What is a journalist?

Gazeta Lubuska Newsroom image by PawelJanczaruk released via Wikimedia Commons
Gazeta Lubuska Newsroom image by Pawel Janczaruk released via Wikimedia Commons

Journalistic roles

Journalists cover many areas of life, finding and presenting information for print, broadcast, or online.

They make notes and then write about what they have discovered, producing articles or reports. This process is often called newsgathering.

Sometimes they take photographs and record video and audio to illustrate the story they are covering. In some cases they process the material themselves and edit and publish the finished product.

They also comment on the news and other current affairs either for newspapers, broadcasters, online, or on social media.

A journalist can be a freelancer, or stringer, hired by different news outlets to cover the news. Or they could be hired by a newspaper, broadcaster or online news outlet to work exclusively for them.

There are many types of jobs that a journalist might be hired for.

Reporters gather information and present it in a written or spoken form in news stories, feature articles or documentaries.

Specialist or beat reporters focus on specific areas such as crime, politics, economics or sport.

Sub-editors put the stories into a form which suits their particular newspaper, magazine, radio or TV bulletin, or web page. Their job is to concentrate on how the story can best be presented to their audience.

Photojournalists use photographs to tell the news, either covering events with a reporter, taking photographs to illustrate the written story, or attending news events on their own, presenting both the pictures and a story or caption.

The news editor is the person in charge of the news journalists and decides what stories to cover and who will do the work. She or he allocates stories, checks them when they are submitted before forwarding them for publication.

Feature writers produce longer stories offering background to the news. The person in charge of features is usually called the features editor. Their job is to offer the context and analysis for the news. The reports they produce are often called in-depth because they take a more detailed look at the news.

Radio or TV stations have producers who oversee news and current affairs output. They will decide what stories are covered and the angles they want to explore. As part of that they will also be responsible for selecting the guests who are invited to take part.

Specialist writers might be asked to produce personal commentary columns or reviews of things such as books, films, art or performances. They are usually selected for their knowledge about certain subjects.

The editor is usually the person who makes the final decision about what is included in the newspaper, magazine or news bulletins. He or she is responsible for all the content and all the journalists.

There are many other jobs which can be done by journalists. It is a career with many opportunities.

People enter journalism for a variety of reasons. Some just enjoy writing and learning new things, some want to become famous and make a name for themselves, and some might want to be an influence for good and bring about social change.

Whatever the reason, the best journalists recognise their role as servants of the people. They are the channels through which information flows and are the interpreters of events.

Some see themselves as watchdogs for the ordinary man or woman. They are ready to champion the cause of the underdog and expose corruption and abuses of office.

This is a vital role in any democratic process and should be equally valuable and welcome in countries where a non-democratic government guides or controls the press.

There is a difference between the desire to influence events for your own sake, and the desire to do it for other people. You should never use journalism for selfish ends, but you can use it to improve the life of other people – remembering that they may not always agree with you on what those improvements should be.

There is a strong tradition in Western societies of the media being the so-called “Fourth Estate”, made up of the church, the rich and powerful, the commoners, and the media. In this role journalists act as an advocate for ordinary citizens against possible abuses from those with power and authority. In this light, some see the role of journalists as giving voice to the voiceless.

Some critics accuse journalists of being shallow when in fact journalism, by its very nature, attracts people who are inquisitive about everything. Most journalists tend to know a little bit about a lot of things, rather than a lot about one subject.

In the next lesson, ‘The qualities of the journalist?’ we look more closely at what it takes to be a journalist.

This training module uses material from The News Manual’s Chapter 2: What is a journalist? with permission.