Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Media education: From course structure to quality of students, the challenges are immense

My article on the challenges of media education has just been published by Corporate Tycoons, a magazine published out of Pune:


How good are media schools in India?

By Ramesh Prabhu

In the early ’80s, when I first became a newspaper journalist, there were very few colleges offering post-graduate media courses.

That didn’t seem to matter at the time.

There was only one television channel and it did not offer much by way of news or even entertainment. There was no internet, and no mobile phones either. The opening up of the economy, and everything that liberalisation brought with it, was still many years away. With fewer distractions and longer attention spans, it was a more civilised time. And there seemed to be more time, too. More time to learn on the job. More time for your colleagues to teach you the ropes at work.

It did not matter if you didn’t have a master’s degree in mass communication, or in any other subject. Hardly anyone else in the newspaper could boast of that qualification either. What mattered was your attitude at work. And your ability to quickly pick up what mattered.

It’s all so different today.

More than a hundred television news channels and a few thousand newspapers and magazines are engaged in a race for both audiences and advertisers. The competition has become so fierce that new recruits at the entry level no longer have any breathing space. They are still expected to have the right attitude and they are still expected to learn many things on the job. But no one has the time now to hold their hand as they attempt to navigate the swiftly moving and often treacherous currents of the media ocean. There is no honeymoon period. There is no time for a honeymoon. Period.

That is why the industry today prefers to hire only those who have a master’s degree or those who at least have a post-graduate diploma from an institute that has a reputation for providing quality journalism education. (Disclosure: I teach journalism at a media college that offers a two-year master’s degree course in mass communication.)

What do students expect from a media course today? In brief, they want to learn everything that will enable them to gain a foothold in the industry.

So the more relevant question may be this: What does the industry expect of a media institute?

And therein lies the rub.

Today newspapers and television news channels expect a fresh recruit to deliver like a pro from Day One, so it stands to reason that, at a minimum, media courses should be in sync with industry requirements. The syllabus and curriculum should be such that proper weightage is given to teaching theory and assigning practical projects in journalism as it is practised today. Students should be required to work on, and publish, their own newspaper (not a “lab journal”), which is distributed to the public like the dailies, albeit on a smaller scale. They should produce their own television news bulletins — montage, graphics, piece-to-camera and all — which should then be judged by industry professionals. At every stage the students’ performance should be monitored on a CCE, or Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation, basis.

In addition, the media college should have excellent industry tie-ups and make arrangements for internships with the best media outlets in the country. It is these internships that will give the students a feel of the real world and give them an opportunity to apply everything they have been taught.

One would think this is the norm today in colleges that offer courses in mass communication or journalism. Alas, it’s not.

The problem lies mostly at the undergraduate level where out-of-date syllabi continue to rule the roost. Many young media aspirants who have studied journalism as a subject for three years as part of their B.A. or B.B.M. course may have been taught plenty about the history of Indian journalism but they remain shockingly unaware of the basics of newspaper production. For instance, they have no idea who does what in a newspaper. They come into a master’s course believing that the job of a newspaper editor, the top boss, is to “go through, select, and edit” every story. Or they think the editor’s only job is to write editorials.

Most undergrad students are also expected to find their own media internships, which only compounds their problems.

As for post-grad institutes, while there are indeed a few media schools in the country that offer outstanding diploma or degree courses, many others have lamentably low standards. It was not a surprise, therefore, when journalism schools came in for severe criticism recently from Justice Markandey Katju, the chairman of the Press Council of India, who has since set up a committee to determine minimum qualifications to become a journalist. What caused surprise, though, was that this move immediately drew fire from many senior journalists. This was a surprise because 20 years ago, or going even further back, it was perhaps enough to be literate and have an interest in reading and writing to become a journalist. But, as discussed above, that is not the case today.

Be that as it may, Justice Katju’s comments about the standards of journalism schools were spot on, as will be evident from reading the comments by veteran journalist and journalism teacher V. Gangadhar in a recent issue of The Hindu. Insisting that journalism schools must improve, Gangadhar gave the example of Mumbai University, which, he said, granted affiliation to dozens upon dozens of B.M.M. and B.M.S. departments without caring to examine whether they had any kind of infrastructure, like library facilities, classrooms, and qualified teachers. “After a couple of years, the university, in its wisdom, abolished entrance tests,” Gangadhar wrote, “and decided that applicants to these courses should be admitted on the strength of their standard 12 marks, completely ignoring the fact that the cramming habits of, and inflated marks awarded by, junior colleges are not enough to judge the different needs of a journalism course.”

