11 mistakes to avoid as a newbie journalist

Photo courtesy of Matt Meuse

The newsroom can be a tricky place for an intern. You need to impress but you don’t want to step on any toes.

Photo courtesy of Matt Meuse

The newsroom can be a tricky place for an intern. You need to impress but you don’t want to step on any toes.

 Zev Singer, recently a reporter and editor for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, shares the 11 mistakes interns should avoid while navigating the newsroom.

1. Being afraid to bother your assignment editor

Young reporters are often so concerned with appearing worldly and capable that they won't dare to clarify what's wanted from them on an assignment. This is backward. Appearances mean very little in a job where the quality of your work is so nakedly on display from the moment you file. Far better to seem jittery and then over-deliver on your story than to be blasé and not come back with the goods.

2. Mentioning the tape

Never type the words “yellow police tape.” Only in the most uselessly literal sense is this "colour" from the scene. When you write the words "yellow police tape," what you're really saying to readers is, "I've got nothing. I'm standing here on the outside, reduced to telling you that police tape is yellow." This situation should vex you, since it's your job to get readers beyond that barrier. This doesn't mean it's time to declare yourself a failure as a journalist. You may not have your own cop sources yet, and even the best reporters are sometimes shut out. But at least have the sense not to broadcast it by including the dreaded YPT.

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3. Throwing in the towel over fatals

You're not alone in hating fatal car crash stories. But keep the following thought in mind, lest this small part of the job push you to a premature exit from the business. Over the course of a career, you'll interview enough people to realize that there are many different personality types out there. This means you will sometimes come across relatives who take comfort in talking to you and are glad for the opportunity to say something about their loved ones. You are looking for those people, so it's not inherently disrespectful to ask a relative if they'd like to speak—as long as you remember that this tragedy is a place, emotionally, where they are living and where you're just visiting. If it's clear they don't want to speak to you, don't push. If you behave with decency you'll get through it, and occasionally you'll even write a great story the family will appreciate.

4. Cheating your competitors

Give your competitors credit by name when they've got an exclusive. It's one thing when several competing outlets have something you haven't yet confirmed, and you say, "according to media reports." But if some reporter out there hustled his or her way into a legit scoop and is the only who has got it, don't be a jerk. Name that outlet. If it kills you to type the name, that's a healthy sign. If you want to avoid that feeling, do it at your own expense, by going out and getting the information yourself.

5. Kvetching

If you disagree with your editor about something, don't grumble to your deskmates. Have the guts to slug it out with your boss. Have enough confidence—in yourself and in your boss—to believe that if you're right you'll win and enough humility and open-mindedness to believe you might, deservedly, lose. So go slug. But once it's over, and you have agreed to do a story, take ownership of that story and fight to the death to land it. Don't be the kind of person who later says, “Well, it wasn't my idea, anyway.”

6. Looking for objectivity in all the wrong places

None of us wants to be judgmental in journalism or in life. Yet many people misunderstand what that means and fret that should they come to hold the opinion that something is morally wrong, an automatic trip-wire will place them in judgment over any and all people who do that thing. This is not true. You, like all people, have the philosopher's right to ponder the question, “What is the best way to live?” It is no more desirable than it is possible to empty yourself of all values in the name of objectivity. Being judgmental means losing sight of the fact that you have extremely limited knowledge of any particular person, even one you know very well, and allowing yourself to believe you're in a position to measure his or her worth as a human being.

7. Writing a boring story

Make it your goal never to do that—not because you're too important a journalist, but because no professional journalist should ever do it. Readers are too important. If you do write a boring story, consider it your own fault because you didn't find a way to either make it interesting, turn it into a fantastic brief or tell your editor about your better story idea.

8. Fearing our own medicine

If someone asks your name, especially someone who asks it because they hate the questions you're asking or the very fact that you exist, give it to them without hesitation. In fact, spell it for them, slowly. If you're doing nothing wrong, you'll have nothing to worry about, so set a good example in the world. The first time I ran into a politician slick enough to have a press officer stand beside me and record my interview with her boss, I hated it. By now, I've come to see it as a beautiful thing. What could be fairer? We're in the job of holding people accountable for what they do, so happily greet the same treatment.

9. Being confused about empathy

A reporter needs to be able to empathize with absolutely any human being. No exceptions—and that includes murderers, rapists and terrorists. I give you my guarantee that hordes of people will send you hate mail because they simply cannot grasp the following point, but you must. To empathize does not mean to justify, to excuse or to absolve. It doesn't have to mean disagreeing with the judge who gives the subject of your story a tough sentence. But what you must do is see your subject as a person, not a thing. A hack asks the question, "What was he thinking?!" A good reporter asked the question, "What was he thinking?" If you are writing about someone, you need to be in a puzzle-solving frame of mind. Contempt will kill your work.

10. Slighting the value of writing

I often hear people speak about writing as if it's a skill that starts at the wrists, and a writer is a person with special, talented fingers. Such people see in our tribe only an ability to “make the words sound good.” Writer as janitor of the language seems to be the concept, where we just go over an endless supply of other people's fully formed ideas and make them shiny. Don't believe it. Clear writing is the result of clear thought. You are a professional thinker. Your job is to learn, analyze and then explain. The best way to improve the quality of your writing is to improve the clarity of your thought. It's always easier to “sound good” when you've got something worthwhile to say.

11. Being overly cynical about politicians

They're not all slimy. First, rid yourself of one common misconception: whatever shortcomings they may have as a class, laziness is not one of them. Most elected officials, especially local ones, have heavy schedules and often spend their evenings at community events. A more legitimate criticism is that too often they are not as forthright as we would like. But keep in mind that, unlike us, they are not generally rewarded for digging deep into the truth. We do need to hold politicians to a very high standard, and I'm not arguing we should ease off. Not even a little. But just have a bit of appreciation and, as with all human beings you write about, don't take cheap shots. Once in a while, you may even come across a politician crazy enough to tell the truth habitually. Alex Cullen, a long-time Ottawa councillor, was that type. One night, when the left-leaning Cullen was telling a right-leaning crowd that they were "dreaming in technicolor" if they thought taxes could be frozen without loss of services, I wrote this about him: "It worked out to just under two pounds apiece: City Hall's Champlain Room was filled with 86 angry taxpayers Tuesday night, and Councillor Alex Cullen weighs 165 pounds. Everybody wanted a piece of him." The reason I'll love Alex Cullen until the day I die is that when I got the idea for that lede and went to crouch behind his seat at the front of the room and ask how much he weighed, he didn't hesitate. Without taking his eyes off the person who was speaking, much less asking me why on earth I wanted to know, he just turned his head slightly toward me for a second and whispered, "A hundred and sixty-five."

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