What do we lose when we focus on rankings?

    Halfway through December, the trade magazine Newspro announced its rankings of journalism schools. In its first ever reader survey on the matter, it said, Medill placed second. Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Communications placed first: it is the best journalism school in the country.

    Syracuse University’s Daily Orange quickly published a story Dec. 17, announcing the Newhouse School had been ranked the country’s top journalism school. And last week, the Daily Northwestern devoted a front page headline to the story.

    They were joined by larger instiutions. Syracuse University itself issued a press release, as did the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, which placed fifth. The University of California Berkeley’s Maynard Institute even got in the game with its own blog post.

    To their credit, all the articles above mentioned the sample size of the survey. But the sample really is quite small, remarkably small — 428 people, smaller even than the number of undergrads in Medill itself.

    “It’s obviously non-scientific,” said Chuck Ross, the managing director of TVWeek.com, when I talked to him on the phone Monday. Newspro, which conducted the survey, is a subsidiary of TVWeek and covers news professionals in the TV industry. This was Newspro’s first year running a survey like this.

    Ross said the survey went to both the “very specific” Newspro audience and the general TVWeek.com crowd. It seemed to serve his and Newspro’s purposes: knowing his readers respect Syracuse is interesting and useful, and is a fun thing to debate for everyone.

    The survey’s results were in turn picked up by a local journalist: Jim Romenesko, Evanston cafe denizen and media blogger extraordinare.

    In a Dec. 19 post, Romenesko linked to the survey and shared the news that Syracuse’s Newhouse School had been ranked first. The post was subsequently debated in his comments and on Twitter and Facebook.

    I emailed him earlier this week about his opinion of the survey. He was kind enough to reply:

    I always take those lists with a grain of salt. I did BEST LAWYERS, BEST JUDGES, and BEST OF MILWAUKEE and know how flawed those lists can be. I also know that they’re a lot of fun to debate, which is one major reason I posted it.

    And Newspro’s survey is fun. Romenesko’s post about it generated discussion. But was it news on campus? And were universities right to brag about it?

    Rankings rule in the college world, but we don’t often examine the source of their latest edict. The Newspro rankings are fun, but they were picked by 438 unknown respondents in the TV industry.

    And even US News & World Report, which publishes the definitive ratings, has lost authority as of late. It no longer competes with TIME and Newsweek. It stopped publishing a regular print magazine in 2010. It sustains itself now through one-off print runs and online subscriptions to its “selected, single-topic” coverage—essentially, its college rankings.

    US News & World Report, in other words, probably makes more news through its rankings than it reports.

    What do we lose when we obsess over rankings, whether Newspro’s or US News’? When, no matter how small the distinction, we as universities or student journalists inflate the news of the latest ratings with headlines, press releases and column space?

    Maybe we don’t lose anything. Or maybe we think less about what actually makes an education valuable.

    As usual, Jim Romenesko emerges as the voice of reason. “As to whether Syracuse or Medill is the better school,” he wrote in the same email, “I wouldn’t know.”

    He went on:

    My position has always been that a school is only great if you choose/get the right line-up of teachers. Marquette is regarded as an excellent university, but I’d say my education there would have been below average if not for one journalism professor. (And he left a year or two after I graduated because he was denied tenure.)

    Schools excel like education happens: in small glances, in edited drafts, in suggestions for a reading list. Rankings are fun to debate and may be even fun to cover, but they can't capture a school.


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