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Unidentified persons in operating room

Do journalism schools really need to be teaching hospitals?

The model is gaining ground in many journalism schools, but two professors argue won’t help future journalists — or the industry they’re entering — adapt to change.

Unidentified persons in operating room

The transition from summer to fall means students are returning to campus at journalism programs all around the country. What they do there will have a lasting effect on their careers and the future of the industry. But should they be following the example of a doctor or an entrepreneur in their studies?

In recent years, the idea of adapting journalism education into a model resembling the one employed by teaching hospitals has become popular. Some see the Sacred Heart model as the way of offering real-world reporting experience to students while responding to the information needs of communities.

But not everyone agrees. Researchers David Ryfe and Donica Mensing of the University of Nevada’s Reynolds School of Journalism challenge the idea of the “teaching hospital” route in a paper that examines the assumptions behind the model and how it addresses the transformation taking place in media.

“We’re trying to figure out what our students need to know today like all j-schools are,” Ryfe told me. “We’re in a strange situation where much of what we’ve been teaching the last 100 years or so may not be helpful to our students going forward. The problem is we don’t know what part isn’t helpful.”

The paper, “Blueprint for Change: From the Teaching Hospital to the Entrepreneurial Model of Journalism Education,”(available here) argues that rather than giving students real-world experience, the teaching hospital model could be reinforcing practices and ideals that are harmful to the industry. Ryfe and Mensing write:

Our argument is that this model, if practiced by many journalism schools, could actually slow the response to change. The metaphor implies that journalism is a settled profession with clear boundaries that needs only to be practiced more rigorously, instead of a field with its most fundamental premises unraveling. Rather than creating conditions for students to help re-think journalistic practices, the teaching hospital model reinforces the conviction that content delivery is the primary purpose of journalism. Put simply, it makes it hard for students to think differently.

The teaching hospital model has been advanced by journalism leaders like Nicholas Lemann, outgoing dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Eric Newton, senior advisor at the Knight Foundation. (Newton proposed adopting the model in a piece for us last year; it’s worth reading to see the pro side of this argument.) Last fall, Knight joined five other foundations to pen a letter asking university administrators to embrace the model: j-schools providing a setting for experience and for practitioners (former or current journalists) to teach in a manner similar to doctors and med students.

But the teaching hospital metaphor doesn’t account for the pace of change happening in journalism, Ryfe and Mensing argue. While scientific breakthroughs have continually advanced medicine, they haven’t resulted in the kind of havoc at the core of the industry that news media has experienced. At a teaching hospital, students are instructed on what is known — how to diagnose heart disease, methods to treat blood disorders, or how to play in an air band. But in journalism, there’s a lot of uncertainty and change on every level, Mensing said — if the role of a teaching hospital is to prepare students by rote instruction to take their place in the field, all that results in is more journalists unprepared for changes taking place in the industry, she said.

Learning the practice of newsgathering from current or former journalists can also mean socializing students in the habits of their instructors, Ryfe said. “We put them in the place of a 45-year-old journalist today. They go in at 22 and are already cynical and lost,” Ryfe said. “They’re almost nostalgic for something they haven’t experienced.”

The model is intended to focus journalism education on experiential learning while supplying news to the local community. But by adopting the medical profession as its spiritual guide, journalists may also be fluffing up their sense of self-worth, Mensing and Ryfe write. Seeing parallels between hospitals and newsrooms, and the goals of treating patients (or the public), can be attractive to journalists while the industry weathers disruption. “The teaching hospital model is building on that idea deeply ingrained in journalism that it would like to be a profession in the way lawyers are or doctors are,” Ryfe said.

Instead of following the path of med schools, Ryfe and Mensing argue journalism education should take a more entrepreneurial approach to prepare students for the future:

…one clear value of entrepreneurship is that of enterprise, and enterprise is a value everyone connected with journalism education can appreciate. Faculty and employees alike laud journalism students who are enterprising and creative, who are passionate about their work and willing to put the boots on the ground to see their work realized in myriad ways.

Some of the programs the paper highlights for taking an entrepreneurial approach include the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State. Entrepreneurship, Mensing said, is about invention and change, which can be manifested in various ways inside a j-school. Critical theory or introduction courses allow students to look at the role journalism plays in society today and the various forms it takes on. For skills training, Mensing and Ryfe suggest courses that go beyond traditional reporting and editing to programming and data visualization. But the most important part of the entrepreneurial model, they say, is that it allows for flexibility in coursework and provides students with a framework to adapt to new methods of production or forms of communication.

Ryfe said most journalism educators experience the futility of trying to teach students how to use one set of tools for news, only to have them eclipsed by something newer. The important thing for educators is to teach students how to assess the tools they have available, how to learn independently, how to understand their audience, and how to measure success. “We have to put students out in the world,” he said. “We don’t have time to wait for journalism to become settled again.”

If Ryfe and Mensing have an overarching argument, it’s that journalism and journalism education aren’t settled, which is why picking metaphors can be both useful and troublesome. The teaching hospital model may very well work for some institutions, Mensing said. But the universe of j-schools holds programs of varying sizes, each of which has to find the teaching method that fits their faculty and students, she said. The future of journalism education may indeed be specialization, but not just on the part of students — individual journalism programs will also have to hone their curricula into differentiated approaches.

“Over time, journalism schools go down certain paths and stake their claim in particular forms of journalism, just like in other industries,” Mensing said. “We may no longer see all-purpose schools for everyone.”

