The Journalist's Handbook Introduction
The Journalists Handbook - A Practical Guide to Starting, Surviving & Succeeding In Journalism.
(See also: Front Line Reminders
Its easy to imagine that thousands of years ago anyone who had travelled from one distant city to another would have headed straight for the market square with the latest news from far away. An eager audience would have greeted anyone with an interesting account of what he had seen and heard.
Word would have spread quickly of new tyrants toppling old leaders, of advancing armies and impending war, the doings of heroes and villains along with market prices, scandal, novel ideas and the latest fashions. Merchants and rulers would have paid well for any information and insights they could turn to their advantage and, based on information from these first reporters, whole societies would have measured their identities, conducted their affairs, passed laws, gone to war and prospered or failed.
Obviously, anyone whose tales turned out to be deliberately false would not have been trusted again, while those failing to pass on vital information would have been regarded as suspect. And an observer who offered information to a select few rather than the public at large would have been denounced as an informant or spy.
What distinguished reliable reporters from itinerant story-tellers was the use of simple skills. They needed to obtain accurate information, to spot the nub of the issue, to pose questions that would elicit the most revealing and interesting answers and finally to select what would be new or significant to an intended audience, having regard to their existing knowledge and particular interests.
Essentially these reporters were gathering, processing and disseminating information, successfully capturing imaginations by skilful use of words, sounds and pictures to illustrate their accounts. They would, after all, be competing with any tales that other reporters might bring to the market square.
Nothing changes all that much. Essentially we do exactly the same today except that the words, sounds and pictures are often transmitted electronically and delivered into our homes rather than across lonely plains and into the crush of the market square.
Today the reporter is still a man or woman undertaking to provide supposedly impartial information for public consumption, though weve become highly specialised following the development of the printing press and now rather grandly call ourselves journalists.
Journalism covers a multitude of disciplines and specialities across a variety of media but, by definition, implies that weve agreed to abide by commonly accepted standards of honesty, integrity and impartiality as purveyors of accurate news, information and informed opinion.
The impartiality distinguishes us from emissaries, publicists and propagandists. The willingness to tell uncomfortable or unpopular truths sets us apart from simple entertainers. By suppressing our personal beliefs in favour of an objective account we differ from priests and politicians. Our accuracy and accountability separates us from the story tellers.
Journalists are often described as a breed apart, as indeed they should be. Nine-tenths of doing the job well consists of an attitude of mind which involves detachment and objectivity in the way we view events and the world around us. We have constantly to question our assumptions and take into account any factors that might unduly influence our perception.
A reliable report is essentially no more and no less than a full, fair and accurate reflection of what the reporter perceived and believed to be the truth under the prevailing circumstances and at a particular point in time. But since there is no such thing as an absolute and empirical truth, we simply do the best we can.
Were helped in this process if were insatiably curious, acute observers, good listeners, unusually determined and sceptically disinclined to accept on trust everything were asked to believe. Its useful to have a stark appreciation of the ways and motivations of human nature, to be aware of the lessons of history, to be generally very well informed and capable of accumulating large amounts of apparently irrelevant information.
Since many of the abilities demanded of us will sometimes not endear us to our fellow citizens, it also helps to have a fairly thick skin, a sense of humour, the ability to win peoples confidence quickly and to cultivate a rich, varied and useful range of acquaintances. Journalism is little more than an attitude of mind!
At the very least the audience wants an honest account of what they would have seen and heard had they themselves been in the position of the reporter. They want us to be their eyes and ears, to go where they cannot, to take risks they cant afford, to ask all the questions they would have asked and others they might never have considered and then want us to return with a report that is at least worth hearing and preferably enthralling.
However, a journalists prejudices will often surface and personal beliefs can sometimes colour a report. Under some circumstances this has become acceptable practice. Audiences are seldom stupid or naive so, providing that there is some consistency in a journalists slant and that any bias is well-known, audiences can always choose to discount its effect.
Inevitably, stories will sometimes contain errors or omissions. If not deliberate, these may be due to false or incomplete information in the first place or a failure to understand and interpret it properly. Subsequent events may take an unpredictable turn, new information may transform the picture or, quite simply, an honest story may have been told incorrectly or imprecisely.
Whatever the reason, a journalist whose story turns out to be inaccurate, unfair or untrue will very justifiably earn public derision. This is a reaction we should welcome. It implies that the audience is setting a higher standard and imposing greater expectations on journalists than they would for many others. All the same, an erring journalist will usually be forgiven providing that the audience is entirely convinced that there was no deliberate intention to deceive them.
The audience in the market square is wearily accustomed to rulers who lie to them, administrators who deceive them, traders who cheat them and professional people who exploit them. By expecting journalists to be interesting and honest, the audience itself sets journalists apart and defines the word journalism.
Weve all encountered that lonesome hack of pulp fiction, the hero of a thousand celluloid thrillers. Hes the obsessive, restless and difficult outsider who chain-smokes his way through a gritty, single-minded mission to get the story and expose the truth.
He suffers grievously from heartless editors who underpay him, leggy blondes who betray him, dodgy authorities which thwart him and a succession of surly thugs who beat him up. His only reliable comfort is the bottle of scotch in the bottom drawer of his desk.
Sad to say, he would be hard to find among the mostly sober men and women trawling the wire services on computer screens in todays smoke-free news-rooms. And yet, like any cliché, the image contains just enough recognisable elements of the truth to raise a small smile of recognition.
This guide aims to be practical rather than theoretical, offering advice and information for three broad categories of readers: those with some experience but little formal training; those with some training but little practical experience; and those who have neither but want to know more.
The scope of journalism being now so broad, no one book could hope to do justice to all of its many facets. The pace of change and technological developments compound this problem. Furthermore we specifically do not cover the greyer fringes of journalism such as those which verge on public relations, promotion, sensationalism and entertainment. We hope this book will have served its purpose if it succeeds in encouraging fresh talent in a challenging and rewarding way of life.
© (1998) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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