Professional Development and Journalism Education

The professional skills of journalists are probably the most-recognized measure of media quality. Veteran trainers stress the need to insist upon international standards in media development programs. Establishing high standards is critical not only to professionalizing the media, but also to having a positive impact on the public.

Professionalization typically takes two forms: university journalism education and mid-career professional training.

Most entry-level professional journalists come out of university-based journalism programs, which makes universities an important factor in media capacity building.In addition to educating a region’s future journalists, these university programs may influence govern­ment media policies and the general culture. They also offer international media develop­ers the advantages of strong local grounding in established institutions.

Basing this training in universities also poses dilemmas for those intent on improving independent journalism in its role of undergirding and strengthening democracy. The receptiveness of any par­ticular university for enhanced journalism training is contingent on local conditions that vary widely from region to region.

Many journalism faculties remain fixed in the past, teaching the theory of journalism exclusively, while others teach only tra­decraft without proper grounding in ethics and other studies. Too many programs merge the teaching of public relations with journal­ism, failing to underscore the journalists’ mission as independent watchdogs holding the powerful accountable. Cutting-edge media technologies, which are transforming the media landscape, remain out of reach for most journalism schools despite their critical role in the profession. The student demand for university-basedjournalism studies is surging around the world, but that does not necessarily mean overall journalism quality is improving in developing countries.

These weaknesses have led many to argue for the importance of mid-career journalism training. Many donors and implementers have made professional development the cornerstone of media assistance. Indeed, more media funding dollars go to training and other efforts to improve the level of professionalism than any other area of media development, according to a 2007 CIMA survey.

The reasoning is straightforward: better-trained journalists offer a direct path to transforming the overall media landscape. When professional expectations are raised, media professionals are more likely to strive to achieve better results. Quality reporting, editing, and design can boost circulation and help develop a marketplace better able to support independent media. Specialized training in investigative reporting can sharpen the media’s role as public watchdog, helping developing nations battle stubborn problems of crime and corruption.

Professional development efforts take on many forms:

  • Long-term Training. Ranging from weeks-long courses to embedding U.S. editors into foreign newsrooms, long-term training is widely lauded for helping raise journalism standards overseas.
  • Short-term Training. Sometimes criticized for being too limited in scope, intensive classes—from afternoon sessions to one-week workshops—have long been a mainstay of journalism training.
  • Fellowships and Exchanges. More than 30 international fellowships are available for study, training, and research. Among the better-known programs are the Fulbright awards and Harvard’s Nieman fellowships. Some, such as the International Journalism Exchange, offer foreign journalists the chance to work at U.S. media outlets.
  • Specialized Training. Targeted trainings may focus on advanced techniques (investigative and computer-assisted reporting), new technology (Web publishing, blogging), or specific subjects (the environment, HIV/ AIDS, human trafficking, business reporting).
  • “Training the Trainers.” Building local skills can foster more sustainable professional standards. Many groups work to equip local trainers with the ability to teach and prepare journalists in their native countries, thus maintaining a higher level of professional development after the program ends.
  • Infrastructure. Especially in poorer countries, donors have purchased, installed, and helped maintain capital-intensive equipment, such as transmission towers, studio gear, and printing presses. This equipment allows reporters to take advantage of journalistic skills that might otherwise be out of their reach.
  • Media Centers. With journalism education poorly developed in many countries, these nonprofit groups are often the only means for supporting and training mid-career professional journalists. A 2007 survey by ICFJ found 81 journalism training centers worldwide.
  • Professional Associations. Developing media associations is widely recognized as key to professional development. Among the groups: journalist unions, media monitors, circulation auditors, press councils, and advertising associations.
  • Guidebooks and Training Materials. Developing and translating journalism guides, textbooks, and other training materials have helped spread professional practices overseas.
  • Distance Learning. The Florida-based Poynter Institute, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas-Austin, and ICFJ are among those offering distance training, using online courses to reach journalists overseas.

The impact of professional development programs can be dramatic, from improvements in circulation to exposés that prompt government reforms.

  • In Uganda, Knight Fellow Rosemary Armao—one of hundreds of Knight International fellows since 1993—encouraged her journalism students to report on a garbage problem plaguing the capital city of Kampala. The students, many of whom had never conducted more than a cursory interview, revealed the physical toll the garbage problem was taking on poor residents, including children covered in scabies and sickened by cholera or typhoid. The students’ work sparked interest from the local paper, whose story in turn prompted the city to clean up the trash.
  • In Ukraine, IREX’s Media Partnership Program pairs Ukrainian media organizations with media outlets in the United States. The program, funded initially by the State Department’s Public Diplomacy Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and now by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, has helped Ukrainian journalists gain experience and skills in reporting, business management, advertising, marketing, and use of new technologies, such as streaming media.
  • TV UNION of Donetsk, for example, partnered with Channel 13 WMAZ of Macon, Georgia, to launch a local investigative reporting program called “Zone of Special Attention.” Working with The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana, staffers at the newspaper Kafa in Feodosiya, Crimea, completely redesigned their publication and improved its Web site.

In a CIMA working group on professional development, a group of experts developed three main recommendations for improving media capacity:

  • First, improving media is a local project that requires local remedies, local partners, and deep understanding of local values and circumstances. One solution never fits all—just as ethical norms must be put into practice to fit local realities, so must programs fit local limitations.
  • Second, success requires that the right people do the right job, preferably in concert on mutually determined goals, moderated by flexible rules and evaluated on long-term and qualitative goals. This means that donors should support creative programming by dedicated trainers and teachers who work with engaged journalists and persevering managers.
  • Third, donors who want to be effective need to understand that short-term funding and training have not created long-term impact. Making media independent, ethical, and credible is a singularly intangi­ble development effort for which there are no quick fixes and no universal answers about how to make success more immediate.

Relevant Reports

Media Assistance: Challenges and Opportunities for the Professional Development of Journalists

University Journalism Education: A Global Challenge

Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support


Relevant Events

Report Release: An Imperative to Innovate


Relevant Organizations