Becoming a Journalist

Two of my former professors at the journalism school in Bucharest, George and Bradut, have been chronicling the admission exam that is taking place this week at FJSC (1, 2). Over the years I’ve given much thought to this exam and whether it could be made more relevant. At the end of the day, the point should be finding young men and women who have an interest in becoming journalists (duh!).

One of the significant differences between applying to a J-School in Romania and one in the US (the only other system I’m familiar with) is that American high school graduates have a much better idea of how the media operates and what journalists do to get a story. Some have worked on their school paper, some have taken classes on the role of the media and some have read from the abundancy of press criticism. In Romania, the general population doesn’t know that much about the inner workings of the media and the number of graduates who would say they want to go into journalism to keep their communities informed is probably lower.

You also have to consider that for American high school grads there isn’t a specific entrance exam. Just get into college, pass some introductory course, keep a high GPA and you’re in the J-School. In Romania, there is a specific admission exam to the journalism school which consists of a written exam and an oral exam. When I took the exam in 1999, there was no oral exam. I remain convinced to this day that the stuttering shy kid who would melt if he had to speak in front of a crowd would have failed the oral exam. Although I continue to be puzzled by its relevance, I won’t argue against or for it since I’ve never seen this one up close.

I have seen the written one though. It has a grammar portion and a “creativity and expressivity” portion. As years go by, I am more and more convinced it’s a bad idea in its current form. I remember this moment, just before my exam, when I was chatting with a few other people about the “creativity portion.” We were all nervous and trying very hard to hide it–being creative against the clock with 200 people around you is not easy. At one point, a woman asked us: “Who was your tutor?” I started laughing (nervously). Tutor, what a joke. But she wasn’t laughing. “No, I’m serious. Who was it?” A few others around us confirmed this. They had been tutored by J-School professors and taught to write in the style that will allow them to score the needed points with the people grading the papers.

I panicked. I had never heard of such thing. I didn’t and don’t believe you need tutors to teach you formulaic things to pass a creativity exam. In the end, I did OK, but to this day I wonder whether I really wrote something that was good, or whether I just coincidentally hit the high notes that the professors grading the papers were teaching in their private tutoring sessions.

But there is another problem that I find even more disturbing. Here are two of the creativity subjects from this year:

1. You are getting ready to play an important role in an action movie. For this, you begin taking horseriding lessons. Build a story from this situation.

2. You have reached a village immediately after it had been devastated by storm. Write what you have seen and what you found out from the locals.

Yes, the first step in your formal journalism training is making stuff up.

It took me a few years to understand the irony of this, but today it kills me. Kids are trying to become journalists and their first assignment is to create an event that never took place. I might be excessively married to the real world, but this is no way to identify potential journalists. It might be a great way to breed a Romanian Stephen Glass, but what else? It’s nothing but a subtle invitation to keep “being creative.” If “being creative” got you into the J-School, why wouldn’t it get you high marks in class where you just make up assignments? Why wouldn’t it get you get you good people stories taken from people you’ve never met? This being creative worked for a few of my friends during our time in school there.

When I applied for a master’s degree in the US I had to write essays about my thoughts on journalism and public life, short bios and other stuff like that. Yes, it sounds boring and less creative, but at least it was me. Those essays reflect who I am and how I view the world better than any story I could ever make up about horse riding classes.

Maybe the Romanian system is not build to assign an essay or an argument, but why not use the creativity exam to learn more about the candidate as a person than about him or her as an embellisher. A simple way of stating the goal of a J-school is to train people who will keep the rest of us informed. Wouldn’t we want people who are curious, youngsters who, like me at that point, naively believe that stories of people can change lives–that this thing called journalism could change the world?

Why not assign a personal essay? An argument? The dull but years later so important question: why do you want to do this?

Sure, people can be “creative” and make things up here as well. But there are only so many of us who would fake our own lives if we knew there are no specific high points we need to hit in order to convince the professors doing the grading. If I am me and I tell you I want to do journalism because I believe in its power, will you think it’s too cliche and toss me out in favor of somebody whose horse riding lessson features hand stands? I hope not.

