You would think if anyone knew how to avoid hitting the headlines it would be those who run courses in journalism. Apparently not.
This week lecturers at our very own Leeds Trinity were warned against using capital letters when assigning work to their budding reporters because it might upset them. ‘Never write DOs and DON’Ts to your students.’ It’s apparently too aggressive, poor lambs.
DON’T BE RIDICULOUS. Since when has using capital letters to emphasise an important point upset anyone? Let alone “scare them into failure” as the memo suggests. A journalist must never be worried about failing as long as they are never too frightened to ask the right questions. And yes it is sometimes scary. As they will find out when they leave the classroom.
The reaction to this attitude from what I had always believed was an exceptional place to start a career in journalism was predictable. Piers Morgan, a man not averse to making a few headlines of his own, howled his outrage on Good Morning Britain. If ever anyone talks ‘in capital letters’ it’s Piers. But he made his point. You have to be tough to be a journalist.
But DO you? Let’s forget the memo to Trinity lecturers for a moment and ask what kind of journalists we want them to produce. Being a reporter can be difficult. It is unpredictable, fast paced and competitive. It can be downright frightening and definitely heartbreaking. But you DON’T need to be tough. Tenacious yes, but never hard hearted. In fact just the opposite.
Over the years I have been accused of getting too involved in a story, of becoming too emotional. I wear that criticism like a badge of honour. I have met too many journalists for whom the means justifies the end, for whom a foot in the door is acceptable. They call it show and go. In other words get the story and run. Well that’s not my kind of journalism. Yes I DO want my journalists to confront the issues, but without being unnecessarily confrontational. I want reporters to tackle sensitive subjects, but never insensitively. And I DO want all journalists to think about the consequences of their words before they open their mouths or transfer them into print, to know that behind the headlines are real people who have every right to say no, who will hear or read the words written about them. Which is why I have never ever knocked on someone’s door with a notebook out, a tape running, or a camera rolling. Today’s journalism is often defined by technology and the endless 24 hour rolling news which has become a monster that needs feeding. Just because you can go live or file a story in seconds doesn’t mean you should. I DON’T need endless speculation from my reporters. Just what’s happening. And if you DON’T know, then say so. Above all, unless you are a columnist, I DON’T want to hear your opinion. I detest this new obsession of journalists interviewing other journalists. I DON’T need to know what they think. I DO want to know the thoughts of those affected. Journalism can be tough but not as tough as real life. And DO your research.
When I researched this story I found, as often happens, all was not as it seemed. The memo was simply a note to lecturers about how to set tasks, the main purpose to make sure there was no ambiguity in the question. Another pit fall for budding journalists. Clarity is everything. Of course the memo writers were ridiculous to ban capital letters. That’s not going to make anyone run crying to the toilets. Being a journalist can be far more upsetting than that. Nothing prepares you for reality. So DO ask the questions the public want answers to. It’s a privileged position. Only a poor journalist asks questions written for them or presumes they know the answers already.
Above all know it DOES matter and if you want to hear how much look at the response last week in support of The Yorkshire Post when it’s parent company went into administration. You emailed, you tweeted and you went online. Above all you bought the paper. As a result hopefully its future is now secure. It is important. Yorkshire needs its national newspaper.
My journalism lecturers taught me a lot at Richmond Poly in Sheffield all those years ago. But absolute zilch compared with the people I have interviewed and the stories I have been honoured to tell. So to all Trinity students and beyond DO remember that. And DON’T ever forget it’s their voices that count.