Survey: J-students need a mix of old and new skills

June 6, 2014

LINCOLN, NE—Accuracy, ethical principles and good news judgment top the list of the most important skills this year’s college journalism graduates should possess, according to journalism educators and news professionals. Those were the preliminary findings in a survey conducted by a professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Digital, mobile and social media reporting skills were also mentioned in responses to the survey of 665 journalism educators and news professionals across the U.S.

Bernard “Barney” McCoy, UNL associate professor of broadcasting, studied the perceptions journalism professionals and educators have regarding skills college journalism graduates should possess when they enter the professional workplace.

“Most of the time, news professionals and journalism educators agree on what skills they think are important for journalism graduates to have for their first jobs in digital, print and broadcast news organizations,” McCoy said. “Sometimes though, educators and news professionals differ on which skills and experiences they think are most important for college journalism students to have in the journalism work world.”

Survey respondents were asked to rank the importance of various skills they believe college journalism graduates should possess for the professional workplace. Respondents from all three groups identified “accuracy” (97 percent), “ethical principles” (87 percent), and “good news judgment” (80 percent) as the top three “very important” skills for graduating journalists to possess.

McCoy said respondents also listed “digital reporting” (86 percent), “good mobile” skills (76 percent), and “social media reporting” (73 percent), as either “very important” or “important” skills for journalism graduates to have in the nationwide survey.

“News professionals and journalism educators agree that newer technology skills are increasingly important for graduating journalists. However,” McCoy said, “they run a distant second to accuracy, ethics and good news judgment as the most important skills journalists should possess.”

Two examples of differing perceptions between news professionals and journalism educators involve the job colleges do preparing journalism graduates for the professional workplace. Among journalism educators, 64 percent “strongly agree” or “agree” that college journalism programs are doing a good job of preparing journalism graduates to enter the professional workplace. Only 30 percent of professional news managers and 45 percent of non-management news professionals had the same responses.

News professionals and journalism educators were also asked if college journalism programs are doing a better job today of preparing journalism graduates for the professional workplace than 10 years ago. Among the journalism educators, 46 percent chose “strongly agree” or “agree” as responses. Twenty-one percent of professional journalism managers and 30 percent of non-management journalism professionals chose the same responses.

The type of technology tools used for reporting by journalism graduates also sparked different responses and attitudes among the survey group. Respondents were asked which one reporting tool they would choose for a journalism graduate to use in his or her first professional reporting assignment. Forty-four percent of the news managers chose “Pencil or pen and paper” as their top response, followed by a “smart phone” at 27 percent. One news manager wrote: “If they can’t get a story with pen and paper, the other stuff won’t help.”

Journalism educators appear to have a different view of this question. They chose a “smart phone” (52 percent) as their first choice, followed by a “tablet” device (16 percent), and a “pencil or pen and paper” (15 percent). “I almost chose pen and paper, but with the smart phone, he or she can write and photograph, which I think is the most common/important way to capture a story,” one educator wrote.

Non-management news professional responses fell someplace between journalism educators and news managers. They chose a “smart phone” (43 percent) as their top reporting tool choice, followed by a “pencil or pen and paper” (26 percent), and a “video camera” (17 percent). One non-management news professional said it was “silly” to compare a pencil/paper combo with any of the other tools. They wrote: “Any reasonable person would of course use a laptop, tablet or smart phone, with paper as a backup in case of failure.”

“The length of the respondent’s professional job experience may explain some differences on the reporting tool question,” said McCoy. For example, the survey found 51 percent of news managers had been on their jobs for 26 years or more. That compared with 31 percent of the journalism educators, and 30 percent of the non-management news professionals who had been on their jobs for 26 years or more. “Those with the most years on the job tended to favor ‘pencil or pen and paper’ as the one reporting tool they preferred most if given just one choice,” McCoy said. “That might be the case because it’s the reporting tool they’ve had the most personal experience using.”

The survey provided evidence that internships are useful experiences that can lead to better job opportunities for college journalism students. Ninety-seven percent of the journalism educators, 88 percent of the non-management news professionals and 86 percent of news managers answered “Yes” when asked if “internship experiences lead to better hiring opportunities for journalism graduates.”

These are some preliminary survey findings, which will include a more in-depth analysis later this year in collaboration with the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Among other key findings in the survey:

• A large majority of survey respondents said it’s helpful for prospective newsroom employees to have a college degree. Eight-in-10 (81 percent) of the respondents said it was either “very helpful” (41 percent) or “helpful” (40 percent) for prospective newsroom employees to have a college degree.

• Social media and reporting top the new skills for journalism list. When asked what new skills journalism graduates need today because of ongoing changes in the profession, 35 percent of the respondents answered “social media,” followed by “reporting” (17 percent).

• Se habla Español! A very large majority, 93 percent, of the respondents said Spanish would be the one language besides English that would make a journalism graduate most valuable in the professional workplace. Chinese was a distant second at 33 percent.

• English, political science and history. Besides journalism courses, respondents ranked those three as top courses for journalism majors to take in college. Respondents ranked English (87 percent), political science (84 percent) and history (82 percent) as “very important” or “important” courses for journalism students to take in college. When it comes to earning a degree besides a journalism degree, respondents suggest political science (21 percent), English (17 percent), and business (16 percent).

• What part of their education best prepared them for their careers? The biggest single answer by respondents was “writing” (19 percent), followed by “internships” (16 percent), and “journalism courses” (15 percent).

This report is based on a survey conducted March 7- May 5, 2014, among a nationally representative sample of journalism educators, news managers and non-management news professionals. The sample comprised 665 respondents, 206 of whom are journalism educators, 353 were professional news managers, and 106 were non-management news professionals. The survey questionnaire was written by McCoy and reviewed by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The survey was administered via a secured online website to journalism educators and professionals who agreed to voluntarily participate in the survey. Survey respondents were represented in 10 U.S. regions representing all U.S. states and territories.

For questions on the full sample, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.79 percentage points based on an estimated population size of 100,000 for professional journalists and journalism educators in the U.S.

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