How to be a journalism student

A colleague of mine once wrote a hugely entertaining blog post entitled ‘How to go to uni‘. As the new term begins, here’s my supplement: How to be a journalism student. (Note: there is now a wiki if you want to add extra tips/corrections/clarifications). 

 

  1. Read the news. Amazingly, some journalism students don’t read newspapers. I don’t know why they want to write news, but chances are they won’t if they don’t read it. And yes, that means newspapers, in print or online. For the most part newspapers dictate the news agenda that broadcast news and magazines then follow. But yes, watch television news and listen to radio news as well, and read magazines. And do all of this often, and do it critically.
  2. Forget you have an opinion. Do you think anyone cares what you think about the condition of trains? Or GM food? Or bullying? Unless you are writing an opinion column (which is unlikely) or a review, remain objective*. Think of yourself as a marriage counsellor: ask the questions and let your sources do the talking.
  3. Know the difference between news and features. News is new information. It is succinct and to the point – remember the inverted pyramid. Features typically come later, and tend to explore background/history, different angles, case studies/interviews, analysis, trends, and so on of a topical issue. If you’re asked to write a news story, do just that. Don’t write an essay.
  4. Make contacts. Contacts are vital to your work as a journalist – not only should they be able to tip you off to what’s happening, they will also be a quick and reliable port of call when you need a quote or verification. Contacts are what get you the stories, and flesh them out. From a local vicar to the spokesperson for the Vintage Motorcycle Club, start adding them to a little black book (and spreadsheet), and start making phonecalls now: “Anything happening?”
  5. Get a life. Journalists generally report about a particular area – politics, sport, the environment, science, health, education, communities, religion, technology, motoring, finance. If you haven’t picked an area, pick one, and start getting involved – join organisations, attend meetings, go to events, do things and talk to people. Stories don’t come with a convenient label: you need to be able to spot them – while experiences can make for great material.
  6. Don’t sit around waiting for an email reply. People can ignore emails, and they generally do. A phonecall is much harder to ignore, and you’ll get more than a one-line reply. Learn to use the phone/mobile/Skype. In other words, be persistent.
  7. Learn how to spell. Dubber makes this point about students generally, but for a journalist correct spelling and grammar says everything about your professionalism. Whether you intend to write for a textual medium or not a badly spelled CV or poorly constructed script will not get you that job. This is not about the pros and cons of good spelling, but simply that employers a) still think that it matters; and b) will use a range of criteria to filter out applications.
  8. Be open to new experiences. So you’re interested in music. That’s nice, but if you think you’re going to land your first job on NME, you’re deluded. A journalist should be prepared to write about anything, and a good journalist should be able to do it with creativity and curiosity. One former colleague had jobs writing about technology, education, and cars before she landed her dream job on a women’s magazine – it’s par for the course. But it’s not a bad thing: it’s one of the best things about journalism! Don’t say you want to see the world but then complain when you have to go to Djibouti.
  9. Read books. Another one from Dubber. Books give you two things: an understanding of the possibilities of language and storytelling; and an expansion of your knowledge of the world. Whether you’re reading an autobiography of Che Guevara or Day of The Triffids; a recent history of Africa or Tale of Two Cities; a popular science book or Hamlet, it makes you more interesting to potential employers; it gives you more ideas to play with; and it broadens your horizons. [see comments 15 and 17]
    Know what the rules are so you can break them. There is a laziness about a lot of professional journalism – the he said/she said piece; the ‘expert’ quote; overreliance on official sources; the ‘more research is needed’ exit line. You are a student of journalism, not a trainee. It is hoped you will question the profession, and improve it. Don’t take lists like this lying down, and question everything you read and hear.
  10. Know what you want to get out of this – and chase it. A degree alone is not going to get you a job; your ability to write and research, your knowledge, and your ability to market yourself and network will be key. You must be motivated to study hard, and in order to be motivated, you must have a motivation, i.e. you must know what the reward is – exposing corruption? becoming editor of the Guardian? Sitting next to Paris Hilton? Then, you must be motivated to do more than study. Get work experience; start a fanzine, or a website, or a blog. Use Facebook to network. Go to events. Send off work. Pitch ideas to editors.

