By Chris Wallace
Fantastic news this week that our own ANU is equal fourth with Princeton for the arts and humanities according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Only Stanford, Harvard and the University of Chicago are ahead of us. That’s a big deal.
Canberra’s population is about as big as ancient Athens at its height. Those Athenians turned out some pretty reasonable pots, plays, poetry and philosophy in their time and there’s no reason we shouldn’t too. ANU’s arts and humanities ranking gives us one less excuse for less than lofty cultural ambitions.
One thing ANU doesn’t have is a journalism school but that hasn’t stopped a lot of ANU students aspiring to journalism careers. The student newspaper Woroni held a seminar on Tuesday afternoon, “How to be a killer journalist”. Despite my lack of scalps – the closest I’ve come to killing anyone is knocking out a guy’s tooth with a softball bat at school – I was the one invited to present. (Oh okay, if you want to be figurative about it, I did have a hand in the demise of a couple of federal Liberal leaders.)
Facing forty of ANU’s best and brightest and telling them the simple facts of the journalistic trade – and it is a trade – was stimulating. They asked for a takeaway, so here it is: journalism in 8 easy steps.
- If you really want to be a journalist, you will. The same qualities that characterise great journalists – focus, persistence, drive, imagination in pursuit of the goal – are the same ones that get you into the job in the first place. Get a degree, get a cadetship or just plain get cracking (student media, blogging, volunteering stories to the Karrinyup Courier and building up a clippings file that way, whatever – just do it).
- Identify an ethical framework and stick to it whatever forces buffet you in the job day to day. There’s always another employer but reputational damage is forever. You’ve got to look at yourself in the bathroom mirror in the morning, too, and you want to be looking at someone you can respect not despise.
- Have compassion for, but don’t be dragged down by, those hardened hacks whose keynotes are bitterness, cynicism and negativity. Journalism has more than its share of disappointed idealists and blighted romantics, partly because so many journalists never do anything else but journalism. The best defence is to lead a broad, normal life and not to have everything rest on your next story. Your judgement will be better and so will your journalism.
- Go to extreme lengths to get your facts right. Check them. Use the time honoured, craft-based test: is this purported fact confirmed by a second source? If not, doubt it and don’t use it. Refused to be seduced by those who’ll spin you a yarn for their own benefit and leave you looking used and stupid in the morning when colleagues check it and find out you’ve been had.
- Understand that strong writing is simple writing. Use short words, in short sentences. Use words of Anglo-Saxon origin over Latin-based words. Put the interesting part of a sentence at its beginning and the less interesting part at the end. Put the most important, attention-grabbing sentences at the top of the story. It’s about the reader. If you can’t hold a reader’s attention through strong, simple, compelling writing you’re whistling in the wind.
- Learn the defamation laws. Everyone has a right to their reputation. Journalism is powerful magic and you shouldn’t wield words without mindfulness about their impact. You don’t want to be the journalist with someone’s suicide on your conscience, or someone’s unjustifiably broken career, or your own or your employer’s bankruptcy because you didn’t operate within our quite reasonable defamation laws.
- If you must go into war zones, understand you may be abused, arrested or shot. Journalists don’t have invisibility cloaks or invincibility passes. In troubled polities the ruling regime often has a positive joy singling out the journos and killing them first. So be committed but be wise otherwise your career may be tragically short.
- Remember Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." You’re a writer but you’re also a worker. Writing for a student newspaper, being an intern, blogging – fine, don’t do it for pay. But don’t write for major media organisations unless you’re being paid. Otherwise it’s akin to scabbing. Don’t do it.
And one last thing. Never present at a seminar unless you can turn it into a column later. (See Point 8.)
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 29 October 2011