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Journalism 101: 16 Things You Learn In J-School

It’s been a couple of years since I sat in a journalism class, but I’m guessing (and hopeful) they still teach some of the same stuff they did when I went to school. While there are no shortage of blog posts discounting the value of a journalism education, I can’t help but think bloggers and journalists would serve their readers better by sticking to some of these tried and true principles of journalism. And for the PR pros that read this blog, you too can improve the value of your content by following these journalistic principles:

1. Name Your Sources – he said, she said. When you name sources, you lend credibility to your story and demonstrate your savvy as a reporter. Only use anonymous sources when divulging their identity would put them at risk of retribution or harm.

2. Protect Your Sources – not to contradict my first point, but when necessary, protect your sources. They are the lifeblood of your stories. Reporters should be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their sources when they need to remain anonymous.

3. Be Objective – journalism should be void of opinion. It’s hard to find content these days that is truly objective, but when you do, readers appreciate it more. Keep opinions for the Op-Ed section.

4. Offer Balance – there is more than one side to a story. Go to great lengths to get information from all sides. If the other side is unwilling to talk, say so in your piece. At least you tried.

5. Avoid Conflicts of Interest – don’t write about something because you like it. This works in the blogosphere, but not for traditional journalism. If you have a close tie to the source or organization in your story, let your audience know. Don’t let it come out later, people will question your judgment and integrity. And no matter how small, don’t accept gifts. Most media organizations have policies regarding gifts; follow them. This includes covering advertisers over non-advertisers as the sole criteria for determining sources. This may seem like commonsense, but it’s probably one of the most common offenses average journalists commit.

6. Don’t Censor – don’t leave a company out of a report because you don’t like their PR rep. Don’t be selective about the information you include, unless you’re confident you’re giving your audience the best of what you’ve got. They will figure it out, and it will tarnish your reputation.

7. Get It Right – better to be accurate than first. Many journalists face this challenge today, they need to be first with a story. Haste makes waste in reporting. Take your time to get the facts straight. Don’t let the pressure of a deadline jeopardize your journalistic integrity.

8. Don’t Plagiarize – it’s easier than ever to catch a copycat. A simple Google search will yield “cut and pasted” content. Don’t steal content from someone else. You wouldn’t like it if it happened to you. Why jeopardize your career like that? If you really like something somebody wrote, and you can’t say it better yourself, quote them on it.

9. Report the Facts – there’s no room for guesswork in journalism. If you don’t know the answer, find it. Go to your expert sources, your local library or your favorite search engine. There is no excuse for lazy reporting. If you don’t have facts, you don’t have a story.

10. Don’t Be Nasty – you’ve got influence, don’t abuse it. Avoid getting personal in your reporting. If it’s not relevant to your story, don’t attack the character of another individual. Keep it classy, not sassy.

11. Don’t Believe Everything – if it’s your byline, it’s your job to fact check. Don’t believe those stats sent to you by a PR firm. And don’t believe every quote you get. Do the legwork, verify the information, and save yourself from writing corrections later on.

12. Keep Good Records – when possible, record interviews. Take copious notes, and keep all those files as long as you would keep tax returns. You never know when you’re going to have to provide proof of the great job you did reporting on that story.

13. Don’t Write in a Stream of Consciousness – if you’re writing news, use the Inverted Pyramid. Give the reader what they want in the first few sentences, then provide your supporting information after that. Outline your story first, to avoid jumping all over the place. This advice is of particular importance to bloggers and PR pros.

14. Find Your Voice – at the end of the day, you have to separate yourself from the pack. Find the right voice for the way you write best. Readers will be more engaged and responsive to your genuine voice. Be original, be interesting and be relevant.

15. Never Stop Learning – whether you’ve been doing this for twice my age, or it’s your first year on the job, you can always improve as a journalist. Get involved with journalism organizations and groups, take part in new courses and pick up some new skills. Your future employment status depends on it.

16. Have Fun – I enrolled in a journalism program because I found writing to be fun. I thought telling stories for the enjoyment of others had to be the best job ever. I still feel the same. Think back to what got you on this track, chances are you wanted to have fun. Have fun with that next story you write, your readers will thank you for it.

What advice do you have for other journalists? What can bloggers and PR pros learn from the basics of journalism?

(Photo: shonk / Clay Shonkwiler)

About Jeremy Porter

Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics.

  • http://twitter.com/TankaBar_Linda TankaBar_Linda

    Some excellent advice: RT @journalistics Journalism 101: 16 Things You Learn in J-School http://tr.im/lSjH

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/CubanaLAF CubanaLAF

    Things that everyone in the journalism field can keep in mind. RT @journalistics Jour 101: 16 Things You Learn in J-School http://tr.im/lSjH

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/kreishus kreishus

    Enjoyed this RT @journalistics Journalism 101: 16 Things You Learn in J-School http://tr.im/lSjH

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Raggs Mumpert

    Huh, funny, those sound suspiciously similar to the general principles of doing scientific research. If those hold true for journalism, maybe journalism school wouldn’t even be that necessary if the state of science education in America weren’t so appallingly bad.

