Very Top Five… Skills for journalists

Monday, 2 November 2009
Did someone not once say “if the pen is mightier than the sword, then journalism is the whetstone”? I’m sure somebody must have done.

Anyway, do you want to check out the skills zone for current trends or indications of paradigm shifts?
By the way, if you can use the words ‘paradigm shift’ without your face sagging into a grimace under the weight of all the sarcasm, then you will make an excellent political journalist.

Journalism is a cavalcade of caustic, faustic drudgery. It even says that in the dictionary (Any journalists reading this won’t check, they’ll just copy and paste it and take my citation for granted.)

Journalists have a surprising combination of tenacity and laziness. That is to say, they flatter themselves with the belief that they have the ability to discern the wheatiest stories from the misleading, irrelevant and uninteresting chaff. In practise this means they’ll superciliously scan through a report and make up their ‘story’ by pouncing on one wildly unrepresentative strand and spinning it out to cover three pages.

There are many different types of journalists, from political journalists (Who report how terrible politicians are) right through to opinion columnists (Who give opinions on how terrible everyone (including politicians) is.). Regardless of what sort of journalist you end up being, you’ll need easy mental access to the following grab bag of skills.

5. Headline creation

Headlines are supposed to get you to buy the newspaper, and they should hook readers in a punchy way.

Getting the words to rhyme is excellent form, as is including the sorts of puns that would disgrace even the worst sort of dinner party bore. For examine, imagine if John Locke, the philosopher and physician of the 17th century, had been seen wearing a dress. The headline wouldn’t say “Locke seen wearing a dress,” it would be “LOCKE FROCK SHOCK.”
And the journalists would go into paroxysms of delight.

4. Misrepresentation

This is most common in areas in which most people don’t have an adequate knowledge to evaluate the worth of a concept on their own, such as science, medicine or law. The brilliant thing is that the journalist who’s writing the article doesn’t have to understand it either!

Let’s say you want to write a story about GM foods, or a pharmaceutical product. All you have to do is find a scientist with a crazy opinion about how long-life cabbages give you brain cancer and present it alongside conventional wisdom (that they don’t) and suggest that these two opinions represent the two leading equally-weighted alternatives in a contentious field, and ta-da! Instant hysteria, and the chance to write dozens of follow up articles on how YOU, the readers, reacted to hearing the ‘news’ about cabbages, letters from concerned parents, discussions between experts on the pros and cons of each side of the argument, etc etc.

And you can’t be sued for libel even though you have practically invented a scare out of nothing, because, “hey! I’m just reporting leading researchers’ opinions here. You can’t interfere with the public’s right to know information that might be important to their health.”

3. Leaving your options open

Did you hear that a celebrity turned down an invitation to attend a charity dinner for dying orphans last week? Did you report it, and deride him as a massive wanker for being a no-show? If so, woops, turns out he couldn’t come because he was at a dying kiddies home, making a massive anonymous donation, which another paper has just reported.

No problem! Your initial story should have been written with enough leeway to report both stories with the journalistic integrity required to do ‘em justice.

If you’re an editor (A person who is to journalists what a giant bloodsucking bat is to regular-sized bloodsucking bats) then just change writers for this new story, and juggle around your writers in future as necessary depending on whether you want to pan a celeb or laud them with obsequiously brittle candour.

If this happens in an opinion column, then oh no! You can’t just change writer to report your massive change of tack. But if you're in this situation you could still be in the clear, just write the new story as if it’s the first time that the celeb has revealed himself not to be a massive wanker, and discuss the significance of this as if it’s a real thing rather than something you made up to save face.

Alternatively, just say “oh, that first piece was sarcasm, everyone knows that celebrity is a jolly nice guy,” if you can stand the g-forces tearing on your morals with such a huge change of direction.

2. Attract stories

Make yourself the go-to person for your area of expertise by greedily claiming to have an opinion about every little thing to happen in your chosen field for several years, and eventually everyone in that area will come to tolerate your consistent inability to just go away, like a stain on the toilet that just shift, regardless of how hard to scrub.

Next thing you know you’ll be attracting stories like a media magnate. Eh? Eh? Geddit?

1. Hounding

Realised that most of the things that happen to most people, even celebrities, are mundane? You can get into trouble for making stuff up, so your job is to make the boring, irrelevant or personal stuff that happens into news.

So follow a celebrity around and make notes on everything they say, form a firm personal opinion about how sensible and normal they seem; perhaps the sort of person you might go for a drink with. Be secure in the knowledge that like most sensible, normal people, they will eventually something a bit stupid, unkind or offensive that they probably don’t mean and wouldn’t have said if they’d had a chance to think about it. Pounce! And publish that.

Speed this process along by asking them barbed questions, or by barracking them, or by barricading yourself outside their house with a telephoto lens and long range sound recorder. Eventually, by you and your colleagues grinding insistence, you’ll slowly shift their perceptions of normalcy so they won’t know what’s right and what’s wrong, and will trot out these crazy out-of-touch nuggets of newspaper gold as a matter of course.

So there we go, a handy how-guide to journalism. Feel free to use this as the basis for careers talks at schools.


julochka said...

you forgot sit around in your hidey hole and make stuff up. :-) that's the most important one of all. i should know. i'm currently sitting around in my hidey hole, making stuff up... :-)

Nanodance said...

I'm not eating any more cabbages.

Very Top Five said...

Yes indeed. If there is one thing that I'd like you to take away from this article, it's that cabbages are bad news. ;)

Kate said...

Are cabbages hurting our children? More on this at 11.