Critical Thinking: Does a Lack of Accreditation Change the Legitimacy of a Journalism School?

CriticalThinking

For the first time, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism announced it wouldn’t seek formal accreditation, stating that it’s ‘relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement.’ Does a lack of accreditation change the legitimacy of a journalism school?

Rebecca Gross, 21, junior, University of Washington (Seattle, Wash.)

Gross is the opinion editor for the student-run newspaper, The Daily. She will be taking over as editor-in-chief in the fall.

Despite the kind of recognition, prestige, and approval that usually comes with an accreditation, Medill Dean Bradley Hamm might have been speaking words of wisdom when he told the Chicago Tribune the process was flawed and not useful.

An accreditation, by definition, is only a way to show recognition. Even the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications writes on their website that “to accredit is to assure basic standards of excellence” in education. This claim is in itself a bit vague, and in all honesty, doesn’t say anything about who determines these standards of excellence, and why these specific standards matter. Being accredited, in this sense, speaks more to reputation than it does to the genuine quality of education.

However, Dean Hamm is making this call at the wrong historical moment. Journalism, and honest reporting, is about to be one of most important jobs. Choosing to be a journalist in this moment means choosing to take on a great responsibility of educating the masses. This is not a small duty.

For young journalists such as myself, showing future employers that I received my degree from an institution that maintains accreditation in an era of false reporting is important. Newspapers want to be able to trust their reporters to have a solid base of knowledge in the field of journalism: This means understanding ethics, AP style, multimedia, and much more. An accreditation does ensure that this type of information is being taught to journalism students.

What’s more, media consumers want to know they can trust the news they read, listen to, and watch. Journalists who have gone to schools with accreditations have been undoubtedly taught how to write truthful, well sourced, and poignant pieces that the public needs to see.

I’m not usually the type to vouch for labels: We all know not to judge a book by its cover, or a person by their resume. However, the reality is that accreditation might only seem like a title, but in an era of fake news, it’s much more than that. It serves as a certification that a university will be teaching the future journalists of the United States proper journalistic methods. Right now, that’s more important than ever.

 

Rich Jackson, 51, executive editor, Times-News (Burlington, N.C.)

Jackson joined the Times-News earlier this year and has worked in the newspaper industry for 25 years.

Normally when I hear words like “consultant,” “study” or “accreditation” the cynical journalist in me is reminded of the line in the movie “Blazing Saddles:” “Gentlemen, we must do something to protect our phony baloney jobs.”

So it was when I read Medill planned to let its accreditation lapse. The process, Dean Bradley Hamm said, was expensive, time-consuming and “flawed,” according to the Chicago Tribune’s initial coverage.

I read Facebook posts about it but I’m a busy editor and moved on. I have copy to edit, photos to assign and content to clear of any liberal bias—including Marmaduke. That dog is always looking for a hand out.

Nonetheless, I decided to check out the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. There I found an eloquent defense of the council’s work signed by board members of such great merit and scholarship that reading the list tired me out and I required a pick-me-up nap.

It reminded me of my experience with the council at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in about 1990. Professors ran ahead of council members, spit-shining computers and cameras, straightening papers and imploring the students to not screw this thing up.

A school like Medill probably doesn’t need accreditation because it’s big and important and it makes everyone know that. It is so well known it can be referred to with one name: Medill. Like Cher. Or Marmaduke.

But other schools do need accreditation because prospective students and their parents can learn how one program compares with another. Important stuff, graduation rates, job placements, graduate lists, the list goes on. In fact the accrediting council has created a searchable database for parents.

And it’s all done in the same way good schools—accredited schools—teach their students to report stories, objectively, rigorously and independently.

So Medill—and Cher—may go without accreditation. But every other school ought to. It’s good for the schools, the students and the parents.

Now back to content management. How is it that Garfield has not had a job in 30 years but he’s still fat? Sorry, that’s fat cat shaming. He’s a cat of girth.

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Published: July 14, 2017

6 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: Does a Lack of Accreditation Change the Legitimacy of a Journalism School?

  • July 14, 2017 at 6:14 am
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    When I read the headline I thought the question ought to read Does School Change the Legitimacy of Journalism? Accreditation used to fit into a larger end-product picture, producing students who could function effectively beyond the academic setting.

    Business now tells schools, including the ivy leagues, graduates lack essential skills. The deficits revolve around analysis and relationship building abilities (buisness soft skills). Accreditation has never assessed these areas as primary measures. When skill sets can be measured and catalogued, accreditation makes sense. When the process fails to provide significant value added, schools can and should let go of the step.
    We have seen a steady dumbing down of educations as a strategy for schools to attract students. Degrees mean less and cost more. The field of Journalism has reordered itself in the last ten years, Ethical standards, critical thinking, razor sharp research skills and savvy tech skills now make up the tool box. The days of schools providing permission to work are long gone.

    Reply
  • July 14, 2017 at 7:20 am
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    Interested persons might find this helpful: “The Value of Accreditation: An Overview of Three Decades of Research Comparing Accredited and Unaccredited Journalism and Mass Communication Programs,” by Marc C. Seamon. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 65(1), 2010.

    Reply
  • July 14, 2017 at 9:02 am
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    I care much less about whether a journalist has a journalism degree from an accredited school. I care about whether they know how to research not both sides of an issue but ALL sides. I care about whether they can write clearly, interestingly and without bias (except in marked opinion pieces) while keeping the reader’s interest. I care about whether they have knowledge about subjects beyond just journalism–especially history, political science, the law and Constitution, the basics of the sciences, the tenets of the world’s major religions. I don’t care that they are perfectly trained to makeup a page using InDesign or some other program–by the time they get their degree, the training will be out of date. I do care that they understand that journalism is a team effort which means major stories require the ability to collaborate–between writer, editor, graphics specialists and, unfortunately, shrinking space in which to tell the story. I do care that they truly understand the impact unethical, sloppy, unprofessional, inaccurate practices can cause. Show me a journalism accreditation program that makes certain those are the students its accreditation guarantees and then come see me. I speak from 47-award-winning years in the profession, including 33+ as the state’s most honored community weekly’s publisher, and my degrees are in history and political science with the really valuable training coming in quality newsrooms. An excellent journalism school can be a key part of that–but its accreditation is just a piece of paper if it doesn’t produce results.

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  • July 14, 2017 at 10:38 am
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    “For young journalists such as myself, showing future employers that I received my degree from an institution that maintains accreditation in an era of false reporting is important.” No, it isn’t. But, yes, the reputation of the journalism program (school or department) can be important even though a lot of Ivy League Schools without journalism departments or programs (I’m talking about undergraduate) are represented in the journalism

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  • July 14, 2017 at 1:58 pm
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    Unfortunately, high school certified journalism teachers are being replaced by English teachers without formal journalism training. The topics such as journalistic ethics and newsworthiness are shoved to the background. It’s true that free societies need trained journalists, but the country seems to be going in the other direction. It is scary!!

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  • July 24, 2017 at 12:38 pm
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    Medill students no longer will be eligible to enter the Hearst Intercollegiate Journalism competitions, which is a shame. Medill students dominated the writing competitions for years.

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