How valuable is journalism education?
Address by Prof Guy Berger, Freedom Forum Africa Center,
Johannesburg, 23 February 1998
      by Guy Berger, 1998

1. INTRODUCTION: Who's afraid of the media watchdog?

Valuable for whom, is an important prior question that one needs to answer before tackling the tough teaser of "how valuable?". If we assume that education adds value to journalism, who does this value benefit and who gets disadvantaged?

This is an interesting question in the light of the current media bill before the Swazi parliament, which would require all journalists to be licensed - and a condition of the licence is a formal education and qualification in journalism. It would appear that the Swazi government - getting negative publicity about corruption in its ranks - believes journalism education will make for tame journalists. In contrast many people would hope that journalism education would disadvantage crooked politicians even further! This is not, of course, to support the Swazi bill, even though it would mean more work for journalism educators!

The bill is not only unworkable, it also represents a real violation of freedom of expression. Journalism education must be embraced voluntarily. It must be an opening of doors to communication, not an imposed hurdle.

But what the Swazi example shows is that journalism education does not benefit everyone. Instead, it benefits those who believe in the cause of journalism and who want to see journalists do a better job in their profession. This goal should be valued by journalists' employers, at the very least because an educated journalist should mean fewer defamation cases to shell out for. But, sometimes, employers seem to show little interest in journalism education - complacently assuming that the "craft" can do perfectly well with untrained individuals, including those already hired and working at a minimum level of competence. They value the bottom line, not excellence in journalism. Some employers, too, are not interested in a journalist whose training empowers him or her to rock the boat through critical or investigative journalism. These are dinosaur attitudes in the competitive information age where a plurality of information and entertainment puts a premium on journalists who can raise the quality quotient of their stories. But it is an attitude that still holds sway in places, especially amongst people who worked their way up the ladder and feel resentful of chirpy young "know-alls" fresh out of journalism school and pushing their way into industry.

If not all wrongdoers and not all employers are enamoured with journalism education, then who is? For whom journalism education is valuable? The answer can only be: valuable for society as a whole, for the public interest.

How valuable? This is a subject of great debate. Acting executive director of the SA National Editors Forum, Joe Thloloe, said some years back when he was at the Sowetan that he received scores of applications for reporting jobs from well-qualified youngsters - but few could tell the simple story that they wanted work and were equipped to perform it. In 1996, consultant Graham Addison toured 19 journalism training institutions and concluded that the students there could not write, did not read, and could not think.

Training, it seemed, was a waste of time. But more recently, a rethink seems to be taking place in the industry. Independent Newspapers' Group Editorial Director, Shaun Johnson, told a workshop last year that "training is no longer a nice to have". In the face of competition, falling circulations, and a new country, journalists needed education about how to cope. Some employers, then, value education. And the enthusiasm of the journalists at the same workshop demonstrated a hunger in the ranks for training.

If this is the case, if journalism education is seen as being able to add value, we need to go further to establish how valuable by asking who trains whom for what.

2. WHO: Can a rainbow beget gold?

The history of South Africa's media has largely been white owners hiring white journalists to communicate with white audiences about white interests. The equation is undergoing rapid change at present, not least because of pressure by black journalists. One such, Thami Mazwai, has become a black owner, hiring black journalists to communicate with black audiences about black interests. His view is that whites are unfit to be senior journalists in the country's main mass media, because their background prevents them from understanding and communicating with blacks. Applied to journalism training, this logic means that white journalism trainers are unable to educate students (of any colour) to communicate with black audiences. As the majority audience in the country is black, it follows that white trainers generally need to be replaced with black ones.

While this argument carries substantial weight, in the end it offers a rather bleak vision. The assumption is that only like can communicate with like. In this view, the knowledge that white journalists and journalism educators may bring to the table is not relevant to black audiences - and vice versa. Communication ghettoes are the outcome.

In contrast to this scenario, it can be argued that a vision of training based on the notion of a rainbow nation offers a richer future, even if the beauty has faded a little since Archbishop Tutu first coined the image.

In this perspective, whites and blacks are part of the same rainbow - and need to communicate across the spectrum. Thus, white audiences especially need to hear the views and news of black journalists. White journalists need training by black trainers. Black audiences can still benefit from white journalists, even if black journalists are equipped to do a better job on many stories. Black journalists can learn something from white trainers, not least because different traditions and outlooks are the fount of creativity and innovation.

So, journalism education can be valuable if it has a viable vision. Yet, journalism education in this country generally seems to lack any vision at all. In the USA, a recent study by the AEJMC found that 71% of journalism schools surveyed had a clear vision, but only 23% of these included diversity issues in their training mission. In South Africa, both figures are probably a lot lower. To be valuable, journalism training in this country needs to be transformed. And this means transformation, not in the Mazwai mode, even if it is quite true that the priority change is to ensure that black in the primary colour in South African media rainbow.

