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:
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 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 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.