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Journalism and Born This Way

Learning From Bad Choices

Three big stories caught my attention recently:

  1. Reporters for NBC Bay Area detailed the danger and legal ramifications potentially involved for unaccompanied minors using Uber and Lyft.
  2. My friend’s daughter announced she is pursuing a medical specialty in obstetrics, a costly pursuit, but she doesn’t care.  She’ll figure out how to pay the bills.
  3. Mark Zuckerberg is now busy apologizing for violating Facebook users' trust while attempting to straddle those two ends of the news spectrum.  His initial passion: creating books of photos to play the game ‘Hot or Not.’  This was followed by the somewhat loftier mission of creating a means for all Harvard students to connect via a website.

Approaches such as the second and third may suffice, for a time, but the first requires something different altogether.

The news media is sometimes described as shaky and at a near crisis. These descriptions may reflect the undercurrent of the business, but not the craft or discipline.

Certainly new digital pseudo “news” sites are popping up like weeds. They’re launching because there’s advertising money to be made, or perhaps influence to be wielded. I find myself trying to keep current about content algorithms and grappling with phrases like “trust but verify.” Can we even count the number of popular online news aggregators? Oh, and by the way, my brother called; did you hear that news that Cousin Sally is divorced, and her husband is dating a former model? Our professional livelihood has even become a sloppy, gossipy noun!

Then there’s us. When I began my News Coach column years ago, this is how I introduced myself:

“Almost all of my clients are pre-wired with the minds and hearts of a journalist and a passion for impeccable writing. I too am an idealist geek who can’t help it- the need to know and to get it right has always been in my blood. It became serious in seventh grade- I was the sole writer/editor of the Doodyville News and Melanie was the illustrator.”

Sure, many of us are perceived as nerds. But that’s OK. We care about factual accuracy. The precision of language. The human condition. What befalls us. Where are we going? What makes us tick? It’s a never-ending quest, with questions begetting more questions. And then: you’re supposed to turn around a complete, comprehensive story for the next news window.

So, how can you thrive and find happiness- and ideally an accompanying paycheck- in the current landscape, when hard-hitting is often lumped in with gossip, opinion and disinformation? Easy! And that’s because we don’t have the choice of turning away. We’re hotwired to be journalists- and report.

Call me an optimist, but news stations, print and digital publications, and broadcast and digital journalists will slowly keep on bubbling to the top. (Just another reason not to feel obligated to shellac your information with overly histrionic deliveries.)

Here are some things to think about on your journey:

  • Whenever possible, take the time to add some extra facts- for perspective- in your reporting.
  • Remember the adage that goes something like “Another great story killed by even better journalism.” If you know you’re missing a hard fact or proof behind something that seems obvious, then you don’t have your story yet. You’re still investigating.
  • Be crazy about precision: One small line in the Austin bomber story, “The explosion at the FedEx facility does not appear to be connected,” was a crucial fact.
  • Sometimes I hear a reporter sharing that “we reached out to XX but he would not speak to us.” Not good, or sufficient. You can tell us that you’re "waiting for a response from XX," but if you don’t already have sufficient information from “all sides,” then consider whether the story is ready to run.
  • Take a look in your ethics mirror: Are you writing your news story to please or influence certain populations, or are you curious and digging for facts, which is more efficient, effective and honest?

There’s more optimism-validating information about those of us who are “Born this way:” Journalism is up as a college major.

So chins up! Both hands on the wheel- but lightly enough to be responsive and nimble. I have faith that your service of journalism will be acknowledged- and appreciated- by increasingly higher numbers and wider demographics.

You were born this way

This blog was originally published July 5,2018 on RTDNA. To view all of Joanne's RTDNA blogs click here:

News consultant Joanne Stevens has written extensively about broadcast writing, reporting and anchoring, including columns in the former print version of RTDNA's Communicator Magazine, and earlier versions of the RTDNA website. She has taught at Columbia and New York University and serves as a news award judge for the New York Press Club. She has returned to to offer a new series of News Coach columns with tips, best practices and more. - Click on the RTDNA logo below to learn more.


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