Do you need a degree in journalism to be a journalist?

Not really. Alright…my first response to this question when an aspiring journalist asks me this, is no. And this may come as a surprise from someone who has two journalism degrees. But you do not actually need a Bachelor’s degree in journalism to practice as a journalist. In fact, the idea of a journalism degree is fairly recent. American universities pioneered journalism education when debates about the training of journalists gained ground in the early nineteenth century, much of it sparked in the aftermath of the civil war and how it was covered.

“News professionals and university educators pondered whether journalists needed to be college-educated, whether they needed a liberal arts degree, or whether they needed professional education that combined liberal arts and practical training. These debates were complex and political, representing issues of localism versus nationalism, the role of professional schools within the American university, and the rise of social science.”

 – History of Journalism Education by . 2014.

Before universities started offering journalism degrees, reporters traditionally studied the social sciences, political science, history, philosophy and that kind of liberal arts stuff. And they did fine. Some also majored in English, which is not a bad idea. You need to understand the ins and outs of the language you’re writing in (gotta know the difference between passive and active voice!) Some opted to study a foreign language, not a bad idea either. All the other tools of the profession (like interviewing skills, sourcing, surveying, reporting numbers, digging for stats, understanding libel and defamation, etc.) came from experience on the job. You learned in the newsroom. You learned on the streets. You learned every time you conducted an interview. You learned every time you forgot to fact check and your editor cussed you out for it.

But the game changed in 1908. That’s when the University of Missouri opened the first degree-offering school of journalism in the United States – and the world –  and by 1920, universities in Ohio, New York, Nebraska, Washington, Minnesota, Indiana, Georgia, Iowa and Kansas had done the same either by starting journalism departments or their own full-fledged journalism schools, known as J-schools. In 1921, the University of Missouri’s J-school began offering the world’s first master’s degree in journalism, followed by a doctorate degree in 1934.

“While the first school of journalism was not founded until 1908, the idea of education for journalists was a cry heard as early as a few years following the Civil War. The movement for professionalization spurred many groups into action. Lawyers, businesspeople, social workers, and journalists sought to professionalize themselves.”

 

Here’s what a typical journalism Bachelor’s degree course curriculum in the U.S. looks like:

Course Requirements

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Communication Electives (6 credit hours)

Complete 6 credit hours from the following, if not taken to fulfill another requirement of this program:

 

I pulled that from American University. Here’s the undergraduate curriculum at Rhodes University in South Africa, which has one of the best journo programs in the region:

“In the FIRST YEAR, students are introduced to the theory and practice of journalism. They learn a range of journalism skills, including journalism for web-based platforms. They are also introduced to core concepts in media and New Media studies. In the SECOND YEAR students learn about the histories of South African media to gain a broad understanding of the current media landscape. They then deepen this understanding by scrutinising the institutions and systems that define South African media production, and study the media texts that are generated in this environment. They also learn to conceptualise, research and produce publications, both for print and broadcast purposes. In THIRD YEAR, students embark on specialised media production courses, choosing between communication design, photojournalism, radio journalism, television journalism, or writing and editing. These elective modules run throughout the year. In order to establish a theoretical foundation for these electives, students also complete a Theory of Practice. course in Term One. In the remainder of the year, they take part in three media studies courses that are designed to contextualise the work that they do as media practitioners. This includes a module in conflict-sensitive journalism (second term); law and ethics for journalists (third term); and media and its audiences in a digital age (fourth term). If students go on to FOURTH YEAR and graduate with a BJourn, they can either continue with their specialisation, or decide to diversify by taking courses in writing, new media or photojournalism. The focus is on the role of media in social change.” https://www.ru.ac.za/media/rhodesuniversity/content/jms/documents/studenthandbooksections/7.Curriculum.pdf

 

 

But, some journos – including veterans –  say there’s no need to get a degree. This is an ongoing conversation within the industry. 

“…the value of what is loosely termed a ‘journalism degree’ continues to be debated, and many industry representatives remain sceptical of its value. Journalism educators have a number of ways of assessing the level of industry acceptance of journalism education.”

