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August 15, 2010

Getting started – a reporter's role

Surprisingly, a would-be journalist does not have to have any specific training or qualification to join the profession. Neither is there any definitive code to which a new reporter has to adhere.

While there are many universities running media courses and there are training schemes run worldwide that aim to guide and help the new reporter develop their craft, in reality, anyone can set themselves up as a freelance journalist be it as a feature writer, a news reporter, a video journalist, a photo journalist, a news blogger, citizen journalist, or even an online editor.

The internet and speed and ease of communication has made this even easier. Citizen journalism is a relatively new term but it reflects how the field of journalism has opened up to everyone.

In his article ‘How 7/7 democratised the media’, BBC correspondent Torin Douglas describes the rise of citizen journalism.

However, most people who earn their living from journalism either have regularly paid jobs on the staff of media companies or they work as freelances. Freelance journalists earn money from the stories or photographs they get published. Citizen journalists are rarely paid and do the work because it benefits their community, highlights something they believe in, or gives them the satisfaction of having their work published.

But whether freelance, staff or citizen journalist, all journalists are expected to maintain certain conduct that upholds not only their own reputation, but the reputation of the publications for which they write.

There are codes of conduct which are now part of journalists’ contracts of employment such as those laid out by the self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in its Editors' Code of Practice. Members of the public can, in the UK, turn to the PCC for advice or if they have concerns about any matter involving the press, such as harassment, intrusion or inaccurate reporting.

However, it is generally agreed among journalists the world over that all good and responsible newsgatherers aim to seek out the truth and deliver it to their audience in an accurate, objective, balanced and honest manner.

In order to uphold the highest standards, all journalists should set these goals as their own benchmark.

Accuracy is essential. Even failing to get numbers right, or the correct names and details of companies or individuals, will lose any journalist their credibility - and potentially their job. Certainly, as a freelance, they wouldn't be asked to write for that publication again. Some classic misprint howlers can be found on Hold the Front Page and the Faux Pas File. The answer is to check facts remorselessly. And then check them again.

Being objective means being able to stand outside the story or subject and report without prejudice - to give a fair and impartial account of the event or news item. This means also evaluating one's own background and culture and being able to report stories without that influence. A reporter's duty is to inform, to give the facts from all sides and let people make up their own minds.

To produce a balanced article the writer has to offer both sides of the story. This involves giving the person or persons whose behaviour (for example) has been questioned, the opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Honesty is an absolute. There are tales of reporters who make up quotes, lift stories from other news outlets and pass them off as their own, and even offer totally fictitious stories.

Daniel Jeffreys, The Daily Mail's New York correspondent, wrote an eyewitness account in 2002 of Tracy Housel's execution in Georgia, where the British prisoner spent 16 years on death row for rape and murder. The writer for the UK tabloid produced a riveting read, says the New York Magazine.
'What happened will haunt my dreams for years,' wrote Jeffreys solemnly. 'We could see Housel mouthing the words "I love you."'

Moving stuff. There's just one problem. It's all made up.
Jeffreys never actually witnessed this event. He wrote the account, he says, having spoken to Housel’s lawyer who was there.
This is Jeffreys’ original story filed to The Daily Mail.

A journalist should, under the International Federation of Journalists' code of ethics, only use 'fair methods to obtain news, photographs and documents'. Threats, bribery, and tricking people into giving information is an absolute 'no'. As is not identifying oneself as a journalist when gathering information or asking for an interview.

Some of the ‘tactics’ used by one UK Sunday tabloid have been questioned. The News of the World’s investigative journalist Mazher Mahmood (the fake sheikh) broke a number of exclusive stories having ‘exposed’ royalty, actors, criminals, sportsmen and presenters when interviewing them in his sheikh disguise.

So what characteristics should a journalist possess?

Ultimately, the key to your success is your:

  • Ability to write and research. A specialism, an interest, a degree or some indepth knowledge of a subject is likely to stand you in good stead. You can then write with authority, with confidence and with a background knowledge that will give your article credibility
  • Perseverance.You will be tenacious, want to seek out the truth, and not give up when faced with opposition or bureaucratic inertia
  • Curiosity. Your questioning will be deeper and your interviewee's responses more rounded if you are personally interested in the subject and curious to know the answers
  • Desire to get the whole picture, the truth behind your story. You will be persistent in your questioning and won't be fobbed off by those who think they can ride rough-shod over your interview
  • Ability to be relaxed with all types of people in all sorts of situations. People are stories. Mixing with people will lead you to yet more stories and story ideas. The more time you spend with people, the more they will give. Your stories will be richer for it.

Added to the above, all journalists need to cultivate a certain degree of scepticism. Information will come your way but you always need to question why your source has passed on these details. What's in it for them? Has that official or company press officer put certain information your way in order that their businesses are seen in a favourable light? Question everything.

But why write?
As a journalist you will write because you are interested in the subject, because you enjoy imparting information, because you have an enquiring mind and want to get the facts, because you want to meet people and see things they would otherwise not see, meet or do (writing gives entry to all sorts of venues).  But your role is always to represent the ordinary man in the street not to enjoy some sort of celebrity kick.

And your skill as a writer is in how you research the story and find the answers, how you then tell the story, how you structure it, accurately reporting the facts and detail, making your article readable and relevant.

And while you are writing, you’ll remember that all good stories whether 50, 500 or 5,000 words long share the same basic elements: what happened, when, where, to whom, why, and how?

What other qualities do you think a journalist needs?

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

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