*Note: don’t mistake objectivity for presenting both sides equally – particularly where science is involved. Global warming, the MMR jab, and various other stories have heavy scientific consensus on one side, so don’t fall into the trap of presenting both arguments as if they have equal weight. See this article for more.

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272 thoughts on “How to be a journalism student

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  10. Alain Saffel

    This could apply to journalists as well. Having recently been a journalism student, I was really surprised about #7. Some people are amazingly poor spellers. Grammar? Whut that is? ;)

    One thing about a journalism degree is that you don’t necessarily have to become a journalist. That’s good to know if you’d like to go beyond Mr.Noodle and macaroni and cheese.

    Reply
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  12. Dr John Cokley

    Frankly I’m appalled at this list.

    This is a recipe for journalistic self-referencing. Read what other journalists write? Get a life!

    Editors are paid to think and the wise ones — and wise journalism educators — will encourage their reporters and sub-editors to think too. To say otherwise is a recipe for dumbed-down old-male dominated hegemony.

    If graduates don’t know the difference between plain exposition and “writing with thinking” then it’s their professors who should accept the blame.

    This is merely common sense, and not just for journalists: for police, lawyers, bus drivers, doctors.

    So is this. More journalists should.

    So is this. But try the mobile, SMS, blog, MSN and Skype as well.

    Typical of the old-hat practitioner journalist eager to identify something about the younger generation which is “not up to scratch”. Find me a comma which — ever — changed the world!

    This is a hegemonic editor’s refrain: do as you’re told and I’ll tell you what to do. Young journalists will vote with their feet, leaving domineering old-fashioned editors who want to rule the roost without any employees.

    Typical of the 19th century print generation. Why read books? Tell me that one … and include real justification in your answer.

    The only worthwhile piece of advice in this collection … but the one which is philosophically opposed to 1-9. Young journalists will do just that, leaving old fashioned industrial newspaper journalists (and the like) stranded and unemployed.

    Reply
  13. Dr John Cokley

    Frankly I’m appalled at this list.

    “1. Read the news.” This is a recipe for journalistic self-referencing. Read what other journalists write? Get a life!

    “2. Forget you have an opinion. Do you think anyone cares what you think … ?” Editors are paid to think and the wise ones — and wise journalism educators — will encourage their reporters and sub-editors to think too. To say otherwise is a recipe for dumbed-down old-male dominated hegemony.

    “3. Know the difference between news and features.” If graduates don’t know the difference between plain exposition and “writing with thinking” then it’s their professors who should accept the blame.

    “4. Make contacts.” This is merely common sense, and not just for journalists: for police, lawyers, bus drivers, doctors.

    “5. Get a life.” So is this. More journalists should.

    “6. Learn to use the phone.” So is this. But try the mobile, SMS, blog, MSN and Skype as well.

    “7. Learn how to spell.” Typical of the old-hat practitioner journalist eager to identify something about the younger generation which is “not up to scratch”. Find me a comma which — ever — changed the world!

    “8. Don’t say you want to see the world but then complain when you have to go to Djibouti.” This is a hegemonic editor’s refrain: do as you’re told and I’ll tell you what to do. Young journalists will vote with their feet, leaving domineering old-fashioned editors who want to rule the roost without any employees.

    “9. Read books.” Typical of the 19th century print generation. Why read books? Tell me that one … and include real justification in your answer.

    “10. Know what you want to get out of this – and chase it.” The only worthwhile piece of advice in this collection … but the one which is philosophically opposed to 1-9. Young journalists will do just that, leaving old fashioned industrial newspaper journalists (and the like) stranded and unemployed.

    Reply
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  15. paulbradshaw Post author

