Reporter, school thyself

Greg Mankiw makes a suggestion that’s apt on both sides of the Pacific.

There are probably many reasons why the quality of economics journalism is not better than it is, but an article in today’s Wall Street Journal suggests one of the problems:

According to the forthcoming book “The American Journalist in the 21st Century,” 36.2% of journalists with college degrees were journalism majors. If you include journalism-related “communications” majors, the percentage jumps to 49.5….

So what do aspiring journalists learn in school? Undergraduate courses of study vary, but if you survey course catalogs, there’s a heavy emphasis on process and theory. At Ohio State, for instance, a student majoring in journalism might take some substantive core courses, such as introductory American History, Math and Microeconomics. But a large portion of his coursework will be taken up with classes such as Principles of Civic Journalism, Topics in Public Affairs Journalism or Industry Research Methods.
In short, many journalists simply do not have sufficient training to do a good job.

Here’s my radical suggestion to the editors of the world: Require all your economics reporters to have an undergraduate degree in economics. And give a raise to those who spent the extra year or two getting a master’s in economics as well. (We don’t have such a program at Harvard, but there is a good one at the LSE.)

Economics is a technical field that cannot be easily learned on the fly. Unfortunately, that is often what economics journalists try to do.

An interesting issue that comes up in comments to Mankiw’s blog is that Brad De Long taught a journalism class about economics this year. It’d also be interesting to know how much of this occurs in Australian journalism schools. Not all of us are great communicators, but I know a few Australian economics lecturers who could do a great version of this course if asked.

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13 Responses to Reporter, school thyself

  1. Andrew Carr says:

    At the University of Canberra’s Journalism degree (where I’m a final year student) virtually no economics or politics knowledge is required or taught as part of the degree.

    The degree requires a elective major outside Journalism and Communication, so I guess the hope is journalists will study politics (as many at UC do) or some other relevant field, but there’s no direct economics, business, politics or other mandated units in the degree. Some people combine an economics and a journalism degree. (But its rare, and for some odd reason these students usually end up not wanting to do either after their degree is finished)

    The emphasis in straight journalism courses is thus on building the writing skills to put together an article, and then writing up to a dozen stories, or a couple of longer feature pieces each semester.

    The closest we have come to economics in the course has been a few lectures on going through company accounts, annual reports, and so on.

    Its a debate all would-be-journalists face. Should they go for a broad arts course and study politics, economics and other interesting fields at a broad level, or go for a journalism course and get intensive focus on their writing, whilst hoping to learn outside the degree the basic knowledge required to write economics, business or politics stories.

    I went for the latter because I’m the kind of geek who reads a blog like this for fun, but in my experience most students in the degree don’t. Not even in their final year.

  2. Ben says:

    By all means – pay journalists more to study economics, but only if the courses include at least a smattering from some of these economists:

    http://adbusters.org/metas/eco/truecosteconomics/economists.html

    Maybe then we will avoid the protests and student petitions at French Uni’s, Cambridge, Harvard etc. decrying the narrow approaches taught.

    See:

    http://education.guardian.co.uk/egweekly/story/0,,1038081,00.html

  3. Patrick says:

    As for your ‘true cost economics’, I fear that reading them might not address the deficiency Andrew’s post addresses – more likely exacerbate things.

    Maybe they should study Frederic Bastiat for a brilliant synthesis of politics and economics. As a parliamentarian circa 1900, he responded to his protectionist colleagues by proposing to regulate the sun so as to provide fair competition for the candle-makers – he’s been my hero since I first heard that anecdote :)

  4. Ben, with a course like that, everyone would be guaranteed to get full Marx!

  5. Andrew Norton says:

    The bad education of journalism students would be a concern if that was the qualification for being a journalist, but in fact the major papers generally recruit general graduates and train themselves. But they probably don’t get that many economics graduates through that process either.

  6. Andrew Carr says:

    I think that background is changing Andrew N. Journalism courses have been seen some of the greatest demand in recent years at university and consequently skyrocketing entry requirements.

    The media will always hire from a wide range, but I’d suspect that they will begin looking more and more towards Journalism school graduates so as to cut down their on the job training. This however does come at the expense of a more rounded education backing the journalists work.

