There’s been a bit of a dust-up this week about journalism education, kicked off by a Cameron Stewart piece in The Australian attempting to build a case that there is some kind of divide between hard-bitten “real” journalists who learn in the school of hard knocks, and post modern lefty academics who teach journalism, but either never practiced it or were never much good at it.

Having founded one journalism major at Swinburne University of Technology (the first graduates will finish this year), and now overseeing the launch of another at the University of Melbourne (the first intake was three weeks ago) I am obviously not an unbiased commentator on this.*

But in the wake of the Stewart piece, some hoary old chestnuts were raised, including claims by some writers of letters to the editor that journalism can’t be taught, and therefore journalism courses are worthless — even a fraud on the students, given the mainstream of the industry is shrinking.

I don’t think so.*

So I thought I’d try to put some names to the many people working in the industry who are the product of tertiary journalism education.

The result of this admittedly very unscientific exercise I’ve compiled into a table. The names were sourced by asking members of the Journalism Educators’ Association to nominate graduates working in the industry. Callouts were also made on Facebook and Twitter, and I threw in a few names I know just from knocking around.

Respondents on social media were asked to give their course a thumbs up or thumbs down, or make other comments. This exercise was conducted over just two days. I have no doubt that longer would have resulted in more names.

Some journalism educators put more of an effort into their collection of names than others. UTS and RMIT  alone proffered dozens, which is one of the reasons for their dominance — although they are also two of the older and best-known courses. Other journalism schools did not put in lists at all, although I know they can boast people working in the industry.

I made no distinction between “pure” journalism degrees and media and communications more broadly, nor did I distinguish between undergraduate and post graduates.

So, this was a rough and ready exercise. Nevertheless, I think it makes some things clear.

Graduates from journalism and media and communications courses are no longer confined to wannabes and to the latest generation. And they do find jobs — all over the place. UTS, for example, claims that 70% of its graduates find jobs working in the media.

The latest data on the issue is a 2008 survey of 100 working Australian journalists by Folker Hanusch, which found 74% of respondents had a university degree, and of those 75% had specialised in journalism or another communications field. Fifty seven per cent of those who had a university degree had studied journalism, broadcast journalism or online journalism. Forty per cent of senior managers had studied journalism or communications, 60% of junior managers and 68% of non-management staff. This was a big jump on the figures from the ’90s that emerged from research by John Henningham. (It should be said that Hanusch’s sample size was small, and cannot necessarily claim to be representative.)

The table shows that graduates from tertiary courses  include some of our most senior editors, and our most accomplished reporters.

Journalism courses have, over the last 20 years, transformed the industry. Graduates are at the most senior levels and throughout our media organisations, making serious decisions about serious news.

Take the editor of the Australian Clive Mathieson (University of South Australia); the editor of the Adelaide Sunday Mail Megan Lloyd (University of South Australia); Fairfax’s national managing editor Mark Baker (RMIT); The Courier Mail editor Michael Crutcher (QUT), who is doing such interesting things in taking journalists “off the bus” of election coverage, and the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Robert Thomson (RMIT).

There are a number of winners of Walkley and other awards on the list. It includes some of our most valued and high-profile journalists, as well as a mass of people labouring in the engine rooms of regional, trade and online media.

Some courses have higher entry requirements than others, therefore take in brighter students. Not all students love their courses (although the majority of comments from my respondents were positive) and not all courses are of equal quality. Native ability is always a huge part of achievement, not only education. But given the graduates of the journalism courses are competing in a field that includes many other graduates, we can assume  they won their first jobs on their merits and skills.

To assert their education had absolutely nothing to do with this would be simply foolish.

It is certainly the case that some tertiary journalism courses DO struggle with university administrations to ensure that practitioners dominate the teaching. This is to do with the underfunding of universities, and the way in which ranking on international league tables of universities is tied to numbers of staff with PhDs and academic research outputs. All this is part of a larger picture to which the media would do well to pay more attention. It affects many branches of tertiary education — not only journalism.

Attitudes among journalist academics on these issues range from those who argue journalism schools should always stand absolutely alone and have nothing to do with the related disciplines such as media studies, and those who think it extreme arrogance to suggest those who study rather than produce media have nothing to offer would-be journalists.

The list is nowhere near a complete picture. For that, we would a longer time period, a more rigorous methodology and a uniform response from journalism schools. We would also need a list of journalism graduates who are NOT working in the industry, and another list of working journalists who have other kinds of degree, or no degree.

But it does establish, I think, that tertiary journalism courses have earned and deserve the industry’s constructive involvement, not its contempt. And it shows that when editors pour shit on journalism courses, the people they are insulting include large segments of their own staff.

Please email additions, corrections or updates to this list to [email protected]. If there are enough of them, I might publish again at a later date.

*I spelt out what I think of the Stewart piece in general here. Other responses have been published, including a letter from members of the Journalism Educators Association of Australia and from Mark Pearson, the man who wrote the book on media law. My views on why journalism courses are good things to do right now are here, and what they should teach here.

Peter Fray

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