22.6.10

How To Become A Journalist

Coaching is part of my job and I'll be putting my varied thoughts in one place from now, spiced up with a few stories that I can get away with printing. For this article, I've borrowed heavily from a number of articles and industry sites. It's a rare blog (web log) for me.


Work and status

Most journalists work hard for low pay. An investment banker once badgered me to help him get a job in television until I invited him to the newsroom, showed him the work and the schedule and then told him the pay. Yet many people, even in the industry, continue to see journalism as a route to glamour and status. These people are deluded and should be disabused of their feelings of grandeur.

When I was at the BBC it was infuriating to watch the phenomenon of the BBC Producer. These people always carried a large red or blue book, about the size of a folder. They clutched it even when they were chatting in corridors or sitting in the canteen, which is what they did most of the time. Those who did the work were rarely seen clutching these large red or blue books, using a reporter’s notepad or whatever came to hand.  It dawned on me that I was observing two types: those who produced and those who simply wanted to call themselves a BBC Producer.

At Sky News I witnessed another phenomenon. Whenever a news story broke, one of the producers on the news desk would start making whooping noises, imitating an alarm, and shouting “Dive, dive!” as if the newsroom was a submarine. While he was still amusing himself, other colleagues had already picked up the phones and started dialing contacts, checking the story, getting guests, dispatching reporters. Some months later his boss, the saxophone-playing news editor, promoted this whooping producer, obviously confusing noise with action.

Those who talk the most, who make the most noise in a newsroom, are not the busy ones. Just as the best producers are those who have been reporters, so the only good producers and reporters are those who are journalists.

What is a journalist?

“Every good journalist is a reporter.”

“Reporters are neither artists, nor politicians, nor scholars,” wrote Egon Erwin Kisch (1885–1948). “They should be unbiased witnesses and bear unbiased witness.”

They should also be “a fanaticist of facts.”  That is why journalism is a passion, not just a job. The sociologist Max Weber said, “a truly great act of journalism needs just as much esprit as any scholarly achievement.”

The German Journalists’ Association (DJV) defines a journalist’s occupational profile as follows: “By providing comprehensive information via all public media journalists ensure that each citizen can recognize the forces at work in society and participate in the decision-making process. This is the prerequisite for a functioning democratic state.”

Thus the German Journalists’ Association says journalists should…
  • …master media-specific reporting and writing techniques,
  • ...be able to design journalistic products,
  • …master a range of research and investigative methods,
  • …have a basic knowledge of media law,
  • …be aware of the competitive framework and the media landscape.
In Germany, not just anyone can call themselves a hairdresser or a baker. Yet there is no protection for the profession of journalist. Why? Because it is vital that the state does not have the power to decide who is a journalist and who is not. 

Under the Third Reich, a law was passed to define an editor:

“An editor must
  1. be a national of the German Reich,
  2. be in possession of his civil rights and be authorized to assume public office,
  3. be of Aryan descent and not be married to a person of non-Aryan descent,
  4. be at least 21 years of age,
  5. be capable of contracting,
  6. have the required training,
  7. have the qualities required to take influence on public opinion.”
(Article 5 of the Editors’ Law)

Journalism is a craft not a profession

Naturally, journalists do not want or need state approval. Journalism remains a democratic craft, in contrast to the exclusive professions of accountancy, law, medicine or education where participation is strictly controlled by trade associations.

However, the industry has ways to ensure that standards don’t fall as a result of this open door policy.  Many jobs require:
  • Traineeship with a newspaper,
  • A university degree in journalism,
  • A degree gained at a college of journalism.

A craft's essential skills

Not everyone who simply gathers information and disseminates it can be called a journalist. The craft requires skill in finding story ideas and facts, cultivating sources, and then presenting news in a way that serves the public interest. It requires specific talents for research, interviews, and distillation of information; sifting rant from reality; and then presenting it with clarity, accuracy, speed, and relevance. In giving access to a reporter, newsmakers must be mindful of those essential skills.


But how do I show off my personality?

“It’s a story because I think it is”. An error of laziness. Even your boss should be willing and able to defend why he thinks it's a story. You must check facts and context.  I offended one co-worker when I said her suggestion was not a news story. She took it so badly that she started to ignore my stories and to promote only her own and those of her cohorts. This is immature and not the behaviour of a journalist.

One manager always pushed stories from her home region, such as bus crashes, to the top of the running order at an international news station.

There are objective criteria. A good news story depends on the audience and role of your news outlet. It has nothing to do with status, office politics or personality.

“It’s my story. Keep your hands off it.” Jealously guarding a story that you found and keeping your contacts to yourself is characteristic of a journalist. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take credit for a story that you have found, investigated and written.

“I want my style to shine through”. Some inexperienced journalists try to develop their own style before they have learned the craft of news writing or even how to research and check facts. Experienced journalists know that the only style that matters is the stylebook. The key to news writing is simplicity. A good story writes itself.

“I want my sexuality to shine through”. Even if it helped you get the job, sexuality should have nothing to do with how you report a story. You are not on television to try to pick up dates. Leave that until after work. Do not appear on the television dressed in a bondage jacket like one BBC economics reporter a few years back. Celebrate your sexuality off screen.

How do you define a journalist?

About 125 journalists are in prison around the world according to lobby group the Committee To Protect Journalists. Other organisations such Amnesty International compute different numbers, depending on the definition.


In Mexico, a good journalist is a dead journalist.

Hundreds of reporters and journalists have been killed in the past few years because of the fact that they were telling the truth. That's why today, newspapers, magazines and TV media are using what's called self-censorship. They want to keep their jobs as reporters or journalists, but they also want to stay alive, so they tell the news in a way which will offend no drug cartel or even government official. The problem of drug trafficking in Mexico is horrible. The majority of the police are garbage, they receive bribes from the drug cartels to not arrest them or seize any drugs.


Humour

What is a journalist? A journalist is someone who earned pretty good money telling us what was really going on in the world, until he realized he could earn better money by telling us about the social lives of the people who earn really great money.

A journalist will fly halfway around the world to stand where a tsunami took place, and he’ll stand in freezing rain for two hours to point out that it’s wintertime.

Journalists are more curious than anybody, attacked by everybody, and lent money by nobody.


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