Literature: Journalism and Journalism education

 

In fact, some of the journalists who have inspired me do not have a university-level degree in journalism.                                                                                                                                                                

Alex Crawford

Gordon Parks

Diane Sawyer – B.A. in English, Wellesley College

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton – earned a degree in French studies with international relations and Spanish at the London School of Economics (but did go on to study broadcast journalism at the University of Westminster, London)

Anderson Cooper – B.A. in political science, Yale University

Oprah Winfrey – B.A. in speech communication and performing arts at Tennessee State University

Juliana Ruhfus – studied African studies at the University of London’s School for Oriental and African Studies

Yvonne Ndege – studied social science at the London School of Economics

Lisa Ling left the University of Southern California to learn on the streets. “That’s why I didn’t graduate from USC — it’s because I was traveling. I think traveling is the best education. If there’s one takeaway here tonight, it’s to travel … I’m convinced that you are better, smarter, more marketable as a job candidate if you travel.”

 

 

 

But many of my inspirations do:

Christiane Amanpour – B.A. in journalism, University of Rhode Island

Hopewell Chin’ono – studied at the Zimbabwean Institute of Mass Communications before getting his first post graduate Master of Arts degree in International Journalism from City University’s Journalism school in London, England

Mariana van Zeller – M.A. in journalism, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Charlayne Hunter-Gault – B.A. Journalism – University of Georgia

Mara Schiavocampo – Master’s degree in broadcast journalism, University of Maryland

Having said that, I pursued journalism at the universities I attended. I went in knowing that’s what I wanted to do. Why? For me, it made sense to get the foundation of the profession all in one place within a four-year time frame.

I went to Georgia State University for my undergraduate studies. I majored in journalism and anthropology, which I still believe is a powerful combination that perfectly speaks to my interests as a person. I minored in film. I graduated in 2008 with a B.A. in journalism (specializing in telecommunications) and a second B.A. in anthropology. I decided to keep going and get a Master’s degree in journalism. I looked at Columbia University, American University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. I thought Columbia’s application fee was too high – so silly, now that I look back on that. American was great, but what pulled me to Medill was the Global Residency, the optional quarter where students can work in a newsroom abroad. I went to Kenya and worked at the country’s first 24-hour TV news station called K24 and had a beautiful experience

Medill gave me a wealth of knowledge and hands-on technical experience. I had to go out into the streets of Chicago and come back with a story. It was amazing. My journalism education at Georgia State University profoundly confirmed that I was on the right career path. At GSU, I got involved at the radio station, WRAS Album 88FM – the largest in the southeast at the time –  wrote for the university newspaper called the Signal. One of my earliest stories was on homeless people in downtown Atlanta. Then, I helped out with the African American studies department’s newsletter and spent some time at the TV station. Beyond the textbooks, it’s this hands-on, extracurricular experience that you need. But the textbook info is immensely important too. I think it’s crucial to know the history of the profession, how it works in your country, the laws around it, etc. So for me, J-schools are pretty cool.

But do you “need” the degree?

I still say no.

Nowadays, though, some news outlets want their incoming employees to have one, or to have something in the field of communication. So, consider that as well, if there’s a place where you wanna work. 

Fun fact: The earliest known journalistic product was a news sheet circulated in ancient Rome: the Acta Diurna, said to date from before 59 bce. The Acta Diurna recorded important daily events such as public speeches. It was published daily and hung in prominent places.

Journalism, Encylopaedia Britannica

If I could do college again, would I do anything differently? HECK, YEAH! I would study French. Oh my gosh – I wish someone had told me to get a foreign language under my belt. I did Spanish in high school and I liked it. It’s good to get a foreign language out of the way in college. I think every journalist should have some knowledge of a language other than their own. For me, French just makes sense (more so than Spanish, but I wasn’t even thinking about that as a high school student) as a reporter covering Africa. French is majorly spoken in more than 20 African countries. So, I would have perhaps minored in French, instead of in film and maintained the anthropology and journalism majors. So have fun! Choose a language when you’re headed to college.

