The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Trump effect at journalism schools? Colleges see a surge in admissions.

Journalism students work in the News Bubble at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. (John T. Consoli/University of Maryland)

Roxanne Ready plunged into fall classes at the University of Maryland with the enthusiasm typical of a graduate student who wants to switch careers. She also has a bit of extra motivation.

The 32-year-old is seeking a master’s degree in journalism at a time when the president of the United States is launching fierce and sustained attacks on news reporters and major media outlets. She said she finds it “pretty disturbing” when President Trump disparages journalists and calls their work “fake news.”

“That sort of triggers a little bit of stubbornness in me, wanting to prove it’s not true,” Ready said. She said she pays zealous attention to precision, accuracy and ethics. “It makes me want to do my job that much better.”

The Trump era, overflowing with news, and the emergence of new ways to tell stories appear to be giving a jolt to journalism schools that in recent years struggled to cope with industry contractions. Students such as Ready are more fired up than ever about learning the tools of newsgathering, educators say. And at some prominent schools, there’s evidence of growing demand for journalism degrees as applications and enrollment rebound and investigative reporting classes fill up.

At the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, an estimated 130 freshmen are entering the journalism college this fall, up 50 percent compared with the previous year. The incoming master’s class of 26 students is also bigger than the year before.

“Every time [Trump] calls journalists the ‘enemy of the people,’ or says something about ‘fake news,’ or gets a crowd at a rally to jeer at the White House press corps,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, dean of the Merrill College, more students decide “they’re going to major in journalism.”

Educators point out that journalism students come from all political points of view — Republican, Democratic, independent. “Some are forming who they are,” said Tricia Petty, an assistant dean at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. “They don’t yet know where they lean.”

What animates many of the college’s 323 journalism students, Petty said, is “a calling to tell the story of ‘their people and community’ through ‘their lens’ instead of having it told by someone else.”

No national data are yet available on the number of incoming journalism students in 2018. But there are signs of rising interest in the field.

At Northwestern University, undergraduate applications to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications rose 24 percent in the last admission cycle. The interim dean, Charles Whitaker, said it’s too soon to know whether that increase is more than a “momentary blip.” But he said it is clear that some journalism students are “agitated and activated by what they hear from the White House.”

Lorraine Branham, dean of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said she sees more students signing up for investigative and political reporting classes that in recent years were underenrolled or even canceled for lack of interest.

“The president might be having a positive impact on us,” she said. She drew a comparison to the wave of students from an earlier generation inspired by reporters who chronicled the scandal that drove President Richard M. Nixon from office.

“In some ways, it’s almost like a Watergate moment,” Branham said.

At Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the incoming classes of undergraduate and master’s students are up 11 percent compared with the previous fall. Christopher Callahan, dean of the school, said its freshman class of 279 is the largest in 10 years.

Trump is almost certainly not the only factor. New journalism students are drawn to the reporting and storytelling power of social media and other technological developments, Callahan said. They want to report on communities that are often overlooked, such as American Indians in the Southwest. They are inspired by reporting on the #MeToo movement that has shed light on long-hidden sexual misconduct.

“There’s a real passion for public service,” Callahan said. “Granted, I’m biased. But there aren’t a heck of a lot of better ways to serve the public than through what we do.”

To bolster their work, Arizona State and U-Md. will receive $3 million each over the next three years from the Scripps Howard Foundation to establish centers for investigative journalism for graduate students. The gifts were announced in August.

Journalism education has faced challenges in recent years as newsrooms have shrunk or restructured in response to the digital revolution. Many students — and tuition-paying parents — have wondered whether journalism degrees will yield jobs. Those degrees are often seen as a valuable credential, but they are not a professional prerequisite.

Colleges and universities awarded about 13,900 bachelor’s degrees in journalism in 2016-2017 and about 1,800 master’s degrees in the subject, the latest available federal data show. Those totals were down 9 to 10 percent from peaks earlier in the decade.

The contraction is evident at the University of Florida, the flagship public school of a state with a tradition of vigorous journalism. In 2008, according to the university, 779 undergraduates were majoring in journalism. That fell to 442 by 2014, a drop of more than 40 percent.

Now, the total is almost 500. The College of Journalism and Communications announced in August that it was expanding its faculty, adding experts in narrative nonfiction, investigative reporting, environmental journalism and multimedia reporting.

Diane McFarlin, dean of journalism and communications at UF, said a new generation of journalism students is responding to a “call to action” and believes that news reporting is vital to democracy.

These students are “not all that impressed by power and influence,” she said. “They’re impressed by veracity and authenticity.”

Carmen Molina Acosta, 18, a first-year student at U-Md., said she was pulled into journalism after working on the Walt Whitman High School newspaper Black & White in Montgomery County, Md. She also volunteered as a tour guide at the Newseum in Washington. She cringes when she hears critics of serious journalism toss about the phrase “fake news.”

“Every news organization picks what they report, how they report, what matters to their readers,” she said. “That doesn’t mean the news they’re reporting isn’t real, or that it’s less true than other kinds of news.”

When Trump and others accuse the media of bias, Molina Acosta said, that makes her all the more attracted to her major. “I like the idea of doing something that makes a difference in the world,” she said. “I’ve become very much aware of how important journalism is in our society. It’s kind of undervalued. You don’t realize that until you look at power that is unchecked.”