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Mar 16, 2012

Journalism education honour roll: why teaching media matters

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.


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 margaret@margaretsimons.com.au. 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.


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15 thoughts on “Journalism education honour roll: why teaching media matters

  1. Colleen Murrell

    Sorry, I didn’t realise you were compiling a long list and thought you just wanted the odd example (I’ve been in meetings)! I am emailing you a list of a further seventeen recent graduates who are working in The Herald Sun, the ABC, The Age, Today Tonight, Channel 9 News and an assortment of local papers. We can easily work up a longer list going back over the years. Regards Colleen Murrell (Deakin University).

  2. Cleaver

    Interesting that you claim the students as the evidence. How many students have graduated and how many employed? What proportion of senior journalists, people like Cameron Stewart or Laura Tingle, went to J school? I think you might be faking it.
    It also seems that the complaint is not in any case about students, but teachers. Certainly the evidence above would not get past a junior sub on any decent opinion page?

  3. joob2345

    are you a jouralist @Cleaver????

  4. bmason6

    Declaring my bias, I’m a Philosophy student at Swinburne university. Apparently our ethics course wasn’t up to scratch for journalists and they invented their own one. I don’t think what your doing proves anything at all. Who cares if people get a job somewhere? Does that make a course good? I’m more interested in what kinds of journalists are produced. I don’t understand what a journalism course does that an arts degree doesn’t do. Surely the specialty stuff can be learnt on the job? I think what the appeal for this will be is that it alludes the magic question that trouble any potential Arts student, what are you ganna’ do after or whats the point?

  5. William Fettes

    Thanks for pouring shit on Cameron’s juvenile distraction exercise Margaret!

  6. joob2345

    I don’t understand why people who have not studied a journalism, are not journalists, are choosing to ridicule journalism courses on a journalist outlet that is run by journalists with journalism degrees??? it is Crikey???
    i have done a masters in journalism and written articles on this site that you probably have read. @bmason6 i found my degree invaluable and when you choose a degree you tend to think about what career will eventuate from that degree – that is the point of studying. good luck finding a job with a philosophy degree. you are implying that ALL journalist have distorted ethics – thats untrue and offensive.

  7. Doug

    Not to mention many foreign graduates from places such as Rhodes University South Africa.

  8. Cleaver

    Hey JOOB, back to skool.

  9. Syd Walker

    There’s one simple way of evaluating what the educationalists who train Australian journalists get up to: ask how many have raised the alarm over the Port Arthur massacre?

    That was, lest we forget, the largest mass murder in modern Australian history. Yet it has occasioned no coronial inquiry or inquest, no trial – at which crown evidence was tested in court – and no subsequent public inquiry.

    Clearly a LOT of people in the establishment are keen this case remains well buried. It is a key test of the public interest that the mysteries surrounding the atrocity are ventilated in the public domain.

    How many journalism professors have mentioned the issue in public and openly discussed the anomalies of the case?

    I could be wrong, but I believe the answer is a big round zero.

    That’s a strong educational record. 100% conformists reproducing their own kind…

  10. Damian Smith


    Yes, securing a job at the end of a course goes some way to proving its worth. I’m glad you admit you don’t know the differences between an arts degree and a journalism course – I’ve done both, and I’m a full-time journalist, so I should know. There are too many to list. But as an example, I know just how important it is to pick the difference between ‘allude’ and ‘elude’, and ‘your’ and ‘you’re’.

    Just as anyone can cook, but few can run a successful restaurant, anyone can write a decent report if given endless time. Journalists operate under extreme pressure, filing daily or even hourly. Tertiary courses give you the chance to consider right and wrong with time to think – something you won’t get on the job. Courses also lead to work – because for employers, graduates are a surer bet. Not many people get stupider or learn less by doing a degree.

    As for the initial debate – I did prefer the classes taught by former journos, because they know the pitfalls of putting theory into practise and they can better equip you to deal with it, but non-journos have their place too. You don’t have to have been a reporter to have strong, intelligent views on how the job should be done – at the end of the day, that is how our work is judged anyway, by that huge mass of non-journalists called the public.

    Though I agree some courses seem to suffer an identity crisis – they can’t decide if they want to produce journalists, or academics. Neither is a bad profession, but they are certainly different.

  11. bmason6

    Joob- What makes you think I implied journalists have distorted ethics? For the record, I don’t think that.
    Your obviously equating career with job- And I don’t think that is the point of going to Uni, I think going to uni as an Arts student is learning about your responsibilities to the community, this is based on history and ‘civic humanism.’

    Damian, that is certainly an interesting example. So on the job they wouldn’t teach you how to spot ‘‘allude’ and ‘elude’, and ‘your’ and ‘you’re.’?

    Wow, out of all the ‘examples’ you picked that one?

  12. sickofitall

    Looking at the list quickly, ther are some pretty crummy journalists. Australia is probably the worst free press in the world, and degrees in journalism haven’t helped that. I’m all in favourite of education, but to see functional illiterates working in a literate profession makes me think the system is broken.

  13. joob2345

    @ BMASON6 you said “Apparently our ethics course wasn’t up to scratch for journalists and they invented their own one” – your quote assumes Journalism have their own set of ethics that digress from the philosophy realm and infer that these ethics are somehow subordinate to the philosophy ethics .

    like Damian Smith I also have an arts degree – i learnt in my undergrad and journalism postgrad about what you class as ‘civic humanism’. Journalism explores ways the media can manipulate and take advantage of people.

    of course the point of uni is to provide an education as well as score a job at the end. I dont understand your arguments i think your now backing down which you should.

    Read cameron stewarts piece – his account on what is being taught in journalism courses and the teaches that run them is incorrect and defamatory. Thats the point of this article – those that teach or attend journalism schools are outraged. this probably isnt an argument that you should be taking part in giving that you have neither studied journalism or taught it.

  14. Damian Smith

    Bmason6 – no, they actually wouldn’t teach you that on the job, because you wouldn’t have one. If you can’t spell properly, you won’t even get the merest whiff of employment.


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