Why discipline is one of the 7 habits of successful journalists

"A nose for news, a plausible manner and an ability to write and deliver concise, accurate copy to deadline" - description of the qualities needed by journalists, from Ethics & Journalism by Karen Sanders

In a previous post I wrote about the central role of creativity in journalism training — in this penultimate post in a series on the seven habits of successful journalists, I explore how discipline is equally important in directing that creativity towards a professional end — and how it can actually help create the conditions for creativity. You can also read the posts on curiosity, scepticismpersistence and empathy.

While many are attracted to journalism because of its opportunities for creative expression, few are attracted by its various constraints. But it is those particular contraints which make journalism distinctive, and separate from other creative work such as art or fiction.

In fact you might argue that it is constraints that make journalism more similar to creative fields such as design, where the functionality and user of the work must be considered, leading to increasing cross-pollenation between them (e.g. the rise of design thinking in journalism).

These constraints can be broadly classed as aspects of the work that require self-control, or discipline. For example:

  • We must consider the audience in the selection and treatment of stories
  • We must hit regular deadlines
  • We must write within a particular word count or to particular timings
  • We must remain impartial and objective in our reporting (in most genres)

These aspects of discipline are reflected in some of the most common feedback given to trainee journalists:

  • Avoid writing about things that interest yourself, or your peers — consider instead what your audience wants and needs to know
  • Make sure you’re not assuming knowledge on the part of the audience that they may not have
  • Stick to the ‘house style’
  • Resist the temptation to ‘draw a conclusion’ (especially at the end of an article)
  • Resist the temptation to inject your thoughts into the article — keep yourself out of the story if possible
  • Don’t let the deadline pass without publishing something!

How discipline helps creativity in journalism

Discipline can sometimes be seen as creativity’s killjoy, but this is a myth: there are numerous books about the subject, and in education around creativity you will find exercises that involve putting limits on the creator to encourage it.

Examples include forcing an artist to draw with their weaker hand, or working with a limited palette of colours.

In literature Georges Perec‘s A Void was the result of challenging himself to write a novel without using the letter ‘e’, and Geoff Ryman‘s book 253 is the result of the discipline of writing 253 words each, 253 times, for each passenger in a tube train.

In music Talking Heads‘ ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’‘ has a melody that resulted when the band swapped instruments as a creative exercise in writing the song.

“The bells and whistles are secondary”

Writing about his own data journalism process, The Pudding’s Ilia Blinderman notes how the constraints of creating stories for other people have different advantages to working on personal passion projects:

“Somewhat counterintuitively, constraints can often lead to even better work quality, since they force you to eliminate irrelevant aesthetic or technical choices that you may otherwise agonize over […] From the standpoint of story structure, building for others also prevents your story from meandering too much, and helps you prioritize working on the key takeaways.

“In this scenario, you’ve got a limited amount of time to do good work, and need to ensure that you use it as effectively as possible to create the best possible story; the bells and whistles are secondary.

“If you’re a journalist, you may want to create a magnum opus that encompasses myriad data sources, coupled with video interviews and shoe-leather reporting about the opioid epidemic in America, but if you’re working on a deadline and your editor needs you to crunch some numbers about the geographic concentrations of overdoses in your state, you’ll have to prioritize those components and publish the story on deadline.”

There are some useful frameworks to assist in this disciplined approach. The Done Manifesto, for example, lays out 13 ground rules in being disciplined towards productivity, including “Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it” and “Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done”.

The discipline of learning

Journalism’s constraints are built-in, but can also be built on.

We can be disciplined in what we do, for example:

  • Attending every council meeting for a year
  • Checking in with a contact every month
  • Making a new contact every week
  • Visiting a new place every month
  • Reading a new report, or piece of research, or publication each week
  • Reading a book every month

Discipline is also important in learning a skill: being disciplined enough to practise your skills regularly, for example — creating more than one package, writing more than one article, interviewing more than one person — is how a student journalist gets good at that skill.

This is the difference between the aspiring journalist who wants to master their art, and the one who merely wants to pass their assessment and obtain a qualification.