    Dr Cokley: Thank you for being one of the few people to question what I write, and enter into a dialogue. I’ll address your points individually:
    1) You are right. It is. But an ignorance of what’s on the mainstream agenda isn’t going to help those who want to be professional journalists. This list is a basic entry level guide to the majority of students who need to pass their course – and all entries should be read with that in mind. I might also add that knowing what’s in the news helps you ensure you don’t become one of those ‘self-referencers’
    2) Thought this might touch a nerve, and wasn’t entirely comfortable with it myself. Lack of opinion in writing mainly serves to help maintain the status quo, and I’m glad we’re moving away from that. But students who drift off from a succinct news piece into ill-informed personal opinion are not helping themselves or the reader. There’s a wider post here about the roles of objectivity and informed opinion in journalism, but I’ve yet to write it.
    3) Yes, professors/teachers should take *some of* the blame if students don’t know the difference between news and features, but students bear some responsibility for their own education. This is university, not school. And this post is, if you like, one way for teachers to tell their students the difference.
    4) Common sense is subjective. Some journalism students are shrinking violets who don’t want to meet real people. ‘Make contacts’ needs stating.
    5) See reply to 4)
    6) Agreed (and I include mobiles and Skype in ‘phone’). But students already use IM, SMS, etc. What frustrates me is when students submit an article lacking a quote and say “Well, I emailed them but they never replied…” Perhaps this is better phrased as ‘Be persistent’.
    7) Again, I personally agree that spelling/grammar is overrated. But that’s just me – when you’re competing against other journalism students your spelling can make a big difference to potential employers, who may, sadly, be “old-hat”. By the way, I’m not making any complaint about the younger generation.
    8 ) You misunderstand my point, which is that a good journalist does new things, rather than sticks to what they know. This might include questioning their hegemonic editor.
    9) OK, you’ve got me. I’ve tied myself to a platform here. What’s in those books can be found online, on the radio or on TV.
    10) Thank you, and I hope the situation you paint takes place.

    Reply
  16. Dr John Cokley

    Goodness! Thanks for the honest (and fast) reply. I’ll just recover my composure :-) and consider where to from here, because my reading of your “old hat” list clearly matched that of many others (Mindy McAdams and her list, for instance) but, as you say, I was the only one/one of few to challenge it.

    Here in Australia, aging management of what calls itself “mainstream journalism” (Big Media such as News Corporation, the TV networks, Fairfax newspapers) has become so fascinated with itself that it has forgotten two essential ingredients in traditional journalism: the audience is everything; and change is everything. Instead, they are fascinated with preserving the status quo and with rich and powerful men at the Big End of town.

    Most journalists here (and in the US and UK according to the stats) are male and over 40 and stuck in their ways (look at your list again, it’s there) and think everyone has their values, their ways of seeing and their prejudices.

    This is clearly problematic sociologically but it is ALSO clearly risky commercially, since acceptance of these traditional news products (newspapers, Big Media news bulletins) has been tumbling for years and continues to everywhere except Scandinavia.

    So my points in my earlier post are relevant not just socially and psychologically but commercially: if we as journalism academics want to produce graduates who can deal with contemporary and future audiences, we need to liberate those graduates from the hog-ties of “journalism past”.

    Great talking with you.

    Reply
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  18. michael

    Why be a journalism student at all? Journalism doesn’t need three years of study at university. What a waste of time. The list you have compiled pretty much sums up what you need to know as a journalist – read it and get cracking.

    Reply
  19. Linda

    I don’t think the importance of your advice in bold under point five can be overstated. Do things and meet people! Don’t treat them as potential ‘case studies’ for pieces you may work on, but really get to know them, earn their trust and if they turn into valued contacts, look after them. Contacts I forged in a Midlands newspaper office more than 15 years ago, stayed ‘available’ for a good while – and the stories they supplied stood me in good stead, from paper to paper.

    Of course times are changing and ‘dinosaurs’ like me who still roll their eyes at someone saying they would be ‘greatful’ for work experience needs to get a life, but people remain at the heart of everything a journalist does, don’t they? Whether they get in touch through a blog, a social networking site or a note pushed through the door on a doorstep as your rivals look on.

    Whatever the academic arguments about how journalism is changing, the reporter who remembers that people’s stories are the life-blood of what they do, and shows so-called ‘ordinary’ people the respect they deserve, rather than appearing just to be bothered about their next byline, before moving on to their next ‘case study’, will stand out from the crowd.

    No text book, academic journal, blog or myspace page can teach you the gift of the gab – get out there and practice! Learn to cover a lot of ground quickly…:)

    All the best, thanks for the food for thought.

    Reply
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  22. Nelson Soares

    I’m a journalism course student from Portugal, and unfortunately i was not surprised about the fact that college students don’t read newspapers. Here in Potugal happens the same. Our future journalists can’t spent 10 minutes of there time to read something else but juvenile magazines,or junknews. Most worring is the fact that they don’t think about making some job sacrificies, like writing in a local newspaper and managing their first contact in their professional environement. They just don’t care and keep on waiting for an oportunity.
    It’s very important to alert for this facts and to give them some important tips to realise how difficult it is to be an usefull, creative and efficiant professional.
    Sorry about my english, that is one of the details that i must improve.