6 Responses to “Becoming a Journalist”

  1. I agree. Ironically, I taught the media writing class in my department. If students don’t make at least a B (which, unlike other classes, means having a score between 85 and 93, with A>93), they don’t get into the program. The first thing I told them was to forget the writing classes from the English department. I gave them sets of facts or sent them out to gather their own and challenged them to provide the maximum of infomation by using the minimum of words. (They struggled, because their previous writing experiences meant “a bate campii cu gratie”). Of course, they had to follow other rules of media writing and try all media formats, including some for broadcast, PR, and advertising. I think it’s a very efficient way of weeding out the people who are not cut out to be journalists. They have a semester to learn what media writing is all about (plus some ethics, organizational pressures, etc.) and then demonstrate that they deserve to stay in the program.

    On the other hand, I think the exams at FJSC mainly try to test the language skills of the candidates, not necessarily their creativity. Hehe, I had the same “tutor” panic attack when I showed up at the exam.

  2. I actually tried to post a long comment on Bradutz’ blog but alas, the computer crashed when I hit post :(
    I did not take the oral exam either but I do not think it is such a bad idea. In fact, a journalist has to deal with real people, most of the times, people s/he never met before. So an oral examination is a pertinent test in these circumstances. Plus, considering that all candidates have passed the baccalaureate, which has at least 2 oral exams (3 if you have another mother tongue than Ro), you should have some experience about talking to strangers, under pressure, for a grade.

    Yes obviously I do not think it is the best idea to ask people to make stuff and than determine how creative they are based on how credible the outcome of their imagination is. Because, to use a stereotypical phrase “viata bate filmul” (life beats the movies… by far), a lot of things could actually happen, even though they may not seem very credible.
    I am not the biggest fan of the U.S.-type of admission in college either. A lot of times this admission is also turned into the same giving-them-what-they’re-looking-for thread, which means the personal essays have been through a lot of editing before they reach the admission commission.

    I like the fact that FJSC still tests grammar and stuff. I found the tests subjects to be very easy though, which does show the exam has enough leverage to welcome in different types of people.

    The point of the exam is not to find all the God’s gifts to journalism, but to find people interested enough in journalism to complete the courses in the 4-reuired years and pursue a career in journalism. In fact, most of the times, the students’ ranking after the entrance exam, is changed a lot through the following four years. And some who “barely” made it in, turn to be real talented and hard working people.

    And sometimes, it is because of the way FJSC runs, some people get lost on the way.

  3. Am I being facetious when I suggest that mandating/indoctrinating a standard of creativity in reporting is a holdover of good communist journalism? Let’s ask Boris…

  4. No, you’re not. Boris like to know the limits of people. In his head, that’s perfectly understandable. Gheorghe likes that as well sometimes.

  5. I tried hard not to panic, and not to laugh at that exam either. I barely got in, and, as pointed above, obtained a scholarship within the first year. I can’t see why it’s still going on that way now, the exam. As for oral, I had the foreign language exam so, does it count? :D

    Then again, the ethics professor was publicly “acclaimed” for high level corruption during my time, and I expect (suspect?) that more details but the exam are still the same today as they’ve almost always been. My aunt had followed that school many many years before me ;)

  6. I think you are underestimating the importance of horseriding throughout the course of Romania’s thrive towards the European integration.

    This, my friends, is a highly demanding exam and I beg you not to dismiss it before taking the time for serious consideration. This all comes down to history. It was the horse who’s always carried the Romanian soldier towards victory, may that be the 12th century, War World II or Sergiu Nicolaescu’s movies (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0630197/). They’re trying to revive our history, so that we can ride our way into the EU in January.

    This is unbelievable! I am one of those who had a tutor preparing me for the admission exam and I must confess: cross my heart, no matter what you pay, no tutor will ever prepare you for the moment in time when you have to combine grammar, expressivity and creativity to accurately describe a horse you’ve never seen.

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