Many people try to become journalists, but not everyone succeeds.
Some people find the work too hard and the hours too long. Others get frustrated at having to find information and persuade people to give it to them. Some realize that they do not have the competitive fire to survive in the work of journalism. Still others discover that they do not have the skills to be a good writer, reporter or editor.
Yet, many other people do become journalists and find the work rewarding. And a growing number of young people are taking an interest in the profession.
So what does it take to become a good journalist?
In the previous section (1.4 Professional values <link>), we discussed some of the values and attitudes that those in the profession share as they do their journalistic work. This section presents some of the personal attributes – the things that an individual needs to bring to the professional work.
The first and foremost personal attribute is a strong and confident sense of personal integrity. In a word: honesty. Journalists must be honest about themselves and their place in the world. They must understand their own biases and admit to them. They must act professionally and in ways that enhance their credibility. As seekers after truth, they must be themselves truthful.
Developing high personal standards of conduct are essential for the journalist. They must be able to defend not only what they produce – their articles and reports – but also the way in which those reports are produced.
Another attribute of the journalist is a wide-ranging curiosity about the world. Journalists should want to know the what, why and how of many things. They should be willing to listen to people tell their stories and express their opinions without being judgmental about them. They should have the ability to ask questions that not only get information but also show their sources they are genuinely interested in the topic being discussed.
Young people who want to enter the professional of journalism should be wide and voracious readers. They should always have a stack of books and magazines that they are trying to get through. They should explore deeply the subjects they are taking in their high school curriculum, reading well beyond the textbook assignments.
One of the most insidious reasons for not pursuing a topic or subject cited by high school students (and others) is: “That will never be of any use to me.” That kind of thinking is wrong on many levels, but it is deathly limiting to people who want to become journalists. Simply put, a journalist should know as much about as many things as possible.
A skill that all potential journalists should have is the ability to use the language – particularly the ability to write – and an interest in developing that skill. All journalists must write, and they must edit what they and other write. That means, first, knowing the generally accepted rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and diction and being able to apply those rules to their writing. Second, journalists should understand the meanings of words and how they are use in the context of writing and speaking.
Beyond these technical aspects of writing, journalists should enjoy the writing process and should derive some satisfaction from it. Some people do not like to write. It is difficult, and they get little satisfaction from doing it. Fair enough. But these are people who would not do well in journalism. The expectation of the profession is that people who attempt to be journalists should be able to write and should not mind doing so.
(If you think you would like to go into journalism but don’t think that you write enough to do so, don’t worry. You can improve you skills, and you will have many opportunities to do so. We devote a whole section in this course to helping you do that.)
Another attribute that is helpful to journalist is the ability and willingness to work hard. Journalism sometimes requires long hours. It can be frustrating. Journalists cannot make people talk with them or give them information. They cannot make people return their phone calls or answer their emails. Journalists have to learn to live with these frustrations.
In addition, all news organizations have deadlines, and work must be produced by these deadlines. This can lead to a great amount of tension as a deadline approaches, and a journalist has to learn to absorb these pressures and produce high quality work in a short amount of time. In addition, a journalist must be willing to accept criticism of his or her work. In the journalist does is, we hope, seen by a large audience. Inevitably, that work will not please every in the audience, and the journalist has to understand and accept that. Journalists are not always highly regard, but they have to believe in what they do and work hard at it despite being criticized or under-appreciated.
The best journalists have well developed analytical abilities. Sometimes these are described as “thinking skills.” Journalists can put disparate facts together, making connections, draw conclusions. Most of all, they do not mind questioning what people tell them. They are not afraid to put information to the test of checks and double-checks, of research, of asking independent sources.
A lot of what is described in the previous paragraph can be grouped under one word: skepticism. Journalists are skeptical about what they see and hear. They want to hear from a second source. They want to analyze and think about what others tell them. They are unwilling to simply accept an assertion at face value.
A journalist’s skepticism should not degenerate into cynicism (disbelieving everything anyone says). Nor should it make the journalist obnoxious or uncivil. But journalists should not allow civility to stop them from asking difficult, embarrassing or uncomfortable questions if the need arises.
All of the attributes and skills discussed in this section help the journalist do his or her job. They are skills that are valued by the profession and are expected of those who want to practice journalism for a living.
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