    Reply
  23. Kristina

    As a senior journalism student I want to say thank you so much for this list of advice! I only wish I would have found it earlier. I will definitely be sharing this post with other students in my journalism classes.

    Reply
  24. Paul Bradshaw

    You’re right John, which is why I wasn’t too comfortable with that one (see comment 17). I think students should be writing their opinions often in their blogs. But students need to realise when their opinion is relevant, and in most news articles it’s not. It’s more a case of understanding the genre. “Forget you have an opinion” is a bit extreme, hence tip no.9

    Reply
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  28. Lila Das Gupta

    I often get students asking me for advice on how to get into journalism. The one thing that strikes me with all of them is not that they aren’t intellectually capable, it’s their lack of curiosity.
    I may write about gardening, but I still know what’s going on in the Grand Prix…

    Next time I get a student to help I’ll e-mail them the URL beforehand!
    Excellent web-site by the way.

    Reply
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  30. minin

    Dear journalists, your HELP is necessary to me. Forgive for my English language. If you are interested in the INTERESTING MATERIAL I am ready to give it. The matter is that I of 29 years try to achieve rehabilitation me and my pregnant wife. And there is ALL the bases for the CANCELLING of the MOST FALSE and CRIMINAL VERDICT. Judges and public prosecutors of Russia REFUSE to me in REVISION of BUSINESS, they do not wish TO LEAD COURT. Though there is all the bases as the CRIMINAL VERDICT is completely forged also it it is visible. And to reconsider the CRIMINAL VERDICT do not want, as I DEMAND ATTRACTION to the criminal liability judge Strugovchiova who has born the given CRIMINAL verdict and all judges and General public prosecutors which CONTRARY TO the LAW it PROTECT. DO NOT ADMIT to court and it THEY admit the FACT of the CRIMINAL VERDICT. The Russian journalists REFUSE to write such material as protect CRIMINAL AUTHORITY. A material REALLY INTERESTING, you such did not hear. Horrifying CRIMES of judges and public prosecutors of Russia. Undertake this material, and you will rescue from CRIMES of judges and public prosecutors of Russia of 1000 people. In Russia there are no HUMAN RIGHTS and true democracy. This material will bring to you world popularity. My address: Valera-help-sos@mail.ru Yours faithfully Minin Valera. ЖУРНАЛИСТЫ-the UNIQUE MATERIAL

    Reply
  31. Matthieu Lardeau

    As a French journalist, former newspaper business manager and currently teacher in j-schools I’m very appalled at this list (I use the John Cokley sentence which fits totally with what I think).
    First I’m very surprised by this list you made because I read vey often your blog which is one of the most smart about thinking on journalism (but I assume your draw this bad list in order to generate discussion : you reached the goal, congratulations!)
    This list is very very very interesting to dissect because it contributes to reproduce the current false way of doing journalism we face in France (I speak about French journalism, the only one I know intimitately), this way which is mostly sharped by economic and politcian forces which constraint alot the journalistic practices… This list remind me the very bad work (normative, reproductive and stupid) made by UNESCO about the journalism education (see discussion about this on Mindy McAdams blog for instance)…

    By following this kind of advice j-student will get more stupid and consequently easier to be manipulated by politicians, firms and all lobbies. By following your advices a j-student will become a very good “Public Relations journalism student” (this kind of journalist we train more and more in our j-school, this kind of journalist who is only able to work from PR releases….) Of course I teach opposite advices to my student.

    The problem with your list is that the list is too long, too normative and it miss the core advices (from my point of view of course):

    - the first one (and maybe the only one): ASK WHY, WHY, WHY, WHY… By asking why this news, why it appears, a journalist HAS TO, MUST research the prevailing conditions or causes of a news and be able to extract, show and explain the real background and the hidden reasons for instance…

    - the second one (of course, I agree with you here): READ A LOT (and above all not only the news but books in other subject than journalism) in order to built his own vertebral and cerebral column through a journalist is able to read and explain the news and to resist against pressures and constraints !!!

    - the thrid one (and last one?): BE INVOLVED ASAP in the business of your network or newspaper in order to decide about the future of news and the future oif news business. From my experience I can teach that by knowing very well the business of news and the business model of his newspaper or network, we are stronger face businessmen, lobbyists, politicians, etc. because we manage the weapons in order to change the the business of news in a way closer of journalists and readeship interests than shareholders and stakeholders ones!!!!!
    Consequently, dear j-students,
    1. inquiry everything, don’t let black boxes closed, ask why whenever and whatever,
    2. read a lot of books in social sciences in order to train your mind, your brain and in order to be able to manage different ways of thinking
    3. get educated in the basics of media economics and management (this knowledge can be a strong weapon for you).

    Just to conclude: trust me, when you teach the basics of media economics and business of news to j-students, they get stronger and smarter and they are more able to resist against pressures and they are more able to redefine the best way to do good journalism because they learned to think about the pressures and the real threats on journalism (no relationships with readership, lack of money in media firms, especially in France of course, rising up of PR and lobbying, homogeneization of journalists’ profiles, background and training, impoverishment of journalism curricula (see Unesco project), etc.)
    Cheers, Matthieu Lardeau

    Reply
  32. paulbradshaw Post author

    Yes: debate is what I wanted. This is editing from the margins, as it should be.
    Of course, the list is normative, and that’s because it comes from a frustration with the very basic limitations and mistakes of some j-students: the inclination towards opinion, for example, generally comes at the expense of trying to genuinely research and understand a topic. I won’t repeat my response to Cokley’s comment, but this is aimed at entry-level j-students and so, yes, it is pretty traditional. Tip #9 is the most important for me because it is about the understanding you mention, and should point them towards being more than just press release processors.
    Thanks for some great tips too – add them to the wiki!

    Reply
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  36. garethduffield

    A great post, thanks! As a student i find it encouraging to be reminded of what i need to be doing to get into the industry. I know plenty of people on my course who don’t read a newspaper or watch the news but want to do Jeremy Clarksons job.

    I must agree that reading books isn’t as important as you first suggested. I’ve always had an issue with reading fiction books since a young age. Perhaps It’s affected my creative writing side but i want to be a Journalist not a Novalist. On the other hand i love reading real life stories especially biographies about Journalist’s which i think is a vital tool if people are going to learn how to be succesful.

    Reply
  37. Prahlad Kumar Patel

    inspirational article for all the student of journalism & mass communication. It is always important to follow the rules & regulation for better understanding of journalism. Here is everything , the way to find out the most important things for a great journalist.
    Special thanks & My best wishes to the writer,
    Prahlad Kumar Patel, New Delhi, India

    Reply
  38. Broadcasters of Tomorrow

    Don’t wait to be published.
    Publish yourself and build an audience.
    If you teach, encourage your students to self-publish. My students did and to everyone’s surprise Reuters nominated our blog, from the American University of Sharjah (near Dubai), for a student journalism award.

    Reply
  39. shivangi soni

    well i am a science student i.e. i have physics,chemistry & biology as my subjects but i want to get into mass communications as a journalist. please advice me as to how to get started with it & which colleges are the best??..

    thankyou.

    Reply
  40. paulbradshaw Post author

    It’s a pretty general question, so I’ll drill down to specifics: firstly, you need to know what sort of journalism you want to practise: both in terms of employers and subject: local journalism? science journalism?
    Then you need to be doing it yourself already. Get a blog, engage with the communities of interest.
    And based on all the above, do some research, and find which college is going to cover the skills and knowledge that you specifically need, and which fits your personality and interests. No one can answer that question for you except yourself.

    Reply
  41. quinncreative

    All excellent points. And may I toss in, “learn how to think analytically”? If you can’t think an idea through logically, you can’t make anyone else understand your viewpoint. And if you can’t think logically, you won’t find the flaw in anyone else’s reasoning. That leads to believing the last thing you hear.

    Reply
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  45. Katy Murr

    Paul,

    rather than trying to pretend that journalists trying to pretend that they don’t have an opinion, or a slant (as they generally do), I think the best thing is to openly recognise their opinion, rather than masquerade it as all ‘pure news’. An opinion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it’s a well-informed opinion which is the result of rational analysis.

