Graduate programs look toward liberal arts focus

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Columbia University’s top-rated graduate school of journalism announced the creation of a new master of arts program in late March for veteran journalists to refine their knowledge in a chosen discipline — science, politics, economics and business.

The announcement breathed new life into a three-year-old debate started by the university’s president that, in reality, goes back much further — what is a journalism school supposed to teach budding reporters who will soon decide what the rest of us see and hear?

Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s new president in 2003, said journalism programs focus too much on developing specific skills, such as writing and composition, when more attention should be paid to broader intellectual development.

“Of all the criticisms of the press, one of the most serious … is the lack of context for stories,” Bollinger said in a memo that year to journalism school faculty.

Journalism students must learn what Bollinger called “foundational skills, but also a mastery of journalistic inquiry and expression at their highest, most sophisticated, level.” Nicholas Lemann, now the journalism dean at Columbia, said in a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed that the new Master of Arts program would emphasize “conceptual themes,” such as identity, justice and power, “that will help students whether they are later covering a local school board or the new Iraqi parliament.”

“We want to teach things [in the new program] that you cannot pick up on your own on the job,” he said. “It’s our supposition that people in this program will never be full-time at a university again in their jobs, but they will be in journalism for decades.”

Lemann said he expects the new program to be popular with experienced journalism students.

The program will select a class of about 20 students from the some 200 in Columbia’s existing journalism program for the fall 2005 semester. As the program develops, that number will grow to 60. Columbia’s traditional master of science degree in journalism will be a prerequisite to the new program, and it will continue to focus strongly on writing skills, Lemann said. But professors at other journalism schools said even as Columbia bills itself as a trendsetter in pushing the “intellectualization” of journalists, the school is actually playing catch-up. “What the Columbia changes mean is that those students who take the first year and then are accepted for the second year are going to get a kind of skills-liberal arts mix, more like the hybrid program in place in many journalism programs around the country,” said Sharon Dunwoody, president-elect of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Still, few educators doubt the Columbia program’s potential to influence the way reporting is taught across the country.

“Because of the university’s location and prestige, whatever Columbia does will get noticed,” said Joe Graf, adjunct professor of journalism at George Washington University’s School of Media & Public Affairs. And most agree that a liberal arts curriculum and professional experience are both necessary in initiating young writers into the professional journalism community.

“A journalism program that skimps on its reporting, writing and editing curriculum serves its students no better than a medical school that goes easy on the anatomy lessons,” Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland’s college of journalism, said in a 2003 edition of American Journalism Review.

“By the same token, a program that doesn’t firmly fix these skills within the context of journalism history, ethics and law, or that ignores the impact of new technology, is being just as shortsighted.”

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