    But then how much should we expect a journalist to know? Outside the specialists and those assigned rounds, Journalists can expect to cover up to half a dozen stories a day, all on a different subject and area. And a few years later they are in a completely different area. Its part of the attraction of journalism, but also they are trying to accurately report news or events to a readership of whom 1-2% on any subject will have several decades more knowledge and experience and wont hesitate to tell the journalist when they screw up.

    So just how much knowledge should we expect of our journalists? We all say some things are common sense, but what is expected as common sense on an economics blog like this, is quite different to on a politics, business, and science or history blog. (Or by experts/capable amateurs in any of these fields).

  7. Bring Back EP at LP says:

    One might say journalism is nothing to write home about but that would be harpoing on the subject

  8. Patrick says:

    Actually, I wonder if the journalism school isn’t the cancer that’s eating journalism. Let’s face it, never have they commanded so little respect as now.

    Surely a big contributor is that with the rise of the educated masses, more and more people are in a position to say: ‘hang on, that guy doesn’t have a clue!’. And with blogs to boot, more and more people can realise that a) it isn’t just they who think that journos are stupid and b) it isn’t just in their fields of expertise that journos don’t know anything.

    I know I would be much more willing to subscribe to a paper if I thought it’s writers could tell me something that a) I didn’t know and b) was useful and c) was true. As it is I subscribe only to that venerable exception, the Economist. I did subscribe to the Australian, but I wasted too much time reading it. Finding the Australian occasionally a stretch I obviously couldn’t bear the Smage on a regular basis. I flick the AFR a couple of times a week but no more, mainly for the ‘gossip’!

    So maybe a paper that really wanted to succeed would distinguish between, on one hand, their ‘journos’ for writing about the granny next door and last night’s train wreck and actually organising and printing the paper and on the other, their specialist commenters who write on economics, law, foreign affairs, other countries, policy, etc. These specialists could surely work part-time, couldn’t they? That way they might actually work in the area they write on, which might help!

  9. Peter says:

    Don’t academic economists have enough on their hands with indocrinating the next generation of economists without also seeking to indocrinate future journalists as well?

    The more critical journalists there are the better. Unfortunately, most graduates of economics degrees are not all that critical of their own discipline, IME. Part of the reason for this is the dominance of just one paradigm in most teaching of economics — a critical view is unlikely to emerge if you are led to believe that what are being taught is gospel truth, and not allowed the opportunity to compare it with other paradigms. And part of the reason is due to the lack of much teaching of the history of economic ideas in most economics degrees.

  10. I think one thing aspiring journos need is a grasp of social and behavioural statistics and how to interpret them.

    And then if we could get some courses about how to sustain claims and not make generalisations, that’d be just lervely.

  11. I crossed over from my Arts degree to do some courses in the history of economic ideas and philosophy of economics. Which were fabulous. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they still teach that sort of thing at UQ.

  12. derrida derider says:

    Actually, I reckon a better way of training journos – and not just economic journalists – would be to only teach journalism to graduates. Rather like a Dip Ed or MBA. Let ‘em master the content of what they’ll be reporting on before they learn reporting technique.

    And no-one can claim to be educated unless they have a basic grasp of statistics, just as they can’t claim to be educated if they don’t know some of the basic literary canon, or have some understanding of how government works, or some understanding of scientific method, or some knowledge of modern history, or several other tools for living that a well rounded person should know how to use. And I wouldn’t admit any but educated persons to my journalism course – the supply of idealistic young things to this occupation is strong enough that you can afford to be fussy.

  13. Jono says:

    My girlfriend is studying professional communications at RMIT university in Melbourne, and there was a subject about Globalisation which really gave no grounding in economic theory and only focussed on the (negative) effects of globalisation.

    Its quite disgusting that nowhere in the course was the word “globalisation” properly defined. Its just a scare word for free trade. There was a major assignment on CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility. i.e corporations need to be regulated so they don’t screw up the environment or engage in activities harmful to the community.

    Really, there was very little analysis of history, economic development, economic theory, the theory of competitive advantage, the disaster of communism… Entirely one-sided.

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