Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

A very thorough review of my university journalism degree course

with 3 comments

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Introduction
I did an undergraduate degree at Bournemouth University, where I studied from 2009-2012, leaving with a B.A in Multimedia Journalism.

Bournemouth University has one of the UK’s best media schools, and its journalism course is one of the top three in the country. I place City University’s journalism degree at the top simply because it’s in London and has a closer connection to the industry; enjoying the best speakers, guest lecturers and professional links. Rounding out the top three is the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), whose journalism course is one of the most venerable in the country.

I did not go to City University because at the time they did not do just a journalism degree, it was Journalism with History, and because Bournemouth Uni happens to be by the sea and didn’t look as depressing a location as Preston, where UCLAN is situated.

I did a journalism BA because I wanted to be a journalist and wanted to spend three years thinking about it, given an underpinning to practice it and to enjoy the semi-professional opportunities to do it (ie internships). There are other ways to become a journalist, of which a few paths are arguably better. These include doing a BA in something genuinely useful like economics, finance, a language, even English literature, and then doing an MA in journalism or a professional diploma.

But that topic is for another time. The following is a discussion of my journalism course’s strengths and weaknesses. The modules involved will be fairly similar to other journalism courses so you can adapt this review to other degrees.

Key:
NCTJ – National Council for the Training of Journalists
BU – Bournemouth University
J-course – journalism course

The NCTJ modules (journalism’s core skills)
The first year was fairly intense. We had a lot to learn and a lot to study and a lot of exams to test our learning. BU’s journalism course is NCTJ, BCTJ, PTC accredited. Those acronyms stand for professional journalism bodies and signify BU’s rigor in teaching the skills and knowledge professional journalists need, especially those who work at local newspapers.

These include Teeline shorthand, media law, public affairs and news writing. Much of our first year was spent learning these and being tested on them — which looking back was very good grounding.

Learning each of those topics was harder and more layered than the simple list above suggests. For example Teeline shorthand takes many hours and hours of learning and practice. It is quite similar to learning a new language.

We would start by learning the shorthand for each letter of the alphabet. Once we had demonstrated mastery of that, we would go on to learn what some of those letters were shorthand for (the outline for “P” for example also stands for “people”). Before going on to learn more complicated theories of how to join up those outlines, all in the pursuit of efficient and fast shorthand speed.

Speed and accuracy in shorthand are paramount. The tiers for shorthand are 60 words per minute; 80wpm; 100wpm — there are higher speeds but these three were what we were tested on on the course. In our second year many of us struggled to pass the 80wpm, with the consequence that if we failed we would not progress onto the third year (the 100wpm was optional).

There is no substitute for practice when it comes to attaining shorthand speed. I liken it to a racing driver. A racing driver cannot hope to be a fast driver unless he spends time driving a car around a circuit many, many times. And if he stops and doesn’t drive for a while, he will not be as fast.

Tests in shorthand involve listening to a spoken extract in a room with dozens of others, all zoned into a recording being played to the room, while we furiously try to keep up with the recording. After the recording finishes we then transcribe our shorthand notes back into the English language, and try to write out an accurate reproduction of what was said aloud by the recording.

It is designed to be a good simulation of how you would use shorthand in real life: taking down notes over the phone; at the courtroom; in an interview. And then later transcribing these notes into a transcription of what was said. Transcription needs to be done soon after the fact as you will forget the exact detail of some of the shorthand outlines if you don’t do it soon enough.

Many students found shorthand tough going and it was a significant contributor, in addition to other modules, to some of the first-year dropouts or those made to repeat the first year. But with enough practice, anyone can attain the minimum of 60wpm even if it doesn’t feel that way when you first try to do so. Trust me on this, when you’re doing 80wpm, 60wpm suddenly seems like a ridiculously slow speed and so on.

Nowadays, I pretty much never use shorthand in interviews. I make notes instead and record the audio and I feel no great need for shorthand. I still use some shorthand just for myself and I am glad that I know the theory.

Media law takes in courtroom reporting, what you’re allowed to do and not; the elements of privacy, such as when applied to sexual abuse victims; what constitutes contempt; the laws involved in assault, robbery, manslaughter, etc, and the definitions of each; defamation — a lot on defamation to make sure reporters protect themselves from being sued, and much else. This was useful, especially on defamation, and the module also gives you a deeper understanding of privacy, revealing a sensitivity to how identity can be pieced together heretofore unknown to us.

Public affairs was perhaps the most fascinating module. Public affairs (PA) was the study of how local councils work; how the institutions of government work (the house of commons; the house of lords; what the speaker of the commons does etc); what the 1922 committee is and what it does. It taught us how the UK was run, and what its most important democratic institutions are, and how they link together, and what they do. I cannot understand why it is not taught to each and every schoolchild in England, making us better, more informed and thus more democratic citizens. I suspect it’s because education would then be more politicized.