Image from the Stanford Medical History Center used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Eric Newton

    “Teaching Hospital” Model: A model of learning-by-doing that includes college students, professors and professionals working together under one “digital roof” for the benefit of a community. Student journalists provide news and engage the community in innovative ways. Top professionals support and guide them. Good researchers help design and study their experiments.

    If it’s old school, it’s not a teaching hospital. If it doesn’t include research, it’s not a teaching hospital. If it doesn’t engage the community, it’s not a teaching hospital. If professors and professionals don’t set aside their long-standing arguments and work together, it’s not a teaching hospital.

    Teaching hospitals help invent and test new things. That’s why a group of funders said at this year’s journalism education convention that we are working on a micro-granting competition. The grant program, to be announced later this year, will support “live news experiments.” We hope that good examples will clarify what good journalistic teaching hospitals should do.

  • Carrie Brown-Smith

    I agree with everything said here, but I thought those advocating the teaching hospital model WERE talking about being more experimental and entrepreneurial. I thought the whole idea wasn’t to learn to replicate “old ways” but to be learning by doing while engaging in building new models for news. I’m just unclear who or what is actually being rebutted here.

  • donica

    Hi Carrie — The point about teaching hospitals is that while they might want to be more entrepreneurial, just the act of getting experienced professionals together, designing a news product and overseeing student teams socializes students in very particular ways. They generally end up reproducing a type of journalism we all recognize.

    You know how hard it is to move from an industrial newsroom to an entrepreneurial start-up. What happens when students have to invent their own rules? Find their own mentors and figure out what journalism really is? Maybe there are other models for ‘learning by doing’ that would encourage students to engage with these questions before they graduate.

    I know you have students, like mine, that are creating their own identities, inventing new jobs, joining disorganized networks, building relationships, selling their work. A teaching hospital – where relationships are established, roles are pre-set and problems cleanly defined — doesn’t prepare students for that world.

    Our argument is that journalism schools need to create environments closer to reality. If students are trained in a teaching hospital, they won’t have practice at explaining to themselves and others who they are and what they do. Those roles are already defined in a teaching hospital. Our students need to experience start up cultures, advocacy cultures, programming cultures — they need to define their own roles, build portfolios, create their own mentor networks and have a mindset that prepares them for a very changed environment.

    Students have to practice journalism to do this, of course. But it could look very different from the journalism produced by experienced professionals overseeing the work of student teams within journalistic teaching hospitals.

    In the end, it’s not an either/or argument. It’s an AND argument — we need teaching hospitals AND other educational models. Teaching hospitals are not the only legitimate way to educate future journalists, even though some argue that it is. I guess the next logical step is to stop arguing and actually study what j-schools are doing so we learn what really is most effective for teaching.

  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Journalism schools should start teaching their students to communicate like teachers instead of entertainers.
    There has been many news articles about our tax laws since the fundamental reforms of 1986 but nothing has happened to stop the lobbyists and special interest groups from corrupting the tax laws with deductions and shelters. The pre-crisis journalism on the housing bubble and subprime mortgage fraud accomplished nothing because it was ignored by politiians and regulators because it was forgotten by voters as white noise in a more exciting information environment of terrrorism and sex scandals. Nothing has been done and nothing will be done about our too big to prosecute banks because reporters are constantly entertaining voters by writing the first draft of history.
    But reporters will never acknowledge that they are responsible for many our government’s failures until they are coerced by our government to communicate more effectively. Reporters are too arrogant to accept responsibility for their failures and start communicating like a teacher by writing the second draft of history.

  • Patricia Marsden

    Isn’t one of the keys to a “teaching hospital” model having the RIGHT people in place as teachers? If the faculty included – along with “traditional” journalists – a set of digital-only journalists, or cross-platform journalists, someone with expertise in social media, etc., couldn’t that model work? And isn’t good, fact-based writing and reporting platform agnostic? So someone who can really turn a phrase would be vaulable, even if he/she doesn’t even know what Twitter is. And at the same time, someone who writes in 140 characters brings value, as well. Agree that if done poorly this concept could reinforce outmoded thinking; but if done well, it could really be an advantage to the student and to the community in which they work.

  • DF

    Doctors can find jobs. Journalists cannot. Big difference.

  • jdshaw

    Idiotic. MD’s will always be in demand. Journalists have about a 20% chance of getting a good job.

  • Katherine

    I just don’t recognize in this article my own experience as a journalism educator in a “teaching hospital” J-School. I don’t accept the premise that this model precludes flexibility, openness and entrepreneurial energy. But then, as Patricia points out in another comment, the model is only as good as the people delivering the education.

    “Ryfe said most journalism educators experience the futility of trying to teach students how to use one set of tools for news, only to have them
    eclipsed by something newer” That’s why we decided some time ago that it made more sense to teach an open, experimental attitude — and being aware of the new tools that change the way people create and share — than it was to teach specific tools. The fundamentals — now that’s another subject. Those remain essentially the same, with shifts in emphasis as the times require. Building the reporting student’s verification skills, for example, is more important than ever in the age of Twitter. Any academic environment is going to be slower than it should be to change its ways. And still, teaching journalism in an actual newsroom delivering actual news has the huge advantage of being a dynamic environment where new approaches can be tested and students alongside faculty can talk about the fumbles, the outright failures, and the surprising successes — and learn from those experiences instantly. Best of all, students and faculty get to jump right back into the fray and test that new knowledge. That accelerates and deepens learning in a remarkable way.