Jobs in journalism that pay a living wage are hard to come by these days. Meaningful and interesting jobs in journalism that allow you to make any difference in the world are even harder to land.

Yet, students still enroll in journalism schools. In fact, the numbers of students might actually be growing. Are the students making a mistake? Are schools doing them an injustice by allowing enrollments to grow? The answer to those questions will shake out over the long term.

If anyone asked my advice, I’d discourage students from majoring in the field. Even if you do wind up working as a journalist, the lack of a journalism degree most likely won’t be held against you. Many media professionals have long favored liberal arts degrees or more highly specialized degrees over j-school backgrounds anyway. A minor in journalism, not a major, would be a sensible course to take, in my view.

But I do think there’s still a significant place for journalism education in universities. In fact, I think one course in the field should be mandatory for all students. It should be a very basic course, not to prepare kids to be reporters, but to prepare them to read, watch, listen, understand and evaluate the news and analysis they consume from all kinds of media.

Students need to learn to be more discerning about the difference between fact and opinion. They need to understand the importance of interpretation and context, to evaluate the quality of sources in an article, to detect bias, to weigh fairness and accuracy. They also need to understand some of the ethical issues that arise constantly in journalism.

A lot of the complaints about “the media” these days and a lot of blind faith in one tale or another suggest that too many consumers of news have little ability to assess the quality of information they are receiving. Democracy doesn’t work well without an informed citizenry. Universities could help us move in the correct direction by requiring their graduates to learn how to be discerning readers, viewers and listeners.

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Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at http://tartantambourine.com/