Is a journalism major important for aspiring reporters?

A recent discussion thread on the Society of Professional Journalists’ LinkedIn page posed the following question:

Is majoring in journalism a bit like majoring in air?! Everyone breathes. And everyone writes (albeit at widely divergent levels). Should we have majored in economics, politics, science, history? – Paul Chimera, journalist/adjunct professor

The comments are mixed, with some advocating strongly for the value of J-schools and others who believe on-the-job journalism training is adequate for students who specialize in other areas.

First, a disclosure – I am a journalism professor. Obviously, the decision to have a journalism major directly affects my livelihood, which may hurt my credibility here a bit.

That being said, I have two thoughts to share: 1) Having a major in journalism is beneficial; 2) Majoring in journalism is not mandatory for success in the field.

A journalism major teaches students several practical techniques for journalism work (AP style, inverted pyramid, interviewing, etc.) that could be – and often are – refined on the job. But good journalism programs do more than just impart basic reporting/writing knowledge: they get aspiring journalists excited and passionate about the field in a way that no other major can.

I have been a student and/or teacher in journalism programs at four different universities. The takeaway for me – aside from a wealth of skills learned and applied throughout my career – was the cultivation of a hunger for journalism born out of working with professional journalists-turned-educators. Had I majored in anything else, I probably would not have caught the journalism bug, and I never would have set foot in the newsroom.

That is what it took for me, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone. I know a number of very talented journalists from a wide range of majors, from English (a natural fit) to biology (a not-so-obvious path). If you read newspapers and are a natural writer with an unusually inquisitive nature, any path might lead you to a lifetime of chasing stories. But those people are the exception rather than the rule.

Journalism schools teach a range of skills applicable for so many professions, including the ability to relate to others, gather and act as a liaison of information, develop an eye for details and exercise a healthy level of skepticism and, most importantly, WRITE (which, I’m sorry, not everyone does or can do).

With so much to offer, who would want to major in anything else? (That’s called a “kicker” – learned that in J-school!)


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