  • http://www.StinkyJournalism.org Rhonda R Shearer

    I have provided a link to your excellent post from our media site site, StinkyJournalism.org.
    Your list provides a great context for judging the recent case we investigated about Jared Diamond’s now controversial New Yorker article. Go to http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/editordetail.php?id=326 . (The link to your list is under updates at the bottom. I wrote: “Check out this blog post by a journalist who outlines the basic journalism standards he learned in J-School. Go to this very helpful context what the blogger, Jeremy Porter, calls ” tried and true principles of journalism,” for judging Diamond’s claim that he adhered to good journalism practice”).
    Diamond wrote that his Papua New Guinean driver and his tribesmen committed capital crimes without fact checking (or the famed New Yorker factchecking dept) or even contacting the people he names before publication! For those interested in the details, here is our 10,000 report–http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/latest-journalism-news-updates-149.php

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  • http://twitter.com/MakenzieDawn MakenzieDawn

    Love the Journalistics blog. RT @Journalistics | Journalism 101 | 16 Things You Learn In J-School http://bit.ly/a4Wty

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/DanRosen DanRosen

    excellent advice for writers of all stripes, but especially those who ply the journalism trade http://bit.ly/88xzY

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  • http://www.mywebstartpage.com/ Kurt

    Great article — and very insightful. I still enjoy reading a paper with my morning coffee. I also enjoy watching my eldest daughter, Gabi, clamor for the Sunday Comics — and love witnessing her joy of reading & learning.

    The key for the “print” versions of News is just like you say — make it relevant & unique. It can’t just be a reprint of yesterdays news I already read! That’s just frustrating!

    I read the LSJ because of the interesting LOCAL writers, the LOCAL sports teams, and even the LOCAL morons writing their diatribes to the editor. LOCAL is the key. I also want the paper to provide information on LOCAL businesses that are unique, or growing — and uplift our spirits…. Unfortunately, many of the local papers are cutting back on exactly the things I mentioned above — and becoming a regurgitation of yesterdays wire-feeds….

    This comment was originally posted on 5Ws

  • http://beckyjohns.wordpress.com/ Becky Johns

    Good post, Ari. You seem to have hit the nail on the head when it comes to a big issue leading to the demise of the traditional newspaper. Kurt also makes a great point when he says that LOCAL news and information is really what readers are after.

    In my mind, it won’t be long before there are only a few newspapers in the country left that focus on national/world news or stories coming through the AP wire. Smaller newspapers will have to focus on local news to survive, or they will need to become more like magazines with such issue or interest-focused content that they will appeal more to audiences with specific interests than audiences that just happen to live in a geographic area.

    My generation (for the most part) doesn’t even view a printed newspaper as a top news source anymore. If I pick up a newspaper it’s because I want to do the crossword, not because I want to read.

    This comment was originally posted on 5Ws

  • http://twitter.com/dokkenator dokkenator

    16 Things You Learn In J-School http://bit.ly/i1Q6O — great refresher from @jeremyporter

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://michigantaxes.com/wordpress/ Jason Gillman

    Many of you have never felt the fresh paper in your hands still warm from the press, (yes.. “hot off the presses” means something)and might not appreciate the beauty of “web press” apparatus. Years ago I tried my hand as a publisher, and failed. I suppose looking back at it, it was my first attempt at “blogging,” because I saw things the local paper wasn’t reporting, figured I had some cool ideas on how to present coupons for advertisers, and plodded on forward with interviews, local perspective, and opinions.

    The paper was actually well received, and it was a FREE periodical. (10,000 copies of the first issue WAS a mistake.. lol) The ads barely paid for it, and there was a lot of room for improvement on the advertising revenues, (like actually asking the advertisers to pay would have helped.) but I didn’t have staying power, and nearly bankrupted myself. The final blow however, was two months prior to my last (July 4th) issue, the local paper “resurrected” a name of a paper that had been gone for 50 years, and followed my format to some extent. This “new” paper still exists 12 years after my last.

    There can be money in print yet. It is all in the formatting and presentation. The overhead of a large organization which must shrink or grow with conditions is the real battle. When the news or Free Press had HUGE subscriber bases, they made money, but the organizations of employees accepting contracts at that time are not nearly as amiable to accepting the new realities when the hammer falls, and changes need to be made.

    Technology and innovation CAN fix this for the print media, but I suspect the V2.0 management is trying harder to make the digital side a little more profitable, and attention to print might well be lost.

    Excellent post BTW.

    This comment was originally posted on 5Ws

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  • http://www.unhub.com/aribadler aribadler

    Becky, I think you make a good point about how your generation doesn’t see a printed newspaper as a top news source anymore. What do you see as a top news source — and does it have the same level of credibility and loyalty that older folks found in a local newspaper on their doorstep every morning?