I remember one PA task we were given whereby we were required to write an essay on how power had shifted from Margaret Thatcher to John Major to Tony Blair, and how each prime minister was more or less powerful by the effectiveness with which they used their cabinet (or in Blair’s case by almost forgoing his cabinet). It gave us a deeper understanding of the public institutions (as well as the Queen and her office) that make society work, and so with this understanding journalists would be equipped to know when one of these democratic institutions was not working, and able to grasp how power and authority works.

This knowledge is incredibly important when you consider how newspapers and journalism are regarded as an essential component of a liberal democracy, as defenders of the public and as watchdogs of those in power and those who wield power.

News, reporting, and feature writing
A lot of the exercises and lectures on the practical elements of journalism — reporting, how to write features and news reports — I have forgotten. This was in hindsight one of the weaker elements of the course. You may think this is a terrible advertisement for a journalism degree, the fact that it does not teach you, or teach you well the practice of journalism — or does not give you great opportunities to write and shoot video — a great failure of a journalism degree.

But let me say two things: 1. There is absolutely no substitute for real journalism practice, learning how to write and report (or in the case of broadcasting, shooting and video interviewing) out in the field, for real, for publication. And no journalism BA will give you a great replacement for that. And 2. The young person who believes that a journalism degree does not give you a good foundation in journalism because it doesn’t give you the opportunity to practice it, is totally dismissing the incredible value and worth of the other benefits, which is a deeper, broader understanding of journalism and its role as a medium and how media operates.

Memorable tasks of this module included: going out to find an elderly person, sitting down and interviewing them. Walking around the university campus and attempting to find a story within an allotted time. Creating a magazine concept, which included creating a magazine front cover, a content list for the first issue, a presentation for would-be investors in the magazine. And creating a multimedia package for our third-year final project.

Let me emphasize this: on a journalism course, pretty much of any description, you are not really taught how to report, nor are you taught how to write. You are given opportunities to do so, and you are given feedback on your reports and writing. But the essential skill of reporting and writing are skills you learn yourself. You alone, through a process of endless refinement, are the sole contributor to your education in either reporting or writing. A journalism degree course only gives you more opportunities to do so, or rather requires you to, so you don’t have to solely rely on your own motivation to practice.

If you want to be a reporter, you will learn how to be one and a better one by learning the ropes at a newspaper or trade magazine or news agency, and then refining your techniques through the years doing it.

Let me emphasize this: on a journalism course, pretty much of any description, you are not really taught how to report, nor are you taught how to write.

Similarly, you are not taught how to pitch on a university J-course, so don’t expect a degree to teach you how to be a successful freelance journalist. In fact, there was incredibly little, over the three years, on pitching, selling articles and freelancing. I think we were given perhaps two classes on it; and one of them, on pitching, was distinctly vague and mediocre and relied on our lecturer’s “fond” memories of freelancing. The guest talks we had were better and more insightful on what freelancing is. More on that later.

Finding stories and coming up with story ideas
These skills were not taught on the journalism course. I learned how to come up with story ideas by reading about how to do it, slowly parsing the kind of mindset needed to think about story ideas, getting to grips with it and then applying that to the other skill of pitching. I have written about this aspect, of self-learning how to pitch and coming up with story ideas here, here and here.

We were given clues and nudges in how to come up with the ideas and angles that might lead to successful feature ideas but all in all they were insubstantial. A lot of this is because BA degrees in journalism usually do not have codified modules that teach this aspect. It should also be noted that not all of the faculty might have been full-time freelance journalists themselves.

Please do remember that undergraduate degrees, especially in the humanities and the arts, are intended to provide a broad and humanistic education, rather than solely for practical and professional application.

Media theory
This was, in retrospect, a very useful, engaging and deeply lasting aspect of the entire degree course. Those people who might dismiss journalism degrees (usually professional journalists who haven’t done one) should not undermine this aspect. We were given lectures in media and journalism theory and were asked to examine the political, social and economic issues that underpin much of the reporting that goes on around us.

Media theory left the deepest impact of all the modules. Pictured: Julian Assange from Wikileaks

It is a useful education for a journalist who wants to think deeper and more critically about the received narratives and story frames that occur in the media. We were tested for our knowledge of Al-Qaeda, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the foreign policy of various countries, terrorist cells, oil and water issues, climate change, among much else. We were given thick, very CIA-looking printed handbooks on these issues.

We delved into Wikileaks and the journalism topics of the day. We saw how journalism and the theory and philosophy behind it has different interpretations, and how it has changed and evolved through its history. We looked at ethics, and privacy, and broached philosophy with Immanuel Kant and Aristotle, and their teachings were applied to modern day situations. For example, for one of our module requirements, I wrote an essay about Wayne Rooney and his decisions on privacy and tabloid exploits using Kant’s Golden Mean as an underpinning.

The ethics part leaves a deep and important impression on a young would-be journalist. And I thought often, when professional journalists would come give us guest talks (and especially when they had come from tabloid newspapers), that they would actually benefit from some of what we had learned and applied.

In the third year, media theory had practical tasks. We were tasked to follow an issue, looking at how the issue was covered in the media, tracking the different angles, bias, and how the story-issue developed.