Teaching was another farce, Gangadhar wrote. Since senior journalists were not available, “teachers with no background or interest in journalism were roped in. Of course, some of them took pains to study topics like regional journalism and managed. But others were disasters”.

So course structure and quality of faculty are serious issues.

But what about the quality of students seeking to enter journalism?

If youngsters who have no interest in reading, who cannot write two paragraphs in grammatically correct English, who refuse to understand that to be a good writer you first have to be a good reader, who cannot make intelligent conversation, who want to be on television “for the glamour”, who are unwilling to slog it out insist on becoming journalists, it is a serious problem.

It is also a serious problem when, despite the best efforts of their teachers, these students decline to apply themselves, either because they don’t want to or because they are unable to.

And the problem assumes near-insurmountable proportions when these youngsters, at the end of their course, go on to become full-fledged journalists.

When they fail to perform, who will be blamed? More often than not, the institute that trained them.

Let us go back, for a final time, to V. Gangadhar:

“At a TV Bachelor of Mass Media (B.M.M.) university examination, where students were asked to identify and comment on a recent war which had divided the United States of America, more than a dozen students, obviously from the same college, elaborated on the ‘Vitamin War’. Another TV B.M.M. class was learning the basics of book reviews. The teacher was shocked when the 40-plus students admitted that none of them had ever read a book outside their prescribed course of studies.”

The moral of the story here is that there are media institutes and there are media students. But we should not necessarily judge the quality of the media institute by the quality of the student.

One last question: Should we care about the quality of journalism education? The answer lies in the lucid assertion by Howard Finberg, an American journalist with more than 40 years’ experience who now works with The Poynter Institute, a world-class journalism school. “Without a robust future for journalism education,” Finberg wrote in an article on, “it is harder to see a robust future for journalism. And that’s bad for democracy and for citizens who depend on fair and accurate information.”


Which is the right
media college for you?

If you are a student looking to join a good media college, do extensive research before making up your mind. Study the course structure to assess the importance given to practical training. Find out as much as you can about the faculty: What are their qualifications to teach the course? How many years have they worked in the industry? Do they blog? Check out the internships the college provides. Ask about industry tie-ups. Request contact details of alumni — if the college is a reputed one, the staff will be glad to answer all your questions and help you get a better grip on the course it offers.

For your part, if you are keen on becoming a journalist, make sure your decision is not based on a whim. Spend time talking with journalists. Try to understand what it means to be a journalist. And once you are sure journalism is what you want and after you have taken a decision on the college, give some thought to the advice I give all media aspirants:
  • If you do not like reading you will be at a disadvantage, so make a huge effort to develop a reading habit. Read newspapers, magazines, books — fiction, non-fiction. Books on journalism. Books by journalists. Remember: In order to be a good writer, you first have to be a good reader.
  • Watch movies. Listen to music. Immerse yourself in popular culture. Be aware of what’s going on around you.
  • Talk to people. Understand their concerns. Develop empathy for your audience.
  • At all times, behave professionally.
  • Guard zealously your reputation for honesty, credibility, and integrity. Once it's lost, all is lost. — RP

POORVI KOTHARI (Class of 2014) commented via e-mail:
"With fewer distractions and longer attention spans, it was a more civilised time". I loved this line. The article is really good, Sir. I wish I had read something like this earlier. Especially to realise how important it is to read books. Sir, I liked your side bar more than the magazine write-up. 

ANANYA CHATTERJEE (Class of 2014) commented via e-mail:
Just read your article. So true. I've heard my father [a senior sports journalist with The Times of India in Kolkata] say the same things so many times. He did Chemistry Hons. and now this! You have actually seen the entire industry transform. For most of us... Well, all of us in fact... we cannot even think of landing at a decent place without a degree! The competition is too much, which is what we are already witnessing during this internship. One wrong move and you're out. Thank you, Sir, for this article. The reiteration of these things actually can direct us and it can also keep us away from making the wrong move. ;)


APAR DHAM (Class of 2011) commented via e-mail: 
This is great! :-D Loved the "honeymoon" line! Made me giggle! Hehe! Posted on FB and Twitter. :-) Thank you.

KOKILA JACOB, my erstwhile colleague at Khaleej Times who is now a Dubai-based media professional, commented via e-mail:
I forwarded your e-mail to my niece as the box sidebar gives some very timely advice to her. She has completed 2nd PUC and is now agonising over which colleges and what courses to choose. They have so many choices that it's difficult for them. Life was easy for us.... we had only one college and a handful of subjects to choose from! And we turned out okay, I would think!

DEBARATI DEB (Class of 2015) commented via e-mail:
Thank you so much for sharing this, Sir. It was of great help. :-) 

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