What does it take to do good journalism?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know two people right now whose teenagers, both from very privileged backgrounds, are eager to become journalists.

They like to write and are determined and curious.

Good start!

But the sheer number of factors and skills — soft and hard — that allow for decent journalism go far far beyond knowing or liking how to write.

Like:

Knowing how to listen, carefully and attentively, to everyone you interview — whether face to face, by Skype or phone. Email is the worst because you have no way of knowing who actually wrote it. Listening carefully is tiring and difficult sometimes. Without it, we get nothing of value.

Knowing how to make total strangers feel (more) at ease with us. This runs both ways, as it can be also be highly manipulative. But unless we can get people we’ve never met, and who may be very different from us in education, ethnicity, race, religion or political views, to open up, we’ve got nothing. This requires the ability to tune into others quickly and effectively.

Knowing how hard it is to get a job anywhere but in three expensive major cities.

The journalism job hunt can be particularly challenging between the coasts. Last year, Emma Roller, 30, took a buyout after working as a politics writer for the website Splinter, which was part of Univision’s Gizmodo Media Group. She got married and moved from Washington to Chicago to be closer to family. But as she looked for a new job, she found many positions required that she live in New York, Washington or Los Angeles.

 

— Knowing you’ll even have a job a week or a month later. Not a joke. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs — and 2019 has been a bloodbath.

 


 

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Knowing what makes a story compelling. You can waste a lot of time and energy — yours and theirs — asking stupid or irrelevant questions. Know what your readers/audience care most about. Get that.

Knowing when to stop digging, and when to dig harder. Too many lazy, tired and overworked journalists, mostly digital, are merely rewriting press releases or aggregating others’ work. But when you’re reporting a real story, you have limited time and budget to get it. What’s key? What haven’t you understood fully yet?

— Knowing that some stories are going to harm us, physically and/or emotionally. For every corporate blablabla “profile”, there’s a powerful and important story being reported about rape, sexual abuse, violence, crime, gun massacres, war…These are the stories that can boost a writer’s career but at a significant cost in secondary trauma.

— Knowing we represent our audience. Too many journalists think it’s all about them. They preen on social media and prize their thousands of “followers”….and say nothing interesting. The job of a journalist is to dig, question, challenge authority and be accurate.

— Knowing our work has consequences. For better or worse. If someone cannot be safely identified as a source, you don’t do that.

There’s a new (to me!) six-part UK TV show, “Press” I just started watching, about the values and ethics and behaviors of two rival newspaper staffs, both their reporters and the editors who tell them what to do.

It’s got a lot of truth in it.

12 thoughts on “What does it take to do good journalism?

  1. it’s got to be a tough balance. encouraging them along the way and happy for their enthusiasm, while weighting the harsh realities of the profession.

  2. It could be argued that “Good” journalism is subjective, a matter of taste, if you will. It should be clear and concise, easy to read and understand, even if it’s not that easy to swallow. I think following this principle could go a long way toward building a successful career as a journalist, but not so much toward actually becoming a good journalist.
    Here’s a good example: Last month in Virginia, three white middle school boys were accused of holding a young black girl down on their (Private) school’s playground and telling her how “Ugly” and “Nappy” her dreadlocks were while cutting them off. It turned out she was lying.
    There was a pitifully small amount of reporting after that came out: The parents apologized to everyone who joined them in their search for retribution, oh, and the boys, too. The NAACP warned that this lie should not be used as an excuse to discount any legitimate allegations of race crime, fair enough. The school hasn’t said anything about it, as of this writing, even though the “Victim’s” mother was calling for the expulsion of the boys before it came out that her daughter was the one telling lies about them. This story lost all its sex appeal before it was told, but the sexy parts (Not to be confused with naughty bits) made it to press, or air, as the case may be. So we get half a story, if that, with lots of unanswered questions.
    I think a good journalist has to be there for the whole story, even if it turns out not to be the story they want, or the one they thought they were going to get.
    So, if you want to write some hard-hitting stuff without getting all bogged down with unpalatable facts and difficult questions, I take great pleasure in suggesting THE PULITZER PRIZE IN LITERATURE. It’s awesome. The narrative is all yours, with all the alternative facts, opinions in disguise and bald faced lies you want and you can’t get busted for it, it’s fiction!

    1. After reading this comment a couple more times I thought the first paragraph could stand a bit of cleanup, so here it is:
      Clear and concise are invaluable, but hard to swallow could do you in. Publications , TV and digital media rarely want to upset their readers with views they don’t like, so, more’s the pity, pandering is the order of the day. Selling F-150’s and Maybelline products is far more important than helping people make sense of the world. Now, back to our original comment, already in progress.

      1. Roger that on the shitty American news front. We are becoming a nation of fools who believe in our heart of hearts that we deserve to have the news we want without having to do any of that unpleasant thinking. That said, I did a search on the story I mentioned before I wrote my comment. I read posts from CBS news, the New York Times and the BBC. All three covered the initial report (Hate crime,, Kinky!) but the Beeb lost interest after that. Big world, I guess. CBS and NYT followed up with the apology but have yet to report on what, if anything, has been done to resolve the issue. If this kid hadn’t been caught in her lie, those three boys would be held up as the perpetrators of a hate crime. As we have seen in the age of Brett Kavanaugh, such an allegation can (WILL) lie in ambush to appear and wreck their future, so this is a very serious issue, sexy or not.
        Shitty news for shitty people, I reckon. I do like the cute kitten stories.
        I guess I had better drop in a little Mark Twain before he is erased from our history in the interest of a better world. Here goes: “If you don’t read the paper, you’re uninformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.”

      2. No one else has a defense for that either, there isn’t one. It’s like stuffing a fat kid full of donuts every day. You know you’re going to kill them but look how happy! Saying that illustrates the thing in you I respect the most. In my book you are a good journalist and,, much as it may suck, that may well be what you have to do to continue being one. The Devil doesn’t buy your soul all at once. Thanks so much for an interesting post and an entertaining discussion.

      3. WOWEE! Check out the editing skills on ol’ Nines over there! I meant to say that continuing to work as a freelance journalist may be what you have to do to maintain the quality of your work. I know I have been pretty savagely edited before, to the point where I didn’t even want to put my name on it. Anyway, that’s a tale of woe for another time, most likely one when you are having trouble sleeping.

    2. Can’t argue with this. The fault lies not at the feet of the reporters per se but their editors/managers — mostly middle aged white men terrified of losing a journalism job they would never be able to replace.

      I am NOT defending this decision but I can assure you there might be some smart and passionate writers whose ideas — often — are dismissed or ignored.

      1. I wouldn’t even try to dispute that. Middle aged white dudes gotta eat and they will go as low as anyone to keep their next Reuben (Lunch? Hmmmm) on the radar. That’s why this happens, but it’s not an excuse, it should never happen.
        Even then, I can’t visualize a circle of middle aged white guys in the NYT sub basement, stirring a green uplit cauldronful of half-truths and propaganda
        to cook up “What the readers want to see”. I’m pretty sure that most journalists started out with a calling and ended up with a job.
        Nobody sets out to be a panderer and the potential damage to their credibility and reputation in the interest of earning a payday has got to be hard to think about, but there’s your choice. Sometimes there are no good choices.
        Smart and passionate writers who get swept under the rug, kicked to the curb and subsequently thrown under the bus should expect it. People seldom want what they need and rarely what they really deserve, but they always want what they want so,, unless someone has a burning desire to give people what they want, buying a house without selling their soul could well be fraught with complications and deep inner conflict.. Be ready.

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