It is why regular blogging, vlogging, podcasting, coding, Instagramming, or posting on Twitter are all useful disciplines to develop: each develops a habit and a confidence in putting together words, audio, code, images or video. (You might file this under ‘persistence‘, too)

The meticulous, methodical reporter

Discipline can also be required to pursue a story and test a hypothesis: it’s notable that Sarah Tunnidge’s investigation into information put out by the police about black criminals is described as “meticulous” by The Tip Off podcast on her story (another word for disciplined): the reporter had to methodically catalogue press releases in order to establish disproportionality.

The podcast is well worth listening to for an insight into the many ways that discipline plays a role in reporting, including the  guidance provided by the news editor.

The same methodical approach can be seen in the BBC Data Unit’s reporting on football finances: to realise the story we compiled data from the company accounts of dozens of football clubs. You can tips on projects involving such data entry in How to: plan a journalism project that needs data entry.

Attention to detail as a discipline

Attention to detail is a key discipline, both in the way that we observe and record, and in the way that we communicate. An American Press Institute guide to journalism essentials devotes a page to the point that “Good stories use detail”:

“Stories built on important or interesting themes supported by small but revealing detail are more complete because they give the reader more to grab on to.

“Using detail in a story is similar to presenting other facts. A good story is built not just on facts, but on “the right facts,” information that sheds light on “the truth about the facts.””

Details can be found at various levels:

  • Factual information about the people in a story (job titles, the spelling of their name, age, description)
  • Context (history, background, the question that was asked, etc.)
  • “Colour” (tone, dress, appearance, gestures, environment etc.)

Stories found in documents and data can often come from spotting crucial details, too — and here the discipline of wider research is often vital, as those details may be newsworthy because they contradict or confirm what has been said or claimed elsewhere.

An attention to detail can help us avoid misunderstanding what we read, hear or see, such as misreporting a “consultation” on strike action as “calling a strike”.

Exercises to develop this skill might focus on telling stories about how those mistakes have been made in slapdash reporting.

Or educators might create situations where students have to work with information containing traps that might lead an undisciplined journalist to misreport it.

Accuracy in language — “the overriding value that virtually all journalism organizations agree on”, according to the Online News Association — is another expression of the same habit. A BBC Academy article on accuracy gives this example:

“So, if you write or say ‘the Mayor of London told an audience of tourism professionals that London is the artistic and cultural powerhouse of the UK’, you have two possible levels of inaccuracy. It’s possible the verifiable ‘facts’ are wrong and that you’ve misreported the opinion expressed.

“Is the ‘Mayor of London’ the correct title? Are you sure it wasn’t the Lord Mayor of London?

“Have you checked they actually did deliver the speech and that you haven’t just got the hand-out or the press release?”

It makes a distinction between “ensuring that you quote or report the opinion accurately” and “ensuring that you correctly convey the broader meaning of the quote or opinion you report.”

The ultimate “habit”

It is precisely because discipline is so hard to get excited about that it represents the ultimate habit that aspiring journalists need to develop.

Discipline represents the ‘unwritten rules‘ of the craft, closely tied to its ethical backbone and legal framework.

It is embedded into the structure of the profession itself, from the role of editor (checking for accuracy and legality) to the news conference (where ethics are discussed and implicitly enforced) and the ring-rounds and rotas that ensure reporters are regularly checking on reliable news sources.

It is the force that provides structure to those other habits — curiosity and scepticismpersistence and empathy. and creativity — and makes them routine. But it needs one more habit, which is covered in the final post of this series: passion.

3 thoughts on “Why discipline is one of the 7 habits of successful journalists

  1. depatridge

    I agree with your thoughts on discipline as instrumental to journalism practice. As a discipline of verification, journalists have no choice on discipline. The profession rests on a tripod of originality, transparency and humility and the practice requires discipline indeed.

    Reply
  2. Jesse Harmon

    As a PR major I learned very quickly that PR and News Media share very similar guidelines and rules. This blog highlights one of those very important yet sometimes forgotten principals, discipline. Just like journalists, PR specialists deal with target audiences, deadlines, and word counts. Without some degree of personal and professional discipline, these specialists can alienate themselves and end up on the “do not respond list.” One point mentioned is “Attention to Detail,” for me this stands out the most. Whether it is professional or personal, this skill is key to achieving almost any goal in life. But for the most part, this is overlooked or avoided outright. Everyone is so eager to get their release picked up that they overlook or just ignore key details. Details that may have in fact been what was needed for that story to be chosen. Very good advice, even for someone that’s not a journalist.

    Reply

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