the differences between the two will have to be examined. The most distinct difference is the difference in the duration of the courses. A typical vocational education would be a one-year course, whereas a Journalism degree typically lasts three years. The natural point of comparison would therefore be to see what a university degree covers in the two extra years.

At Liverpool John Moores University (JMU), there is important focus on other things than the classic journalism education points. Of course, introductions to ethics, journalism skills, writing skills, and practical introductions to writing and broadcast journalism are key elements in the education. At the same time, the programme includes historical aspects, advanced research and a larger variety of modules.

Although knowing the historical aspects of journalism hardly make somebody a better journalist, it may help seeing current issues of the journalism profession from a wider perspective. As far as the theme-specific modules are concerned, elective courses in e.g. photojournalism, journalism newsroom practice and freelance journalism help to allow students spending time specializing in fields of interest. Besides, "many courses could be conducted in shorter time, but maturing in the thinking processes and skills will not always allow that"

Another advantage university educations have over vocational courses is that there is more time for practical experience. JMU, for example, operates with work practice periods in both the second and third year. In addition to this students have the chance to use their holidays to get even more work experience which can be evaluated during the duration of the course.
Research shows that of a selection of journalists, only 57% had a formal journalism education, yet none of the journalists answered they wished they had done more journalism education. Nevertheless, all but one of the interviewees said that they wished they had more education in a field other than journalism . This coincides with other research on the subject. Is suggested to follow a wide spectre of education, as "editors are interested in young people who are broadly educated" . Further experience has shown that "people with a natural tendency of curiosity will catch up in their fields of interest and will compensate for lack of formal education"

Conclusion (i.e if you read nothing else, read this :)

As shown, there are many reasons both for and against having an official degree in journalism. The strongest argument for having an education is that "a strong foundation builds a strong house". The fact that you do not need an education to be able to call yourself a journalist does not counter the fact that if you cannot deliver good copy, your journalism career will quite simply suffer a cot death.

Even though skills obviously are important to journalism, the way of appropriating these skills is less important - If you have what it takes to be a journalist, you can be one. The question is how you choose to acquire these skills, if you do not have them. As Ulshagen (a youth magazine editor that was rudely edited out of the original essay for this writeup) notes, it is important not to let the education turn you into a newspaper-machine, but rather to use the education to develop a personal style, based on good theoretical knowledge and good artisanship.

The majority of sources agree that experience and fieldwork are cardinal matters when it comes to developing good journalism skills. There is less concord between the sources whether an educational foundation is necessary, but the consensus is that an education can never harm. The research for this essay indicates that although experience might be most important in the long run, a good education is a good way to alleviate some of the worries a new journalist might have. Further, a good educational foundation speeds up the learning process when new questions and issues arise later, in the newsroom.

Conclusively, it is strongly recommended to take some form of education. Vocational training functions as a stepping-stone to a journalism job, while an academic course provides more general research skills and in-depth theoretical knowledge of the workings of the media. The choice between the two comes down to future plans and personal preference.


Jour"nal*ism (?), n. [Cf. F. journalisme.]


The keeping of a journal or diary.



The periodical collection and publication of current news; the business of managing, editing, or writing for, journals or newspapers; as, political journalism.

Journalism is now truly an estate of the realm. Ed. Rev.


© Webster 1913.

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