    This comment was originally posted on 5Ws

  • http://www.unhub.com/aribadler aribadler

    Kurt, I think it’s great you enjoy reading the paper with your morning coffee and even better that your daughter is learning by watching you do that. I miss the days when I used to be able to sit with a morning paper and do that. It’s not the papers’ fault, it’s mine for being too busy or simply too stubborn to make the time to do that anymore. In our hurry-up world, I’m wondering if we’ve lost the ability to slow down and smell the newsprint, so to speak. We all talk about how great vacations are because we can do that. But can’t we do that at home, too? We just have to make the commitment.

    This comment was originally posted on 5Ws

  • http://www.unhub.com/aribadler aribadler

    Jason, you make a good point about folks with contracts always enjoying the good times but sometimes not wanting to deal with the reality of the bad times. I also agree with you that people are so intent on making the E-editions profitable and are focusing so much energy on the new delivery methods that they may be pounding the nail in print’s coffin. But is that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is print going to die because they ignored it? I know some people who dislike the new printed versions of the Freep and the News because of their layout. I’ve tried the E-editions and I don’t like them — they seem clumsy. Several others I know have commented about it the same way. I suppose only time will tell.

    This comment was originally posted on 5Ws

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  • http://beckyjohns.wordpress.com/ Becky Johns

    I’d say a lot of people my age go right to the internet for news. If we have feelings about a credible newspaper, we are likely to visit that paper’s site for the news. For example, I like the Detroit Free Press, I believe that in general, it does a good job of covering Michigan News. So, I’d much rather visit the Free Press website, or follow it on Twitter to read the daily headlines. Why buy a newspaper when it’s online for free? Why have a physical newspaper clutter my desk and make noise when I turn the pages when I can have the website up on my computer and periodically check headlines and browse content?

    Another big issue for my generation is that news is a constant stream of information. For many people in my parents’ generation or older, news was something that was delivered to your doorstep in the morning and after you read it, you went on with your day and waited for tomorrow’s news. For my peers, we know that news is happening every minute of every day and the internet gives us instant access, at all times, to the latest information. In many cases, between the time a paper is printed and the time I read it, information will have already changed. It is also very easy to pick and choose exactly what types of news we want to read (or listen to, or watch through video) which doesn’t expose us to clutter we don’t want.

    My point is long-winded, but the idea is that online news is credible for my generation, because growing up in a tech world, we’ve learned how to decipher what’s accurate and what’s not. If I can find the same information on more than 3 news sites, I assume it’s accurate.

    This comment was originally posted on 5Ws

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  • http://keepyourstickontheice.wordpress.com Nate

    You should also learn that it’s impossible to be “objective,” but that you can try to be fair. The statement you shouldn’t write about something because you like it doesn’t make much sense either, particularly alongside other, more obvious conflicts of interest. So I should only dispassionately write about subjects I have no interest in? Sounds like a recipe for a whole lot of boring uninformed prose. Obviously you will gravitate to and be more engaged in things you like. This idea that Journalists magically become neutral ethics-bots of the highest standard is ridiculous. It’s more realistic to recognize your inherent biases and to do your best to try to examine yourself from the outside and whether you are being fair in your approach. I think this applies to gifts as well. I have felt perfectly comfortable accepting a small “thank-you” gift after the fact from someone who appreciated a story. In other cases, I wouldn’t want to accept a used toothpick from someone. I am not a robot. Common sense over codes.

  • http://www.elpelao.com Paramotor

    you’ve got influence, don’t abuse it. Avoid getting personal in your reporting. If it’s not relevant to your story, don’t attack the character of another individual. Keep it classy, not sassy

  • http://www.onimisia@ng.afro.who.int Prof Onimisi AB

    I write on technical materials , but tips the you shared in this materials are useful to all areas of human endeavor . It can be applied to medical articles , law reports , accounting reports s and other professions. Please send me some valuable materials that will improve my writing skills and speed.
    Regards
    Prof ABO

  • http://www.onimisia@ng.afro.who.int Prof Onimisi AB

    I write on medical and technical materials. The sixteen tried and tested principles shared here in this write up were are valuable resource that could used in other areas of human endeavors such as law, accounting , medicine , Architecture , Pharmacy and Information technology etc . Please send me more materials that will assist me to improve my writing skills and speed .
    Regards.
    Prof A. B. Onimisi

  • http://www.dwu.ac.pg Sinivar Kasimani

    I think these are good principles for journalism. I am a first year student in Divine word University in Papua New Guinea and I am studying Communication Arts(Journalism). I know this will really help me during my studies.

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  • John

    Typo: “Don’t be selective about the information you include, unless you’re confident your giving your audience the best of what you’ve got.” … you’re confident YOU’RE giving your…

    I enjoyed the piece, but I just thought you should know.

  • frederick

    Hip…hip…Horray!! Im not the only one who lves print hard-copy journalism.

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