Journalism is no longer the exclusive remit of print media, radio and TV; it has become a far more multidimensional discipline, incorporating a host of new elements – a fact that is clearly reflected by the widespread inclusion of a digital and social media dimension to most journalism programmes.
The Internet has had a major effect on the ways in which information is circulated. The proliferation of websites, blogs and social media sites has come to represent a significant challenge to traditional media outlets, which have been forced to evolve in order to adapt and survive. This is because new media allows users a far greater level of immediacy and interactivity as they can access and respond to continuous streams of information through the use of laptops and other mobile devices. It is clear that engagement has become a hugely effective means of securing a wider readership.
This fact is well recognised by many of the programme directors for postgraduate Journalism courses. Cork Institute of Technology’s MA in Journalism and New Media (one year full time), for example, puts great emphasis on the growing importance of digital and interactive media on the practice of journalism. Modules such as Features and Web Writing, Multimedia Design and New Media Production are developed in line with advances in the media and communications industry.
Another course that acknowledges this shift in the nature of media and journalism is Independent College Dublin’s MA in Journalism (one year full time, two years part time). Along with the more conventional aspects of reporting, such as Investigative Journalism, Feature Writing and Law, the programme also incorporates modules such as Video Production and Online Journalism. This confers greater versatility to students. ‘Our graduates are increasingly finding employment in digital and social media’, says Course Director Janice Gaffey. ‘The programme trains them to work as multimedia content producers, dealing with video and online production, so they’re flexible in the areas in which they can work.’
Such flexibility not only enhances a graduate’s employability, but – as students are adept at switching between platforms – it also creates the option to work freelance. This is a route that is becoming increasingly common within the new media landscape as people use social media sites and online resources to upload news content and express their views and opinions. In fact, ‘citizen journalism’ (as it has been called) has become hugely important in international news coverage in locations where there are currently draconian media restrictions in place (e.g. Syria, China, Iran).
While such decentralisation is to be welcomed in certain respects, it has also been suggested as one of the principal causes of a ‘race to the bottom’ as established news organizations struggle to compete with the levels of immediacy and engagement offered by bloggers and other web-based news outlets (the recent ‘phone hacking’ scandal and RTE’s ‘tweetgate’ could both be said to be evidence of this). An additional concern relates to bloggers’ and social media journalists’ lack of self-regulation or adherence to an entrenched code of ethics; indeed, much of this type of journalism remains essentially opinion-based, lacking both the impartiality and research of higher-quality reportage. ‘There’s no shortage of information available online but credibility and reliability of that information can be questionable,’ says Gaffey. ‘The popularity of the websites of major news-gathering organisations suggests that people still rely on trained journalists to report and explain events.’
Creating awareness in students of a code of practice that is not only a legal obligation, but also a means of safeguarding high standards is therefore one of the foremost concerns of all postgraduate programmes in Journalism. Training in ethics, context, research techniques, sub-editing and media law is given as standard. Many colleges (such as ICD, DCU and DIT) also provide internship opportunities within established media organisations in order to allow students put what they have learned into practise. The acquisition of journalistic and academic skills is ensured through continuous assessment, which normally involves a combination of in-class exercises, tests, essays/articles and a dissertation.
To gain admission to a Journalism course, applicants are generally required to have at least a second-class honours primary degree (in any subject – journalism, by its nature, encompasses a broad subject base). Some institutes also ask that candidates submit a short article, personal statement and/or attend for an interview.
Naturally, candidates are also expected to display an appropriately high level of self-motivation, writing ability and commitment – qualities that are integral for anyone hoping to make it as a professional reporter. For Gaffey, such focus is a distinguishing feature of those who choose to study the topic at postgraduate level: ‘People tend to come to postgraduate journalism with a definite idea of what they’d like to do in the media. They’ve had the chance to develop during their undergraduate courses or working lives and tend to have well-formed views and opinions – journalism gives them an outlet for that. When they go into the workplace, they’re fully prepared to be at the heart of the events that shape the world around us.’