“No amount of academic debate is going to give you news sense, even if you have a PhD. It’s a knack and you’ve either got it or you haven’t” (MacKenzie, 2011).
British universities are currently offering 273 single and joint undergraduate degree courses and 123 postgraduate courses involving instruction in journalism (Graduate Prospects, 2014; UCAS, 2014). In the academic year 2012-13, 12,025 students were studying journalism at British universities, 10,140 of those as a first degree (Higher Education Statistics Agency , 2014). Despite its popularity there remains considerable scepticism in sections of industry about the value of higher education to journalism, the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, suggesting that all journalism colleges should be closed down (MacKenzie, 2011).
Educational literature suggests that higher education can affect profound change in students. Self-efficacy beliefs for example can be developed through mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, modelling influences and social persuasion. Whilst self-efficacy beliefs are easily undermined by failure, experience in overcoming obstacles, seeing others succeed and contact with proficient models who possess competencies to which students aspire can develop beliefs which can positively affect life choices, quality of functioning and resilience to adversity (Bandura, 1994).
Further evidence of the potential of universities to develop the individual through the acquisition of knowledge is suggested by the former head of the BBC College of Journalism, Kevin Marsh. Marsh describes a “character, an attitude and a mindset” in successful journalists who are alert and alive to everything going on around them. They question everything they come across, listen properly and have a type of memory that gathers everything “like grannies used to collect bits of string”:
“In the general run of things, the value of a degree to me as a prospective employer wasn’t in the content of the degree itself. It was how everything involved in completing the course had opened the candidate’s eyes to the world” (Marsh, 2011).
People interviewed for this study supported the suggestion that a university education could mould, engender or encourage qualities and dispositions traditionally associated with good journalism. The editor discussed her own experience in acquiring news sense in the workplace and in a postgraduate journalism course. She suggested that the same sort of instincts could be acquired in simulated workplace situations provided by the university newsroom:
E: “I think it’s certainly something that you can learn. I would say I learned more from people in a newsroom on the job than I did at university doing my training course but if the people who are teaching you at university have experience themselves, sound experience, then they can obviously help young people start to understand what makes for a news story”.
Data from students suggested that qualities like scepticism, tenacity and confidence had developed during their university education. S6 felt that one of the most important skills he had acquired was the ability to judge whether a story was true or not:
S6: “Three years ago I could have believed in everything you could have told me. Now I’m saying OK but what are your sources”.
S5 felt that practical exercises which required him to secure interviews with sources of information in the community had developed personal qualities in him:
S5: “When you have to talk to strangers you develop skills that are not just applicable to journalism but to your own life like tenacity and confidence”.
Academic A2 said that his postgraduate diploma in journalism had taught him how to be a “professional journalist”:
A2: “I wouldn’t have got a career in journalism without it. I was hopeless. I had done some writing for university papers and stuff and I thought I could do it but I didn’t really know much at all”.
The data does acknowledge a variation between students in the capacity for acquiring those skills connected to a deeper set of predispositions. A1 considered qualities like “curiosity, tenacity a sense of irreverence and fun and a questioning disposition” were “temperamental”:
A1: “You can try to nurture or develop or provoke … those qualities in individuals but I think some individuals are blessed by nature with more of them than others”;
A2: “Journalism courses can give you the kit of parts to become a journalist: the attributes are harder to endow but I think you can develop them, you can hone them”.