Sunday, February 7, 2010

Surviving Journalism

Surviving Journalism
By Coolwateroverstone

Tips for Surviving a Job as a News Reporter

Assemble the reporter’s kit: at least three pens; a fresh notepad; digital recorder; camera; fresh batteries; business cards with your phone numbers, email, and fax; a cell phone as well as the charger; a few dollars in cash for making document copies or unexpected expenses. Keep it all in a briefcase or bag you can snatch up in a hurry, knowing you have everything you need.

Begin by carefully documenting every scrap of information you gather. Be able to go back and find the same information a second time if necessary. Check the spelling of every name, title, age, address, or background. Never assume anything. Spell Smith and Jones? Try Smyth and Joanz. Or Smythe and Jonze. Be sure to ask.

Observe. Report factually and fairly. If further action happens due to the report and the subsequent public awareness it generates, then report what else happens.

If you have no idea what you're walking into, show up early. Just show up and watch, listen, learn. Pay close attention. You have a reason to be there, right? If all else fails, ask a person to educate you on his/her passionate beliefs. Then ask, “Who disagrees with your viewpoint?” It will be all you can do to get out of the room. If your interview subject cannot talk freely at that moment, get a phone number or email address and follow up as soon as possible (which will give you more time to think about what you need to learn from him/her/them).

Be truthful. Be truthful. Be truthful.
Never lie to a source. If it's off the record, it stays off the record.
Never lie to a reader or to your editor. Break trust once and you never get it back.
Play fair. Always play fair.

Double- or triple-source everything you can. Never take one person's word for it. At the very least, this will give you more than one person’s viewpoint of an issue and help balance your reporting -- and keep you from being used as a political mouthpiece, even by the garden club.

Do the job with honor. Show them you are not like “all those other media types.” It takes time, but teach your sources—one at a time—how deeply they can trust you. Treat them well; cultivate them as you would a valued friend in any relationship. Never bribe or threaten. Thank them for their help every time. When you go back for more information, thank them for the last time they helped you.

Ask sources to give you leads for other sources who may know more.

If you burn a source, you cannot go back. Furthermore, the burned source will tell everyone s/he can that you are not to be trusted. Your reliability and trustworthiness are your stock in trade. Practice it every single minute, with everyone. No shortcuts. No half-ways. Tell only the truth you can prove.

Use the most simple, direct, clear, factual language you can find. Let public figures speak through their quotes. Do not tell readers the mayor lied. Let the mayor say her piece, then show someone else proving the mayor wrong. You are the observer. You are the tape recorder, the camera. Let the readers watch the action and hear the dialogue. Hold up the mirror. Do not yank at the petals of the flower; let it bloom naturally before everyone's eyes.

Make no effort to show everyone how smart you are. Instead, let the reader feel smart for figuring it all out from the way you present the scene, the dialogue, the action. Let them discover it as the event unfolds, fact by fact.

Then later, when the wheels fall off and everyone begins bellowing, because they finally understand what’s going on, stand on the rock of documented facts. When outraged people storm into the office to complain, pull out what you wrote. Show them you didn't say it, the mayor said it, or the secondary source said it.

Let the subjects tell their own stories. Give them enough rope and they'll do the hanging all by themselves.

Coolwateroverstone is the pseudonym for a woman newspaper writer/columnist working in rural Virginia. She has won both state and national awards for her coverage of crime, business, and economic news, and for column writing on serious and humorous subjects.

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