In this way, training needs to be value-laden if it is to be valuable for South African society. So, what then goes into the education of journalists.

3. EDUCATING REPORTERS: no more media morons.

It is valuable to distinguish between entry-level training, and training working journalists. Prof Betty Medsger's research for the Freedom Forum suggests that most US working journalists who joined the industry in the past 10 years are indeed products of journalism schools working at the entry level. The figure for South Africa is probably a lot less: maybe 30% of journalists here have journalism degrees or diplomas. There is, it seems, a lot of wastage - with most journalism graduates going into public relations, government communication, NGOs, and so on, and relatively few making it in the mass media.

Journalism educators - and media institutions too - need to look more carefully at this, and see what can be done to make the training more valuable in terms of its outputs going into journalism. This problem has been neglected in South Africa thus far. But what has been even more neglected is the need for starter journalism education or, where relevant, continuing education, for working media professionals. Besides the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, the Nordic-SADC Journalism Centre and the Media Institute of South Africa, there are precious few resources going into mid-career training. The institutions engaged in entry-level training ought to see what value they can contribute to this sphere of activity in the form of post-graduate programmes, short courses and distance education.

In my view, the most valuable kind of journalism education today, whether of entry level or working journalists, concentrates on the following:

Communications skills: much unhappiness caused by the media (whether in government or other circles) derives less from malice than incompetence. Accuracy is possibly at an all time low in South African journalism, ability to apply background is often non-existent. Spelling, grammar and vocabulary are appalling. A stress on good writing is fundamental for journalism education to be valuable.

Ethics skills: while South African journalists do not generally go as far as the Parisienne Paparazzi, or the British tabloids, there is a lack of deeper understanding of ethics. Too much journalism is single-source based, or reflects knee-jerk anti-governmentalism. Around the issues thrown up by new technologies, like digital manipulation of photographs, little education has occurred.

Technical skills: new technologies need new skills, and there are scores of South African journalists still who cannot use the email on their desktop computers, or who don't know there's a difference between surfing the Internet and searching it. Training here is vital.

Thinking skills: only 36% of US journalism schools surveyed by the AEJMC placed stress on developing critical and intellectual capacity in their vision statements. Yet, if there is one thing that journalism education ought to do, this is to engender an understanding of how arguments and assumptions operate - a fine complement to teaching how power works, how history hones our stories of the present, how the subtleties of race and gender permeate our representation of society. How else can journalists scrutinise society, fulfill a critical role that might be just one role amongst many other roles they play, but which is surely one of the most valuable for society?

4. MONEY BACK: guaranteeing the value of training.

South African journalism teachers, under inspiration from the SA National Editors Forum, are currently organising themselves into two associations - a print-based one, and a broadcast parallel. Driving the process is the government's National Qualifications Framework, which requires rationalisation and standard setting amongst trainers. The outcome - eventually - will be an accreditation of some teaching institutions (not teachers), and by implication a non-accreditation of others. Linked to accreditation will be funding - via government subsidy to tertiary institutions, plus via a training tax administered through industrial Sector Education and Training Authorities.

What will go into such accreditation, and will it help guarantee the value of training? In the USA, the ACEJMC accredits institutions teaching journalism using the following measures:
curriculum (including a liberal arts component)
student records
teaching quality
teacher qualifications
professional activities
public service
alumni careers

In addition, the USA's accreditation does take into account "minorities" and whether an institution has a plan to incorporate minority staff and students. In South Africa, with reference to our rainbow, there could well be space for assessing training institutions with regard to rainbow performance in language, gender and racial provisions for staff and curriculum.

In this way, it may become possible over time to really ensure that journalism education in South Africa is valuable - that it counts in the most optimum way for this whole, complex country wrestling with the divisions of its tortured history. The result may be a journalism that better helps the broader South Africa to be in conversation with itself.

5. Conclusion

To sum up, journalism education benefits society at large, especially if it is linked to a viable vision which in South Africa means transformation. It requires training in ethics and in communications, technical and thinking skills. And a system of accreditation can help ensure that journalism education really adds value to South African journalism.

Rory Wilson, MD of Independent Newspapers in the Western Cape, told a group of reporters last year that he thought their journalism was great. The only problem, he said, was that the public clearly did not think so: they were not buying the papers. He was, he said, part of the problem.

Can journalism education be part of the solution? It depends on many things. Yet without it, the changing of the present, problematic, paradigm of South African journalism will be all the slower. file: valuejrn.wpd