50 tips for budding journalists

Your journalism checklist

<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-thomas-brewer/" target="_new">Image by David Brewer</a> released via <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/" target="_blank">Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0</a>
Image by David Brewer released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

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.

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 should never be watching 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, are all 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 competitors, 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 forgotten their real calling.

11: Don’t just follow the competition

Some news meetings spend far too much time worrying 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 competitors. 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

Without a clear commitment 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 fundamentally 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 at the end of the process, 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 important 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 responsibility. 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 where we cover how to decide 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 the history of the issue/event you are covering.

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 again and got it right.

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 have written 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 and records

It’s good practice to keep copies of all emails, texts, dates of phone calls, events attended etc. You will need them in the future. Never throw a notebook away.

32: Trust your instincts and hunches

This is important when researching a topic. You might have a hunch, and following that hunch might lead to new information. However when it comes to publishing or broadcasting you need to stick to facts and leave out any hunches.

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

It’s easy to be distracted in journalism by those who don’t want you to cover information that might be damaging to their cause. There is a saying in British politics which is often used when there is a big breaking news story. The saying it “It’s a good day to bury bad news”. What it means is that if there are any political announcements that might not go down too well with the general public the best day to announce them is when another big story is dominating the headlines.

34: A politician will always have a script

If a politician agrees to an interview they will have a line they want to deliver. They will have worked with their media team on what to say and they will be determined to say it, even if it has nothing to do with the topic under discussion. Your job is to make sure this doesn’t stop you getting the information you want from the interview. See our training module on interviewing politicians.

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

A compromised journalist is able to be manipulated. And avoiding being compromised is all about integrity. See our training module on editorial integrity. If someone feels they have power over you because of something you have done or said, they may try to use that to weaken your resolve and stop you producing robust journalism.

36: Deal with your own motives

You have to put all your likes, dislikes, feelings, beliefs, they must have no impact in your delivery of impartial and objective journalism. We have a training module in our ethics section which deals with objectivity and impartiality.

37: Don’t put interviewees in danger

You have a duty of care to those you are interviewing and must not put them in harm’s way. This could mean backing away from a volatile situation or finding a quieter and safer place to conduct the interview. You should also be aware that what they say could have repercussions and they may not realise that by sharing information with you they could be putting themselves in danger.

38: Respect intellectual property

If someone leaves a comment on your website that you use in a story always provide attribution where required. Similarly with any user-generated content that comes your way either through being submitted or social media; you must always provide the acknowledgement required.

39: Never use the words “will have to wait and see” or “time will tell”

If you don’t know how a story will end don’t use meaningless clichés to end your piece. Better to ask one of the interviewees in the piece to speculate on what might happen next, or, if you are unsure, set out the options.

40: Never say “the victim has not been named”

This is clearly short-form for “Police have so far not released the name of the victim”. Of course they have been named, probably soon after birth.

41: More than and over

Never say “over than 100 people attended the event”. More than = quantity, over = height.

42: Don’t use long words when short words will do

Many famous people have spoken of the importance of writing clearly and briefly. The British politician Winston Churchill once said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all”.

43: Avoid complicated sub-clauses

These could obscure the information you are trying to get across. If possible break the text down into short, sharp sentences that can be easily understood.

44: Convey a sense of urgency only when it is appropriate

Too often broadcast journalists deliver the news in a breathless, excitable voice which, at times, remains the same no matter what the subject matter is. Journalists should never inflate the importance of a news item. We should just deliver the facts in a calm and clear manner.

45: Don’t waste your time trying to achieve balance

Live isn’t balanced and nor should our journalism be balanced. We should and must look for disparate voices and try to include as many sides of the story as possible, but we should never try to achieve false balance which can ultimately distort the truth and lead to confusion.

46: Be wary of those pushing ‘constructive’ and ‘positive’ news

Many are doing so out of a genuine concern that the media and journalism has become focused only on disasters and tragedy, but the danger of introducing subjective terms such as ‘constructive’ and ‘positive’ is that it threatens to tilt how a story is written in favour of angles that are not a true reflection of actual events. Of course a journalist should look at all the impact angels of an event. Some will be viewed as constructive and positive by some, others might see it differently. We should stay clear of value judgements and report on life as it is robustly and observing editorial ethics in all we do.

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 but they are not news

Rumours are good for a heads-up on a potential story, but they are not news until they are verified. Journalists should never deal in rumour.

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. Getting the raw facts out there quickly is often better than holding on to them while you dig deeper. Report what you know and then continue to research a follow-up piece.

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

Some of the best stories come to light while chatting to someone in the coffee shop or the bar. And if you buy a drink the person you are talking to might be encouraged to stay longer and open up a bit more.