    Reply
  46. paulbradshaw

    Thanks Katy – I think this is the touchiest point. I’m not saying that journalists should pretend they don’t have an opinion, but that if you’re a journalism student you should focus on learning how to stop from straying into a story about how the other day this happened and you agree this is terrible. We don’t care.

    Reply
  47. Thomas Bewick

    As a someone with B.A. in print journalism, worked at the Denver Post for two years then left the industry, I’ll give my two cents.

    1) Forget number two. Objectivity in journalism is dead. I know they preach it in the comfort of academia, but anyone with half a critical brain knows this to be true.

    2) Read Marshall McLuhan if you haven’t already. I typed his name in the search bar on this site and didn’t get any results. http://spinningmedium.com/2009/02/18/5-words-that-can-change-your-life/

    Reply
  48. paulbradshaw

    Thanks Thomas – you’ll see I dealt with the objectivity thing in previous comments. This isn’t about objectivity, it’s about useful content. Student journos tend to throw in an opinion that ruins the article or takes it off topic.

    Reply
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  50. Erica Myers

    Actually, with the way students are these days, this list should be imprinted on every wall. I am on my last semester as a journalism student. I have seen it all from my fellow classmates: Articles written in Texting lingo; one paragraph of actual fact, the rest is opinion; a slew of anonymous sources; misspellings of company names.

    I believe a lot of students have lost their interactivity abilities due to technology. While it’s perfectly fine to email, I’ve seen student not know how to vocally interview someone and properly thank them for their time. While out with a video camera, I recorded one of my classmates walk up to a person, and say, “Hey, imma ask you some questions. alright, whatCHU think about the earth heating up? Alright, I’m done with you. Bye.” At first my mind is screaming, but then I’m was thinking she could have come from an underprivileged family. But she answered my question, “I wish I could do this on Facebook or something. Just type up a question in my status and let all my friends answer.”

    As for anonymous sources, unless they are police informants, I do not deal with anyone that will not be credited or held accountable for what they say. I’ve seen oodles of reports with a gazillion anonymous sources. Anonymous sources costs you credibility. I will not believe an article or journalist that have 2 or more anonymous sources. Everything that I write from what a source says, even if doing it just for class, has to be accredited to someone. My first journalism professor always warned us against using anonymous sources.

    Objectivity isn’t necessarily dead. You can still have two sides to a story. If every story was just one sided, we wouldn’t have the justice system or debates.

    My journalism is an oath. The way I think of journalism is: Journalism is the Fourth Branch of the Government. It checks and balances the checkers and balancers. It is an information source for the public to individually make their own decisions. The Freedom of Information Act makes it possible for journalists to provide with their best ability any and all information for the usage of the American public.

    Reply
  51. Kelly

    Underprivileged family? I’m from a so-called underprivileged family and i’ve just recieved a first class honours degree in journalism. Social background has nothing to do with it, it is up to the person and whether they are passionate about journalism, and the person you speak of obviously isn’t. Also, if and when you break into the industry you will find that you won’t have the freedom you have on your course, and you will have to use anonymous sources to get a story otherwise you will lose your job. You need to open your eyes a little.

    Reply
  52. Dan

    Kelly, don’t take it personally. In all honesty, most underprivileged families don’t communicate very well and most don’t attend college. But it is a new day. She didn’t call you out by name.

    Congrats on your honors degree. You have proven to be an individual. However, most people from underprivilege families tend to live within the restrictions of their economic class. I can understand her point. But you also don’t know where she comes from.

    As a person already in the industry, any news organization forcing you to use anonymous sources is not credible. There is freedom in the industry. I have been in news reporting for 15 years and have never used or been forced to use an anonymous source. Anonymous sources are similar to the those campaign ads paid for my someone else because they want to cover up the real company’s or the real political party’s name. Anonymous sources are pretty much useless because it becomes a libel suit when the stuff hits the fan. I’ve seen other journalists get into serious trouble over anonymous sources. Perfect example, when an anonymous source produced documentation of Bush never actually reporting for military duty. As I recall a heavy hitter in the news industry was fired for that. It became a conflict of he said/she said and it was reputable journalists who lost that battle.

    You may want to consider the news organization you are willing to work for. Are you wanting to be credible and professional or are you wanting to be a puppet for a conglomerate that will tell the public what news is?

    Good Luck to both of you ladies in your endeavors.

    Reply
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