Communications is not journalism

Zack Lemon

When Melissa Click asked for “some muscle” to get student photographer Mark Schierbecker off a central space in the University of Missouri, it was ugly. It was ugly and disturbing and chilling to see a smiling professor use physical force to remove a student journalist from public property. I could go down a rabbit hole here and throw every piece of contradiction and outrage into a scathing indictment of Click, who teaches in the university’s communications department. 

What I’m more interested in, though, is the reaction I saw from journalism students and industry professionals. MU is home to one of the best journalism schools in the country. It produces some of the top writers time after time and when I saw a mass communication professor threatening student journalists, I thought an excellent journalism program had gone to hell like so many programs across the country, because I rushed to the assumption that communication and journalism were housed together.

At MU, similar to Ashland, the programs are taught separately. Click had a courtesy appointment in the J-School at the time, along with an advisory role with the student newspaper, which she has since resigned, but she was firmly separated from the student journalists, as she should be.

Click’s scholarship in communication focuses on pop culture, including 50 Shades of Grey and the social media relationships fans form with Lady Gaga. I am not insulting her research when I say that is not journalism. Interviewing people, digging through public records and developing sources is the stuff of J-school, not studying Twilight fans as she has done on multiple occasions.

Moreover, this incident is an opportunity to look more broadly at the role of a journalism student compared to the role of a communications student. Journalists are accountable to the public, and to the truth. We fail sometimes. We fail greatly and in small ways, and in almost imperceptibly nuanced ways. We need to learn from groups who feel marginalized by the media, and understand the root of that feeling. That doesn’t mean capitulation to a set of demands without question, but it does mean having a conversation about how the media can do a better job covering the world. 

We are still beholden to the truth, though, in a way communications students are not. These majors prepare students to disseminate information quickly and efficiently, in a way that is easily understood by a high number of people. However, they are not beholden to the truth or the public in a way that a journalist is. They are responsible for satisfying their paying client, be it a corporation, an individual unwillingly thrust into the spotlight, or a government agency trying to share information. 

PR professionals outnumber journalists 4.6 to 1. Journalists made 71 cents on the dollar compared to a PR professional, with the number only getting worse for us. By necessity, journalists work with PR people to get stories started and to get basic information. That doesn’t change the fact that conflicts will happen between the two fields; their purposes necessitate it. They won’t often be physical, like Click and Schierbecker, but they will happen all the time. In light of this, educating the two groups together makes little sense. There’s a reason places like MU, and Ashland, have the two programs distinct. It allows each group of students to be educated properly, and to prepare for a world that pits them against each other. I was wrong to think MU would make the mistake of combining journalism and communications, because it is clear any school wanting excellence in either cannot teach them together.