November 30, 2015

UNC J-School Drops Post-Civil War History and Econ Course Requirements, Has No Idea Why They’re Needed

If you think journalists’ ignorance of American history and economic fundamentals is bad now, give it a few more years.

The University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism “has updated its curriculum requirements to give students more choice and flexibility in meeting the school’s graduation requirements. The change is in response to consistent feedback the school has received from students in its annual senior survey.” You already know there’s trouble if students who haven’t been out in the real world yet are influencing the curriculum. Here’s how much trouble:

Students majoring in media and journalism are no longer required to complete the following specific courses: HIST 128, ECON 101 and POLI 100.

HIST 128 is “America History Since 1865.”

ECON 101 is “Principles of Economics.”

So you can graduate as a journalist from the allegedly prestigious University of North Carolina without having a handle on the basics of U.S. history since the Civil War, and without having taken a single course in economics.

We’re supposed to be consoled, I suppose, by the fact that “ECON 101 is still required for the business journalism major.”

I’m certainly not. UNC is helping to ensure that, as bad as the business reporting already is by business and economics writers at outfits like the Associated Press (many of whom I suspect did not graduate as business journalists but later gravitated into the area), and as virtually ignorant as other reporters’ output already is on any topic which touches even remotely on the economy, it’s going to get worse.

What’s more, UNC’s move apparently continues a long-term trend of dumbing down J-school curricula.

In the midst of the Newt Gingrich-Bill Clinton budget battle 20 years ago, Jay Schalin of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy was a reporter in Washington. Here’s what he found (HT John Miller at National Review):

As a freelancer, I had no assigned desk but moved around the bureau to any available open terminal. One day, at the very height of the tension, I was working next to one of the paper’s rising stars who would soon be elevated from reporter to assistant bureau chief. Befitting his status, he had been given the plum assignment of covering the federal budget story. I noticed him poring intensely over some papers. Suddenly, he exclaimed aloud in exasperation, “No way they can balance the budget—the deficit is over three times as much as annual revenues!”

I looked up from my keyboard, surprised at such ignorance of basic economics by somebody so highly regarded in the newsroom. I explained that he had mistaken the debt for the deficit, that the debt is a cumulative amount whereas the deficit is the annual difference between revenues and expenditures. Once the light bulb appeared over his head, we went back to writing our respective articles—his on the most important national story of the day, mine (most likely) on some insignificant local matter.

One more detail: he was a graduate of the prestigious (currently ranked #18 by College Factual) journalism program at Rutgers, New Jersey’s flagship university.

Since then, I have frequently been alarmed—and occasionally amused—by the lack of understanding exhibited by professional journalists of, not just economics, but of fundamental history and political theory as well.

Which makes the recent decision by UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism to eliminate requirements that journalism majors take certain basic courses in economics, U.S. government, and American History since 1865 seem troubling.

It doesn’t just seem troubling, Jay. It is troubling. Journalists will come across economic issues regardless of their beat assignments. If they haven’t somehow acquired basic economic knowledge, their performance will fall short of what the reading, listening and viewing public has ever right to respect.

It thus seems quite safe to assume that recent college J-school graduates know very little about how the world really works, and that those who run those schools don’t care that they’re sending such people into responsible establishment press positions. National Review’s Miller quoted one of UNC’s J-school deans saying that “No one really knew why we were requiring HIST 128 or why we were specifically requiring ECON 101.” … That sound is my jaw hitting the floor. If that person really doesn’t know, he or she has no business being a J-school dean.

Weaknesses in basic economic principles and post-Civil War history are not the only problems — not by a long shot.

Earlier this year, we saw Meredith Shiner — a Duke J-school graduate, a bit of a rising star who put in a total of five years at the Politico and Roll Call, and now a reporter at Yahoo Newsutterly amazed at how “bizarre” it was for GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz “to talk about how rights are God-made and not man-made … when the Constitution was man-made.” It appeared that this poor woman never genuinely learned about the Declaration of Independence, its itemization of Creator-endowed rights, and how its articulated principles form the Constitution’s foundation. She has, to my knowledge, never properly acknowledged, let alone apologized for, her breathtaking ignorance.

How do these things happen?

We have universities, and really an education system in general, which seem to indulge almost anything while requiring little to nothing involving rigor. Then we expect to receive accurately reported news from the establishment press publications which hire these J-school naifs. It’s mostly not going to happen — which is why New Media needs to get more genuinely strong, knowledgeable life-experienced people in it ranks, and beef up their outlets’ presence and visibility.

Decisions like those just made at UNC indicate that the process needs to occur very quickly — because, as I said in this post’s intro, if you think it’s bad now, just wait a few years.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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