From passion to disillusionment and back again — developing the 7th habit of successful journalists

Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places. . . . gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.

Image: A-Z Quotes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring the habits of successful journalists that are often described as being “innate” or “unteachable”: from curiosity and scepticismpersistence and empathy, to creativity and discipline. In this final post I look at a quality underpinning them all: passion.

Are journalists only ever born with a passion for their craft — or is it something that can be taught?

Of all the seven habits that have been explored in this series, passion is perhaps the one that seems most innate — a quality that you “either have or don’t have”.

Can we teach passion? Well, we can provide the reasons why someone might be passionate about their craft — we can inspire passion and we can create opportunities to experience the things that have stimulated passion in others.

Passions change

Too often we take for granted the passion that we ourselves feel about journalism — and in particular the reasons behind that passion.

And we can also fail to understand that passions change. Our motivations for getting involved in journalism in the first place are often not the same as those which keep us going into mid- and then late-career roles.

The job changes, and so do we.

"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." -Albert Einstein

Image: Wonder of Science

Why are we passionate about journalism? Probably not because we are passionate about the mechanics of writing 500 words or filling 180 seconds of air time, or the discipline of making sure that our writing is grammatically correct and legally sound.

It might be because we are passionate about the role that journalism plays, and can play in society.

This is probably the story that we tell others most often — but a healthy dose of scepticism is required here: is that really the only thing that we were passionate about to begin with?

It might be that we were initially stimulated by the creativity involved in the challenges of the job.

It might be that we were driven by the opportunities to meet different people and visit new places (our curiosity). But experiencing the job creates new passions (as others quietly fade).

Research suggests that this is indeed the case:

“Debunking the myth of All The President’s Men as inspiration for future journalists, Bowers’ study of University of North Carolina students found students wanted to be journalists for the profession’s ‘interesting’ and ‘creative work’, and they perceived themselves as competent in writing.

“In general, past research indicates that American journalism students wanted to write, be creative, and meet new people.”

Those motivations also do not appear to differ (much) by country — and have not changed over time:

“Existing research finds motivations are diverse and varied, but generally fall under three categories: intrinsic motivations related to personal creativity, motivations related to journalism as an exciting and diverse profession, and motivations related to the importance of journalism in society (Carpenter et al. 2015).

“Wherever in the world the question has been asked, intrinsic motivations tend to prevail, with findings emphasising the appeal of journalism as an outlet for young peoples’ passions (e.g., sport, travel, entertainment) and talents (e.g., writing, photography); as well as the exciting, non-routine, non-conventional, and sociable nature of journalism.”

Before we try to instill passion in aspiring reporters, then, we should first try to understand what those motivations are, rather than assuming that trainees share the (myth-making) passions of mid- or late-career journalists who have gone into teaching.

Make the passions explicit — and expose new ones

Inviting students to share and discuss the passions that led them to study journalism in the first place can be an important first step in the process, achieving two things:

  • Helping them make explicit those passions (to strengthen them); and
  • Exposing them to new motivations that they may not have considered.

A useful follow-up activity is to then ask students what they expect from journalists. Why? Because this question allows us to explore those roles of journalism which often serve as extra sources of passion.

Discussing why we expect journalists to be independent, or fair, to report new things or give a voice to the voiceless helps students to start to see themselves performing those roles (bearing in mind that their media diet may not have included journalists performing those roles) — and to understand the passion that some of those roles generate (not least when people believe journalists are not living up to those standards).

Kovach and Rosenstiel’s list of the elements of journalism can be especially helpful in mapping those (and a useful piece of reading for students to explore further).

Students might, for example, rank those elements in order of importance — an exercise which both helps in teaching the qualities of journalism which distinguish it from PR or marketing, and help them identify the elements that they feel most strongly about.

That prioritisation can help guide further learning: meeting journalists who have done precisely those things which students rate highly — or designing and working on projects that can make a difference in that respect.

For example, if students rate ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’ as something that inspires them, the educator might organise a community news day (where the students are based in a specific community with a particular remit to interview people within that community and help to air their concerns, or highlight successes).

And inviting students to create their own values statement for a newsroom would help them to think through the motivations underpinning their work (and those of their colleagues), and prioritise those which they think should be most important.

Above all, exploring these issues in an empowered fashion might also help students move from the most common reasons for wanting to work in journalism (creative fulfillment, a certain lifestyle and access) to exploring others that will withstand more mundane working environments.

Preventing disillusionment with journalism

Empowering students is particularly important when you look at research on the career paths of student journalists and note that they are less likely to want to work within journalism the more experience they have of it.

It’s not clear why this is the case but anecdotally at least, students do appear to report feelings of disillusionment when work experience challenges their expectations of journalism’s ability to provide a forum for creativity, change or new experiences. As one respondent in that research says:

“I remember my first day [on local radio]. We’d get in, and I was really excited, because I was like, “We’re going to go out. We’re going to find some original stories. We’re right in the town. The town centre is just down the road. We can do something here.” The guy running it, he basically just told us to get local newspaper website up, and take their stories and reword them, and then go and read them on air.”

