Fundamental communication skills are more important than ‘new media’ skills for journalists

by Grace

Journalism instructors assign much more value to a degree in the discipline than do practicing journalists, according to a new Poynter study.


Some 96 percent of journalism educators believe that a journalism degree is very important or extremely important when it comes to understanding the value of journalism. By contrast, 57 percent of media professionals believe that a journalism degree is key to understanding the value of their field.

Perhaps even more significant, more than 80 percent of educators say a journalism degree is extremely important when it comes to learning news gathering skills, compared to 25 percent of media professionals. One in five media professionals finds a degree in the discipline is not at all important or only slightly important in learning news gathering.

Should journalism school place more focus on teaching “new multimedia skills”?

Finberg, who authored the study, attributed the discrepancy in part to a kind of digital divide between journalism school curriculums and what’s expected of journalists in the field. Working journalists feel the demand for new multimedia skills that may or may not be part of traditional journalism coursework, he said, leading them to question the value of degrees in the discipline.

Or should they simply concentrate more on fundamental skills?

But given that modern journalism is a kind of moving target, experts said, programs can’t afford to lose sight of the fundamentals: good storytelling and strong writing and problem-solving skills.

“It is in no way possible for journalism schools to keep up with all the industry changes because journalism itself isn’t keeping with the technological changes,” said Sonny Albarado, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and projects editor at the ArkansasDemocrat-Gazette. “It’s important to be exposed to whatever the dominant or latest technology is, but that varies from place to place.”

Albarado said he prefers to hire reporters with journalism degrees, due to their training, but he wouldn’t exclude applicants with English degrees, for example.

Ultimately, he said, “I just want somebody who can write and think critically – and spell.”

The new media skills are relatively easy to acquire, but fundamental writing skills and critical thinking usually take years to learn.

It seems that a rigorous liberal arts education would be an excellent way to prepare for a journalism career.  Nate Silver thinks economics or math are good majors for journalists to meet the increasing importance of data-driven reporting.

Related: With the rise of robo-reporters, what is the outlook for jobs in journalism? (Cost of College)


7 Comments to “Fundamental communication skills are more important than ‘new media’ skills for journalists”

  1. Math is not a data-driven field, and I have my doubts sometimes about economics. If you want someone to understand data, they should study both the field that collects the data (to know the limitations of the data-gathering techniques) and statistics. Math majors are extremely unlikely to have done either.

    Disclaimer: I was a math major (BS and MS in math).


  2. “the field that collects the data”

    What specific field would that be?

    I suspect the reasoning behind Silver’s point is that numerate professionals (including math and some economics graduates) are better able to work within an environment of data-based reporting. Even if the reporter is not formally trained in the field that collects the data, he would be head and shoulders above the typical journalist who is weak in quantitative skills.


  3. The specific field varies. A reporter on biological science should understand some biology, a reporter on physics should understand some physics, and so forth. Numeracy is a prerequisite, not a sufficient condition for being a science journalist. Math majors are often very uninformed about noise and measurement error, since these are not important concepts in most fields of math, but they are essential in understanding any sort of experiment.

    If you are looking for generic data literacy skills, statistics and computer science are probably more relevant than math or econ, but it also helps to have some understanding of the field that the data comes from. The errors that occur in DNA sequencing are very different from the errors that occur in education research which in turn are very different from the errors that occur in physics measurements. Using concepts appropriate for Gaussian distributions (as physicists and sociologists usually do) when the underlying measurements have non-Gaussian errors (as in mapping sequences to a reference genome) results in really bad misinterpretations. Statistics education may inform you of the need to be aware of such problems, but only knowledge of the field being studied allows you to see when the assumptions are being violated.


  4. In most real world cases, math is a tool and not an end in itself. OTOH, math (including statistics) is quite ubiquitous, and someone without a decent understanding will have difficulty synthesizing all the information he or she gathers into a coherent article.


  5. Personally, I think you have to be numerate just to be an educated person, which is why it is depressing that so many colleges have such weak math requirements.


  6. Let’s be frank; plenty of generalized journalism majors end up in PR anyway because the field is crowded with them. Some job fields require specialized training; others can be developed OTJ, and this is one of them.


  7. OTJ training goes much better if the employee has strong communication, math, and critical thinking skills. Of course other abilities, like interpersonal skills, also factor in for a successful PR career. But I don’t think most can make it on flashy sales skills alone.


%d bloggers like this: