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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, April 20, 2009

Are Journalism Students "Mediocre"?

A recent debate between Prof. Andrew Cohen of Carleton University in Ottawa
and almost everyone else who teaches journalism has revealed an interesting fault line among the professoriat.

Cohen wrote in his usually provocative style lamenting what he considered to be the abysmal state of Canadian journalism students in an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen which he entitled "Students of Mediocrity."

Among other things, he laments today's students with "their erratic work ethic, their shallow research, their lack of intellectual depth, their sense of entitlement."

Cohen goes on to admit that they aren't all without some redeeming qualities. Indeed, he says that "there are always students who are sophisticated, conscientious and cosmopolitan, a joy to teach."

The op-ed provoked a small but intense debate.

Dave Tait who also teaches journalism at Carleton, responded to Cohen in the Ottawa Citizen as an unabashed elitist.

"I’m not sure where Andrew Cohen is teaching these days," writes Tait, "because it sure doesn’t sound like the same school I’m at."

Tait attacks Cohen for invoking the qualities of sophistication, conscientiousness and cosmopolitanism, claiming that he only values the second of those three qualities when it comes to teaching. "My concern as a teacher," adds Tait, "isn’t what my students can do as they come into my hands; it’s what they’ll be able to do once they leave me."

Full disclosure: Andrew Cohen is a friend of mine who I met in the late 90's when he was the Toronto Globe and Mail's Washington correspondent and I was VP of News at NPR. I admired (and still do) his fearless intellectualism and his first class mind. We would plumb the depth of our journalistic condition every few weeks at a mediocre Chinese restaurant on 7th Street NW. But like the food back then, student attitudes today are beside the point.

At Ryerson University where I now teach, I have been both surprised and delighted by my students. Surprised that - even though the students are smart, eager and charming - they may not always have the breadth of knowledge that they should. For that, I blame the Ontario public school system and its concentration on molding social attitudes more than instilling a body of knowledge. Never mind. The kids can and will catch up.

(In one of my undergraduate classes, I was explaining that Pope Alexander VI insisted that all printed material be approved by the Church before publishing under threat of excommunication. A student asked what is excommunication).

But delighted too. In a class of graduate students, I asked them to design a coverage plan for the recent attacks in Mumbai, India that would involved all platforms - audio, video, text, UGC, wikis, blogs, accountability and links of all kinds. Plus, I asked them to come up with a business plan. The results were stunningly brilliant. Not perfect, but darned close. I can't claim too much credit; my fellow faculty had their hooks into these kids long before I got to Ryerson. Even so, I am more optimistic about the future of journalism after teaching this class than I was when we began back in January.

I believe these students (perhaps not all, but a lot of them) are bound to save journalism and the democracy that it serves. So we can't give up on them just because they may not know what we do. But in many instances, they know more, so for better or for worse, our future is in their hands.


  1. Jeffrey,

    I actually was at the centre of this drama, having written a letter to editor after Dave Tait's piece was published. It was published in the Citizen under the title "Teachers can have a profound impact". The link is no longer available, but it read:

    Andrew Cohen and David Tait’s recent articles have – understandably – sparked a debate within the Carleton School of Journalism and in many academic communities. The public now needs to hear from students, since they’re the subject in question.

    I’ve just finished my third year in Carleton’s journalism program. I’ve never been taught by Andrew Cohen, so I can’t make any judgements about his classroom methods. But after reading his article last week, I was confused – the students he described don’t sound anything like me or my peers.

    I’m surrounded by brilliant and eager minds in all my journalism classes. It’s no secret that the program is one of the best in the country. Carleton accepts proximately 200 students from thousands of applicants into first-year journalism. In second year, there’s just over 100 of those students left. You can’t survive Carleton’s j-school program unless you’re pretty darn “conscientious” and demonstrate an appetite for knowledge.

    Fortunately, I’ve been taught by David Tait. He’s had a profound impact on my passion for life and journalism, and I’m very proud he stuck up for today’s students.

    Cohen makes a good point – lots of people choose university when they shouldn’t. Fact is, Carleton journalism students – and students everywhere – will work their butts off for any teacher that finds a way to motivate them. It’s disappointing to hear some teachers so negative, but it’s refreshing to hear that others have faith in today’s academic youth.

    Julia Kent

    Ottawa, ON

    Third-year Carleton Bachelor of Journalism student and Carleton University Tour Guide, Undergraduate Admissions and Recruitment Office

  2. Hello,

    'm a soon-to-be graduate of Carleton University's Journalism School.

    I think there is some criticism necessary to be giving journalism students. A lot of students are brought up in this educational world where they've been force fed left wing political ideology without realizing there's a certain slant to it. Any encroachment towards centrism or free market capitalist ideology is considered bad or wrong, or what have you. Same goes for social issues as well. University students aren't teaching people how to think, they're teaching them one way to look at the world that is 'inclusive' and 'affirming.'

    It's called snobbery, folks. However Mr. Cohen -- in his criticism as a teacher -- shows his true colours as a morally superior holier-than-thou intellectual preaching from the public sector soap box instead of teaching hard, practical skills to his students. A good news flash would include the fact most regular Canadians don't know what the word "cosmopolitan" means. Because a handful of people will tell you it's the kind of ice cream with three different flavour in it. Humble up buddy.

    Cohen is right about these students. Like many students they are brainwashed in to thinking they are morally superior than people who hold certain opinioins in society. Perhaps students will be more "cosmopolitan" if teachers encouraged alternative viewpoints instead of rewarding students with good grades for following the status quo to the tee.