Soft skills: can you make a ‘born journalist’?

Perseverance and confidence - what students want to learn

When asked to write what they wanted to learn, two students in one of my classes explicitly asked for "Perseverance" and "Confidence"

Are journalists born or made? Some will tell you that there are certain qualities you can’t teach: dogged determination, for example; nosiness; skepticism.

It’s a sort of nature/nurture debate that runs through not only the profession itself, but also many of those who train journalists. “There’s only so much you can teach,” they will say.

But is there?

What do we teach journalists?

Whether you learn on a training course or a university course, the focus will be on skills and knowledge: how to find a story and how to tell it. Video editing and interviewing; subbing and SEO. Media law and local government; shorthand and blogging.

That’s understandable: knowledge and skills are measurable and marketable; an attitude is much harder to quantify.

And yet, I think most journalism tutors and trainers do try to teach an attitude, whether they know it or not. They teach it implicitly, in the way that they urge their students forward, in the questions that they ask and the way that they manage newsroom assessments. They might even say things like ‘you need to be more curious’ or ‘keep going’.

But should we teach it more explicitly?

Making it explicit

Telling someone to be something is very different to teaching them how to be that.

There exists, for example, a wealth of research on creativity: what makes someone creative, how a creative person works, and so on. A lot of people subscribe to the myth that creativity cannot be taught (and others don’t want to see it demystified), but it can.

Yes, some people are naturally more creative than others (nature), but you can also help develop an individual’s creative skills (nurture). But simply telling them to be creative is not teaching them how to be creative.

So can we do the same for the qualities of the ‘born journalist’? I think we can. And I think we should.

The question is: How?

Listing the qualities

First we need to list what those qualities are. Here are those I mentioned above:

  • Doggedness
  • Curiosity/nosiness
  • Skepticism
(Do we include ethics here? Other qualities?)

Doggedness

The more experience that I have gained in journalism teaching and training, the more I have come to focus not on the information that I pass on, but on the environment that is created.

Doggedness is, I think, a good example of where environment is vital. What makes a person persevere? It’s not just their stubbornness, surely, but the perceived chances and rewards of success. It is about the support behind them, and the pay-off  they are working towards. It is about their belief that they can overcome obstacles, based on repeated experience of (and pleasure in) overcoming obstacles in the past.

So can we teach a class in ‘How to be persistent’? Here are some ideas:

  • Create assessment that requires and rewards persistence on a single story, rather than reporting lots of smaller, easier stories.
  • Make problems a positive thing, rather than negative, by encouraging and rewarding problem-raising (and solving).
  • Make problem-solving the learning experience, rather than information-sharing. Likewise, focus on the process (investigation) rather than the product (story).
  • Create a social support network (group working and networked working methods) so that when motivation is low individuals know they are not alone.

Curiosity

Curiosity is a quality many academics would argue is embedded in university culture. It is at the basis of academic enquiry, and yet many students fail to connect the academic side of their studies with the practicalities of journalistic work.

Here are some suggestions on teaching nosiness:

  • Explicitly reward students who ask questions, rather than just those who learn answers (that doesn’t mean the tutor has to provide all the answers of course).
  • Map out the territory of their ‘patch’, then get them to list questions about the different parts of that territory (“Why is that so?”; “What happens to that money?”; “Who is that person?”; “What is the law around that?”)
  • Teach how to ask effective questions, which is a skill in itself. Many students choose topics like “the environment” rather than questions such as “is subsidising the solar panel industry the best way of spending money to reduce pollution?”
  • Base projects on initial questions, rather than obvious narratives.

Skepticism

Skepticism is another traditional academic quality that doesn’t translate into practical work.

  • Set projects or exercises where students have to trace the sources (or lack of) behind a statement.
  • Explore the workings behind institutions – how money and power come into play. (Many teach this academically in the context of how the media industry is structured, but not transferred into an understanding of other industries)

What is really lacking, of course, is any systematic study of these qualities in the same way that creativity has been studied over the past couple of decades.

If you’re aware of any literature on that – or have personal experiences of approaches that work, I’d love to hear them.

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7 thoughts on “Soft skills: can you make a ‘born journalist’?

  1. Pingback: News about SEO courses issue #1 | seo courses london

  2. Gill Brabner

    Paul the qualities you identify for your student journalists are aligned to those we encourage in leadership development. And the personal qualities such as self awareness, self management and self belief are crucial first steps towards developing those others such as perserverance. (Good to see the level of self awareness amongst your group.) And of course, as we know, when students experience some success from their perserverance they gain more confidence and so on. I think curiosity can be harnessed when learners understand how to challenge appropriately, especially in discussions, and I would relate scepticism to looking at the evidence base.

    Whilst the development of these qualities may not have been researched in your sector there is a huge body of research in other related areas of learning and development

    Reply
  3. greenman-23

    Interesting that you mention ethics in what is the context of an ‘after thought’, you seem to question it. Yet ethics, in both a professional and a personal capacity should underpin everything. An absence of a moral base is not only evidence of a poor state of ones’ humanity but evidence of an attitude that will ultimately harm the profession. Any serious journalist seeks to report on the bigger stories, no one wants the lost cat or dead donkey story its the front line, the hold up, the riot, the crisis they long for and in these circumstances ethics are essential. To send your students out without a thorough understanding of ethics and morals is I would aver to fail them greatly.

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      There’s a question mark around it because it’s already taught explicitly, whereas the others are not.

      Reply
  4. Mkhululi Mpofu

    Paul Its interesting to note that the qualities you list here are like qualities of that annoying friend who won’t let things lie (doggedness), who sticks their nose into other people’s businesses (nosiness) and who trusts no one, is paranoid and doesn’t believe anything said (skeptical ). Yes these are good ‘nature’ qualities for that annoying friend who can spread unfounded rumours very quickly and efficiently. For the journalist those qualities need to be ‘nurtured’ . They need to be underpinned by ethics as Greenman-23 says. ‘Born Journalists’ still need to be taught and fine-tuned. Every dog is born with an acute olfactory sense but in drug dogs, that sense is fine-tuned.

    Reply

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