Multimedia
The full name of the degree was Multimedia Journalism and the course sold itself on these credentials. It emphasized the multimedia aspect of journalism; a term that can seem quaint next to the latest developments in mobile phone technology and new ways of broadcasting.

On the course we learned how to: blog; make video packages–use a camera, record audio, video editing; use radio equipment, produce radio packages, and radio news bulletins. For our final year “major projects”, we could specialize in TV, radio or print. I chose magazines. But we were still expected to produce the whole gamut of a multimedia package. This meant, for my project, I produced a magazine article, and which was laid out in Adobe InDesign; made a video package, audio podcast, and online treatments that supplemented the main event.

The multimedia aspect of the degree was great, and taught us to think abut journalism holistically — in visual and aural aspects that improves how a journalist thinks abut stories even those who traditionally favour the written word. The emphasis on multimedia of Bournemouth Uni’s journalism course probably contributes to the course’s good employment record.

Guest talks
The guest talks were often eye-opening experiences. One of the most memorable was given by a former tabloid journalist who gave us great insight into his work and how ratty a freelance life can be. We also had audience with Fleet Street Fox; a head of Reuters; BBC journalists; as well as panels with alumni that were always a highlight. Illuminating details were provided on the paths and journeys the journalists had taken en route to their careers, and there was often food for thought on ethical and professional concerns. Guest talks helped sometimes to fill in the gaps of the course.

Work experience
We were required to do a minimum of four weeks work experience in total, over the duration of our degree. We had to split our time, of this requirement, between print and multimedia work placements. I did mine at the Brighton Argus, Splash News (a celebrity news agency), and the Press Association (the video department). Having these opportunities was very useful to get some proper time, access to, and experience of a professional newsroom environment. Simply observing how the pros worked was insightful.

I know course mates who got work offers and jobs, via some twists and turns, from their placements, so it does pay to make connections through them.

The faculty often provided clues and help with obtaining these placements.

The student paper and the professional links
The lack of a properly established student newspaper, at a university with a reputable journalism degree, was perhaps the single biggest failing of Bournemouth University and its journalism department. We did have a student paper, as well as a magazine and website. But standards were not up to scratch. This was, in part, due to the continual refresh of the paper as student editors came and went. But that is no different to other student papers. But what was deficient was the lack of structure put in place so that the paper was a continuous tradition, and a seeming apathy by the journalism lecturers to put in the effort to establish and uphold that structure.

There is no more damning criticism than the fact that you never see a student newspaper or magazine (nor individuals) from Bournemouth University on the shortlist of the Guardian’s Student Media Awards. Past winners of this award include The Courier, of Newcastle University, The River, of Kingston University, York Vision, of the University of York, among others.

Individual winners (best reporter, columnist, feature writer etc) often come from publications such as Cherwell, Nouse, Varsity, The Warwick Boar, and York Vision, among others. These past winners often get a great start to their careers and include some of the brightest names (Helen Pidd and Patrick Kingsley among them).

The lack of a properly established student newspaper, at a university with a reputable journalism degree, was perhaps the biggest single failing of Bournemouth University and the journalism department

A good student newspaper is an excellent platform to get stuck in to literary and reporting traditions: undermining authority, undertaking investigations, and the zany, outspoken, and experimental writing that marks the best traditions of student journalism. Not having this outlet, at Bournemouth, is a serious deprivation.

The journalism department has links to nearby Future Publishing, where many alumni work. But I got a sense, from the faculty and lecturers, that there was not enough ambition. They wanted us to get employment and often talked about multimedia skills and what the industry looked for, which is all fine. But there was not enough aiming for the stars, of real inspiration, and grit, that really inspired us to aim for the nationals and the biggest of platforms.

I felt a little stifled by the outlook the faculty had which I perceived as somewhat parochial and provincial. I wanted to aim for the New Yorker, Watergate, and the New York Times. What I was offered instead were tips on how to make myself more employable to companies where you would work in journalism but not necessarily be doing the kind of journalism to which I aspired.

The value of a journalism degree versus not having one
This will be discussed in part two: evaluating the value of a journalism degree in relation to attaining a career in journalism.

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3 Responses

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  1. Lu-Hai Liang, am a Canadian Screenwriter, looking to hire a free-lance Chinese journalist to conduct an interview, and create a transcript. You are an excellent writer I want to hire you. Please contact me at guybennett123@gmail.com

    Guy

    March 3, 2016 at 8:40 am

  2. Hi Lui-Hai Liang, I am a prospective student for Journalism BA for UCLan and I would love to hear your thoughts on the value of the degree in relation to gaining a career in Journalism? Thank you.
    Lottie Gibbons
    http://www.flareaforte.com
    flareaforte@gmail.com

    Lottie

    May 6, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    • It definitely helps. Being proactive, gusty, taking initiative, and making connections also helps a lot. Having a journalism degree is also beneficial applying for marketing, PR, advertising, and other communication roles. Doing internships also helps. Practical experience and being seen to be proactive are probably the two biggest criteria journalism editors and employers look for.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      May 8, 2017 at 10:49 am


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