What it takes to be a journalist

Journalism training in Africa. Image by David Brewer shared via Creative Commons
Journalism training in Africa. Image by David Brewer shared via Creative Commons

10 suggestions for journalistic success

Hard work and self-discipline are at the heart of good journalism.

Journalists should be accurate, first with news, trusted, easy to understand, straight, aware, disciplined and realistic.

They should always be contactable, and totally committed to finding original stories and telling them in a way that makes sense to the audience.

Here are a few tips from a lifetime of trying to get it right.

1: Be right

You are offering your journalism as a thing to be trusted. You have to build up trust with your readers, listeners and viewers. They want to know that they can rely on you to be accurate. Accuracy is the most important quality – even more than timeliness. Better to be second and right than first and wrong. But better still to be first and right.

2: Be first

Journalism is, by definition, timely. The best way to be timely is to be first. What’s the point of telling people things they already know? You are there to tell them things they don’t know. So chase that news and get it first.

3: Stick to what you know

It’s vital to stick to the facts that you know. Often you need more facts than you’ve so far gathered in order to tell a story properly. Instead, you may have only an incomplete picture. It’s unsatisfactory and frustrating. But don’t be tempted to speculate or – even worse – imply things you’re not sure about. Get the story out there in terms that you know to be true. You can develop it later.

4: Keep it simple

Journalism is not art. It’s important to present the story in an interesting way – but don’t waste time trying to fashion fancy sentences. Use simple language that tells the story as clearly and unambiguously as possible. Keep the sentences short. Be logical in the way you order the facts. Don’t impose on your viewers or readers or listeners. Make it easy for them to digest the information.

5: Play it straight

Journalism is a competitive business. Sometimes you’ll be tempted to cut corners. Don’t do it. Your trustworthiness is your main asset. Keep the journalism scrupulously accurate and your personal conduct ethical. Don’t do the dirty on your competitors – even if they do it to you. Always maintain your standards.

6: Know your market

Journalism is always aimed at someone. Who makes up your target audience? How old are they? Where do they live? Where do they work? What are their lives like? What interests them? What are they worried about? What do they want to know? What information do they need to take a full part in society? Remember you’re there to serve them – not to impress your peer group.

7: Be aware of the competition

Competition is what keeps us on our toes. With a bit of luck it will keep us honest. Always watch what the competition is doing. Judge yourself against its output. Try all the time to be better – get your stories faster, tell them better, find more interesting angles. Be willing to learn from the competition when it does a better job.

8: Be disciplined

There are all kinds of deadlines. With breaking news, the deadline is now: you’ve got to get the information out straight away, usually in very brief form, and add to it as soon as you get more. Then there are the fixed deadlines for TV and radio bulletins, and newspaper print runs. Respect them. An item for the top of the One O’Clock News is no good if it’s not ready until one minute past. A page lead for a newspaper is no good if you can’t get it into print in time to catch the delivery trucks. If you can’t meet deadlines, you are not fit for the job.

9: Be realistic

Think of when the story has got to be ready and think of everything that’s needed to make it work. Figure out how much time you can allow for each stage. Don’t set yourself impossible deadlines. Build in a bit of a margin, for safety. Deliver early if you can – but don’t sacrifice important content.

10: Keep in touch

Never underestimate the importance of good communications. It’s no use having a story if you can’t communicate it. Always know exactly how you’re going to be in touch with the office, whether it is by mobile phone, land-line, the internet, satellite phone or broadcast circuit. Whatever it is, try to have a backup. Check and double-check your communications.