And I would also advise to chose a subject. In fact, I think this is more important for aspiring journos who are headed to a university. You can learn the techniques on the job and with extracurricular, but I maintain that you should have a knowledge base in something to effectively practice journalism. That could be world history, political science or international studies – these areas are very common for reporters. For me, it’s anthropology. A subject knowledge base will do so much for you, give you context and perspective and depth. I notice that many reporters from the UK, rather than going for a journalism degree, opt to study a subject at the university level and I believe that’s much more useful than solely studying journalism, which is more common with younger American reporters. Nowadays, reporters like to focus on beats, like tech, health, education, housing or trade so if that’s your plan, it makes perfect sense to get a Bachelor’s degree in economics, computer science or biology or whatever fits. There’s criminology, sociology and gender studies, too. One of my inspirations, Suzanne Malveaux studied sociology as an undergraduate and then broadcast journalism at Columbia University’s graduate journalism school. Get a subject knowledge base. I can’t emphasize how worth it this will be.

Now, broadcast journalism requires some technical knowledge depending on your job title and some argue that it’s good to start getting that in school. That’s why I specialized in telecommunications at Georgia State. Broadcast journalism traditionally means radio and TV, but now it has expanded into the digital world. Some call this electronic journalism (that word is a bit outdated, though) or digital journalism. For example, reporting on a podcast platform is digital journalism, so is shooting news footage on a smartphone. Getting a degree in that is fine. J-schools offer more specializations/concentrations these days: documentary film, photojournalism, long form, magazine writing, investigative reporting, multimedia. All this is good to get under your belt if you’re interested.

That’s it. I greatly value my journalism degrees. At GSU, I honed my news writing skills, not just through classwork but with extracurricular activities. I also cut my teeth in videography and editing at GSU. One of my teachers, Andree Grogan, had a long career at CNN. She taught me so much and more than 15 years later, I’m still in touch with her. The CNN headquarters was right down the street from GSU, so everyday, I got a daily dose of inspiration, just passing by the building on the way to my dorm. GSU was good to me, good for my career and in 2019, the institution recognized my work with the Outstanding Alumni Award. While GSU gave me a chance to work in radio, TV and writing, at Medill, I became focused on videography. I took the TV broadcast track and dug in, learned how to edit on Avid (I learned Final Cut Pro earlier), how to write broadcast news scripts, how to track properly. My education at Medill prepared me to do the one-woman band, field reporting that much of my career has been ever since I graduated. I can put my finger on a town on a map, go there with a camera and get a story. I have that confidence and my education at Medill was blessed by the guiding presence of Bill Handy. He noticed and appreciated my interest in international reporting and I am forever thankful to know him.

My anthropology and film studies are also major highlights in my education. These studies have helped me a great deal. With anthropology, I took a particular interest in culture. My film studies rounded out my knowledge base and satisfied my artistic inclinations.

All in all, I emphasize, a journalism degree is not required to practice the profession. Like, we’re not talking about being a neurosurgeon! Not that I’m belittling the work of journalists. It’s just a different kind of skill, entirely, that’s not grounded in hard science. Some argue that having a journo degree can give you more confidence. And, sure, I can understand that.

If you’ve got one – that’s cool! If you don’t – don’t sweat it! You don’t need one, but there is some value in having one. Keep in mind that there are many short term journalism training courses that you can take if you don’t have a degree. The bottom-line is this: journalism is a people-oriented profession. Be around people. Travel, listen, ask questions, read and you can be a great journalist. 

This is Chika Oduah, signing out. 😉

 

 

5 thoughts on “Do you need a degree in journalism to be a journalist?

  1. Great write-up and will share with people I know asking about the degree. If we want to be honest, a college degree is not necessary for most careers except Finance and Medical. Even tech they take certificates or do on the job training.

    Like

  2. Hello Chika,

    I am currently a high school student studying the basics of journalism, and I would like to point out that your article has really inspired me to continue the pursuit of journalism! From your point of view what 3 things do you enjoy as a journalist? And what 3 things would you hope to change to make journalism a better career?

    -Fiona

    Like

    1. Fiona, I hope you’re having fun learning those basics. To respond to your question, I enjoy the extensive travel, the chance to talk to new people and the capacity to share useful, newsworthy information.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: