What every journalist must remember

Journalism students training in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, image by Media Helping Media released under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0

50 tips for budding journalists

A journalist starting a new job must learn the house rules. Most media organisations will have a set of guidelines and a style guide. These usually cover what they are expected to produce, how they should produce it, and, often, how the journalists should behave.

However, there are general tips about starting off in journalism that apply to all journalists. Here are a some to consider.

Your journalism checklist

1: It's a vocation, not a job

Being a journalist is more than earning a wage. You have a unique role in society, and that is to inform the public debate with information that, had it not been for you, the world would never have known.

2: You are born with a news sense, you can't be taught one

You can be taught about essential law for journalists, and you can be taught about editorial ethics and the basics about how to create stories, but if you don't have a news sense you are going to find it difficult to spot the stories that are going to matter.

3: Your duty is to scrutinise the executive and shine a light in dark places

This means that you should always be challenging those in power to make sure they are genuinely representing the interests of the people they are supposed to represent and serve. Your job is to unearth what some people want to hide, as long as that information is in the public interest.

4: All journalism should be based on what you investigate

No significant stories will be handed to you on a plate. You will have to apply your skills of observation and your ability to analyse situations in order to assess the importance of an event.

5: You are on duty 24 x 7

Don't expect to keep office hours. As a journalist you never stop. You should always be working on a story. If the phone rings in the middle of the night, you must be available to follow up the new lead. A journalist never watched the clock to see what time their shift ends because there should be no thing as a shift for a journalist who aims to make a difference.

6: Don't expect to be given stories; your job is to find them

Following up on a news release, or attending a staged event, is part of the process of news gathering and news processing, but real journalism is about finding original content that is not being spun or promoted by those with a vested interest in getting you to work on their behalf free of charge. That's an insult to real journalism.

7: Your job is to always question

You must be the person who those with something to hide are afraid to talk to. You must be always researching information, uncover facts, and asking questions which make those who are trying to hide secrets (or any information that would be valuable to your audience) feel uncomfortable. Your audience may not have access to those in power. As a journalist you have to work on behalf of those who depend on you to unearth the truth. You then need to process the information gathered from this questioning in a way that serves the needs of your audience. 

8: Don't recycle the known

If you report about information that is already being recycled by others you will be doing only a fraction of your job. Of course we have to churn out the daily round of general information that will appear in the news diaries of all our competitiors, but to make a difference, we need to invest time and effort on the stories that do not appear on the wires or in news releases.

9: Always be working on your own investigation

There will be days when your editor hands you a story that you need to deliver by a deadline. That's fine, and that's the way newsrooms work. But always have a list of your own stories which you are following up. Ensure that your editor is aware of these stories and make it clear that once you have finished the story s/he has set, you will be continuing to work on your own investigations. 

10: Don't live a wires-led life

If possible, try surviving a week producing content without looking at the news wires and news releases. Get into the habit of being a news hunter and gatherer rather than a public relations information processor, which, sadly, is what many journalists evolve into when they have fogotten their real calling.

11: Don't just follow the competition

Some news meetings spend far too much time worring about what the competition is doing. Be confident and list the issues you are going to investigate on behalf of your audience in order to produce content that has a distinct differential to that produced by your competitiors. Make them follow you, not the other way around. You should be setting the news agenda with your own investigations. 

12: Always check the detail in a glowing industry news release

Please don't just reprint industry news releases. Yes, there might be some positive news about a new technological development at a local factory, but there may may also be job losses or other repercussions which could be of far more interest to your audience. News releases have a value, but there is also a danger that you get so carried away with the positive spin you are handed that you miss the actual story hidden between the lines.

13: Broadcast and publish for your audience

This one sounds obvious, but, without a clear committment to serve your audience, it could be easy to fall into the trap of broadcasting or publishing in order to try to win peer-group approval or personal praise and glory. That is not why we work as journalists. If we win plaudits, that's great, be we do not produce journalism for that reason. We produce journalism to inform the public debate. 

14: Treasure, nurture and keep in touch with contacts

Your contacts will know if you are using them for your own ends, and, if you do, they may not be available the next time you want to talk to them. You need to keep in touch with them, let them know how your investigations are progressing, check they are okay from time to time, and don't just drain them and dump them. A journalist's contacts book is one of the most valuable possessions. Without it you will struggle.

15: Apply the same journalistic rigour to those with whom you agree

You might be sent out to cover a campaign about an issue about which you feel passionately. The next day you might be asked to cover an event you fudementally disagree with. What you feel doesn't matter. What matters are the facts. And you can't report objectively on the facts if you take one side or the other. You must remain impartial and report with integrity leaving any emotions at home.

16: Don't have favourites

It's natural to take a liking to an individual or to dislike someone. And it's sometimes hard to avoid letting these personal preferences show. However, they must never impact what you do and how you do it. If a contact feels they are favoured over another, they might try to exploit the situation. You need to rise above this at all times.

17: Don't do deals

If you ask someone for a quote, or for information that is vital to your piece, never do so on the basis that they will get something back. You must never promise to cover something they want covered in return for their cooperation on a story you want to do. That will always backfire. You must always seek information in a professional manner. 

18: Don't accept gifts

There is a saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. However, journalists will often be invited to an event to promote something where they will be given food and drink. That's fine if it's a reception for everyone and where there are no favours expected. But be careful with individual invitations and never accept gifts. There will always be a bill to pay, and that bill could be expensive because it could call your integrity into question.

19: Don't make exceptions

There should be no exceptions to the ethical rules you set for yourself. This point is a continuation of points 15 and 16 because it means that you must ensure that your personal favourites, your personal values and those things you are committed to in your life don't affect how you report on what is happening. You owe it to your audience to let them decide whether something is distasteful or not. Your job is to present the facts for them to make those decisions. There can be no exceptions to this rule.

20: Respect privacy

It's imporant to ensure that the privacy of individuals is respected. The only exception is when that privacy has to be challenged because the person is a public figure who has a duty and responsibility to the community and who may have behaved in such a way as to fail in their responsiblity. This is a tough area and one that we try to cover in a module in this site's ethics section with our Privacy module and in the basic journalism section with a piece entitled Deciding whether news is in the pubic interest.

21: Take notes and keep them safe

When I started in newspapers there was a rule that not only did you have to keep every notebook you used, but you also had to make copies of every story you wrote. And when you took notes when covering a story you had to make sure they were accurate and have all the facts checked. That was before the internet. Now it's a lot easier to store and index all the information you gather and make backups just in case you need to refer to the notes in the future.

22: When writing an update on a story make sure you know its history

It's important for you to be able to assess the significance of recent developments and put them into the correct context. It also helps make sure you don't make a fool of yourself by claiming something is new when, in fact, it could be a rerun of an old story given new life because it's a slow news day. Don't be caught out; know your history.

23: Be sure of your facts

You can waste a lot of time and effort building a story around incorrect information. Every fact you use needs to be checked and checked again. Don't accept anything without first testing it and then finding a second source to confirm it.

24: Know your limitations, but always stretch them

We all have comfort zones where we are happier working. These could be favourite topics which we feel we know enough about to make a reasonable contribution to the public debate. And, while it's important not to stray into areas where you have absolutely no idea what you are doing or what you are talking about, it's also important not to limit yourself.

25: Check and check again

I had a news editor when I worked on my first newspaper who would always try to make the reporters feel so unsure that they would have to check every fact at least twice. I remember writing a story about a woman called Jane. The editor asked me whether I was sure that was the right spelling and whether it could be Jayne. He asked twice. I checked twice.

26: Make sure you have written what you think you have written

Part of my newspaper training was to learn how to touch type. I also had to learn shorthand. As a result I can type really quickly without looking at the keys. This is a useful when you are in a rush, but it can be a problem in terms of accuracy. Experience has taught me that what you think you wrote down is not always what appears on the paper or screen.

27: Always get a second pair of eyes to check your copy

I was first introduced to the second-pair-of-eyes rule when I started on my first newspaper. Every line was examined first by the news editor, then by the sub editors, then by the news editor again before the paper was about to be published and finally by the editor. It's not always possible to get someone to check your copy, even if that person is not a journalist.

28: Resist the pressure to inflate the top line

Reporters are often under pressure to find great stories. And there will be the temptation to pick out a good quote or sensationalise a line in the story to try to make the piece more newsworthy. But resist the pressure. If the story is lame, either call the office and say so or offer it as a news in brief and work on something else. But never try to make a story seem stronger than it really is.

29: Leave a note when going undercover, just in case.

A journalist shouldn't really be working on any investigations that have not, first, been talked through with their editor. However, as more and more of us work alone, this is not always the case. If you are working on an investigation that could be dangerous, always leave a paper trail so that you can be traced if things go wrong.

30: Keep a diary of stories covered and follow them up in three months

This is called forward planning. If a story is worth doing, and I presume that any story you cover will be, then it's probably worth following up. Whenever you do a story put a few dates in your diary. First, any dates the interviewees mention, such as the next time they are holding a meeting etc. Then any dates that are in the public domain, such as anniversaries of events etc. And finally your own three or six months check on how things have developed.

31: Keep copies of all emails, texts, dates of phone calls and never throw a notebook away.

32: Trust your instincts when researching, but stick to facts when broadcasting or publishing.

33: Check the side streets when there is a fire on the main street.

34: Realise that a politician will always have a script.

35: Watch out for those who would like to see you compromised.

36: Deal with your own motives, likes, dislikes, feelings, beliefs, they must have no impact in your delivery of impartial and objective journalism.

37: Don't put interviewees in danger.

38: Respect intellectual property, from a comment to user-generated content, and always provide acknowledgement.

39: Never use "will have to wait and see" or "time will tell", if you don't know how a story will end, don't go there.

40: Never say "the victim has not been named"', they have, soon after birth, what you mean is "police have not released the name of the victim."

41: More than = quantity, over = height and weight.

42: Don't use long words when short words will do.

43: Avoid sub-clauses that may complicate and obscure the information you are trying to get across.

44: Convey a sense of urgency only when it is appropriate, but remain honest and do not inflate the importance if it doesn't merit it.

45: Never sweeten with respect if none is due.

46: People are never evacuated, buildings and bowels are.

47: Be sensitive when knocking on the door of the bereaved; some will want to invite you in for a cup of tea, show you precious family photos and may let you take one away with you, others will set the dogs on you.

48: Rumours are useful for a heads-up on a potential story, but they are not news until they are verified.

49: Be thorough and ensure that your work is spot on, but don't take too long polishing, there are people out there who need to know about the facts you've uncovered.

50: Always get your round in (buy a drink at the bar).

David BrewerThe author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who founded Media Helping Media, handing the site over to Fojo in early 2018. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online. He has spent many years delivering journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide.

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