The J-School debate

Nov 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Despite years of conversation and compromise with educators, TV news directors say graduates of broadcast journalism programs still lack many of the basic skills they need to succeed.
Educators counter that broadcasters are sometimes unrealistic in their expectations.
A survey of news directors in small- and medium-size markets-those most likely to fill entry-level positions-stressed the importance of writing and critical thinking skills.
“I look for a variety of skills, but primarily I want someone who is a self-starter, someone who has raw intelligence and who is curious,” said Dave Busiek, news director, KCCI-TV, Des Moines, Iowa (designated market area No. 72). Beyond that, Mr. Busiek stressed, a student’s tape is the most important screener. “It makes or breaks you in this business,” he said. “The tape doesn’t lie.”
News directors suggested that students need to take more courses in history, economics and political science, rather than concentrate heavily on journalism classes.
“I have run into producers who, when you mention Auschwitz, didn’t know what you were talking about. That’s scary,” said Loren Tobia, news director, WTVH-TV, Syracuse, N.Y. (DMA No. 80)
Rick Gevers, a consultant and former news director, spends a lot of his time talking with TV news managers about what kinds of skills they want to see in prospective entry-level employees.
“The one frustration I hear a lot is that students don’t seem to have a good grasp of the world around them and just don’t understand how the world works,” Mr. Gevers said.
Jeanne Rollberg, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, conceded that educators generally don’t spend enough time encouraging students to get a broad-based education outside of the journalism major.
“We probably work too hard at enhancing their technical skills, even though they are critical to our field, given the fact that technology is changing faster than we can keep up with,” she said.
Journalism degree optional
While a degree in journalism may be helpful, news directors say it is not mandatory; nor is a master’s degree in journalism or communications likely to help much.
“It’s one of the most worthless degrees you can have,” Mr. Busiek said. “I would much rather see someone with a bachelor’s degree who has spent a year or two on the street covering news and learning how to write.”
Asked which schools are best at training wannabe broadcast journalists, news directors mention traditional heavyweights such as the University of Missouri, Syracuse and Northwestern. These schools, with their well-established programs, are more likely to have up-to-date equipment and qualified faculty.
But a degree from a big-name school is no guarantee of one’s ability to do the job, they stress. Mr. Busiek said he has seen some talented, qualified students coming out of little-known Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
Even Mr. Tobia, who works in the shadow of the famed S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said he doesn’t put much faith in the name on a diploma.
“I have seen both strong and weak candidates come out of some of the great schools,” he said. “It still depends on the individual and how he or she takes advantage of their environment to learn the important skills.”
News boot camp
Some broadcasters are not waiting for schools to address their needs. This summer, Belo, Hearst-Argyle and LIN TV stations collaborated on a boot camp of sorts for budding news producers. Twenty candidates spent an intense week studying writing, the assignment process and video production and learning how to work with anchors and reporters.
In recent years, many former news professionals have moved into academia, seeking to impart their skills and experience to the next generation of broadcasters.
Marie Curkan-Flanagan, a former news director, now teaches broadcasting at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In recent years, Ms. Curkan-Flanagan has placed graduates in TV jobs in markets such as Elmira, N.Y. (DMA No. 173); Rhinelander, Wis. (DMA No. 134) and Greenville, Miss. (DMA No. 182).
“When my kids leave me they can shoot, they can write, they can edit, they can report and they know about convergence,” she said. “They don’t leave me unless they have Web skills.”
Ms. Flanagan was one of 20 educators who participated in a program sponsored by the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation. Each summer, RTNDF sends teachers into newsrooms for a month to brush up on their skills.
“It’s vital to get these people back into the newsroom so they can see how the real world has changed,” Mr. Busiek said. “You can get rusty in a hurry.”
News managers and educators praise programs that give them more face time together. And both stressed the importance of internships, but only if the programs contribute to the student’s learning.
“The real question is whether students are properly used, or do they just sit around the newsroom and do nothing,” said Paul Davis, acting news director, WAGT-TV, Augusta, Ga. (DMA No. 115).
Rebecca Ann Lind, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said her research has shown that broadcasters are sometimes unrealistic in their expectations. In a 1999 project, Ms. Lind found that news directors frequently bemoan the lack of such traits as dependability, team spirit and “sticktoitiveness” in recent graduates.
“A lot of the things they say they want are things that we simply cannot provide,” she said.