Major putdown

“Media gets a lot wrong, not because they mean badly, but because they’re journalists, they majored in communications, they’re not people who wanted to spend two years studying statistical methodology so they could really learn how to do a social science survey.”

– Megan McArdle, in Welcome to the Blogosphere on PBS tonight

I posted a brief reply to her blog. Yes, programs in political science and in sociology sometimes teach survey methodology, but it would be fair to say that it was nurtured and developed within a series of departments and schools of communication.

She rightly notes that most journalists lack strong statistical and mathematical skills. The issue here (and really this is at a tangent to her point) is that most folks still conflate a degree in journalism (a professional degree) with a degree in communication (a research degree). This is in no way her fault, since within our own field there is little agreement.

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  1. Posted 1/21/2003 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    Communications a research degree???????????????.

    I have NEVER heard that. Of course journalists – I am one – aren’t any kind of !@#$% experts. That’s why we need people to talk to. Damn. We aren’t living in a vacuum here folks. The more people don’t talk, the more journalists rely on people with communications degrees in PR who usually don’t know shit except how to spin in the right direction.

    I’ve never met a print journalist who claims to know it all. Columnists and opinion writers can also do journalism, but that is not their job nor the end product.

    Please explain what you mean by research degree. I check my e-mail every day.

  2. alex
    Posted 1/21/2003 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    The communication degree differs significantly from school to school. In that it is different than, say, a degree in psychology.

    However, if you look at a degree in psychology or political science or sociology at a large research university, you will find that the primary emphasis is training for graduate school. There are some exceptions, here, of course: schools that teach some significant skills that are designed for those who will go out into the working world. But most political science students do not become politicians or even work in government.

    The same is true of most communication programs at Research I institutions. At UW, where I did my graduate work, the communication program divested itself of the marketing and PR programs. It retained a journalism program, but this track trains a minority of the communication students in the program. The rest move toward some area of communication research and theory. There are exceptions to this–departments in Research I schools where communication remains a practical, professional, terminal degree, but I think these are a small and shrinking minority.

    In our own program, we attract those who want to become journalists or go into broadcasting more generally, and who wrongly think that because UB has more “prestige” than many of the other SUNY campuses or the smaller state schools, that we will do journalism or broadcasting better. These students are ultimately frustrated by the fact that we do not provide training in either area. I am of the opinion that a strong liberal education will help them in whatever career path they choose, but I am also very sympathetic with those who feel somehow cheated. The truth is that for students clearly wanting skills-based instruction, and who do not plan on grad school, Buffalo State (or Cal State, or in your neck of the woods, WSU, CWU, or even SU) often meet their needs far better than programs in research universities do.

    Our own program is a case in point. Many of our graduates end up, broadly, as “knowledge workers,” including journalists. Contrary to your own modesty, journalists are–or at least can be–expert: their expertise is in seeking out and discovering facts, sifting through those facts, and summarizing them effectively and engagingly. This is a job that requires some experience and expertise to do well. But we teach one or two courses in journalism, and these are taught by professionals in the field rather than regular faculty. If you want to be a journalist, broadcast or print, despite the advertising the administration here sends out, stay away from UB.

    Our aim is to provide students with the theories and methods of the social scientist. Among those (circling back to the post the prompted this) are statistical methods and survey design. Admittedly, more emphasis is placed on both of these at the graduate level, but we try to engage our undergraduates (within the sometimes extreme pressures of class size, etc.) in the research process and teach them how to do a survey correctly and analyze the results.

  3. Posted 1/21/2003 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Your reply was far more reasoned and thought out than I deserved. Thank you.

    I see you were mainly talking about graduate work/learning, a distinction I missed the first time around.

    If we’re talking about being hired as a journalist, I see 9 out of 10 newspapers want someone with a journalism degree. So, practically, it is more important than a broad liberal education.

    If we’re talking expertise, there are countless examples of that expertise transferring into a tech reporter position or a heatlh and sciences reporter position etc.

    And yes, fact gathering, filtering and organization is a talent that people often overlook. It is strange that – at least six years ago when I got my print journalism degree – there was no particular class in “organization skills.”


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