Equally, when academic work (rightly) explores problems such as concentration of ownership, media bias and under-representation, students could be forgiven for feeling gaslit:

“Recently, I’ve realised how messed up journalism is and how political it is. I didn’t realise it was this bad. From all the lectures that you’ve been talking about, the gender and the racism and stuff like that … I didn’t realise that there is this much in it. I didn’t realise that we’re actually … I’m not saying that we’re screwed. There is always hope. I didn’t realise … how censored it can be.”

But just as solutions journalism engages audiences more by focusing on what can be done about a problem, rather than merely describing that problem, we can adopt a similar approach in our teaching and learning.

Yes, certain groups are misrepresented in the media — but where can we find successful examples of those groups being given a voice?

Yes, there is bias in the media — but how have journalists reported difficult stories with responsibly?

And yes, a few corporations dominate the media landscape — but what about the growth of grassroots publishing, hyperlocal journalism and new sources of funding?

What, in short, can I get passionate about?

Inviting guest speakers who can talk about those solutions and how they negotiated the system can help students see their path through it, and inspire them with the passion needed to negotiate it.

And given the role that news organisations themselves appear to have in the disillusionment of aspiring reporters, it may be that more can be done in partnership with employers: creating opportunities for students to work on initiating more creative projects or those that ‘give a voice to the voiceless’ and perform other civic roles.

The importance of mental health for passion

It’s notable that two of the five tips in Poynter’s article on staying “motivated” in the newsroom relate to mental health: having a life outside the newsroom; and taking good care of yourself:

“Eat well, sleep well and get exercise. It may sound obvious, but these are the basic things that help us stay sane and resilient, even as chaos descends upon us. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was when I was in college. A family friend — a professor — told me that, yes, it’s important to keep studying and learning over the years, but also to stay physically fit. Because that’s going to help you keep attacking the hard work, even as you get older.”

Anxiety and disillusionment can starve passion of energy. Providing trainee reporters with the toolkit they need to deal with the challenges of the job, and addressing common sources such as information overload and imposter syndrome, can help provide a better environment so that passion can grow.

As Austin R. Ramsey puts it:

“Reporters often blaze new ground. They take on amorphous tasks without clear guidelines or depictions of what success should look like. Without reassuring clues, many reporters drift from project to project not knowing how to understand their own achievements.”

Advice from the article — from comparing yourself to yourself a year ago, to “actively try to define success” — is worth integrating into your teaching (I find it fits especially well during induction week when students set their expectations and habits for the rest of the course).

More broadly, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can provide a framework for considering motivations and obstacles to those. For example:

  • To what extent do students feel part of a wider journalism culture or team? (a sense of belonging)
  • Do they have opportunities for prestige and a feeling of accomplishment? (esteem needs)
  • Does activity include opportunities to be creative, overcome obstacles and achieve confidence? (self-actualisation)

Sharing examples that make people passionate

Among the things that make us passionate about journalism are stories that inspire us — investigations that changed people’s lives; podcasts that made our jaws drop; interviews that held power to account and gave a voice to the voiceless.

Watching the film Spotlight makes me passionate about journalism; reading about the Sunday Times’s Thalidomide investigation makes me passionate about it, too.

These are important to teach not only because they serve to inspire, but because they operate as cultural touchstones in the profession, too (Tell Me No Lies is one useful collection of these; Anya Schiffrin‘s anthologies of African Muckraking and Global Muckraking provide non-Anglocentric correctives).

But it’s important to mix those cultural touchstones with inspiring examples that are closer both to the students’ experiences and their current capabilities.

Even basic examples of the impact of routine reporting (tweets from readers; spikes in audience metrics) can inspire an appreciation of its importance.

And local, consumer and specialist reporters can often talk about experiences where they have been able to directly experience feedback from readers on the impact of their work.

From curiosity to passion and back again: how all 7 habits in this series work in tension with each other

With the final in this series of habits listed, it is worth looking back at how passion relates to each — and how each works in tension with the other.

A good journalist is passionately curious, but not credulous: their scepticism helps prevent this. But scepticism should be distinguished from cynicism: a sceptical journalist develops the habit of persistence in establishing whether something is true or not. Persistence is aided by empathy which helps you imagine the best places to look, and identify the best possible approach.

Journalism is absolutely a creative craft but the reporter should not be indulgent with respect to that creativity; they need discipline to employ that creativity towards a professional, journalistic objective, ensuring that their story is clear, coherent and appropriate to the target audience. But discipline does not mean rigidity: a modern journalist needs the tenacity and creativity to find a different approach. Above all they need passion to find new stories, give a voice to the voiceless, hold power to account, and keep going throughout it all.

Please get in touch if you’ve come across any useful resources on the habits explored in this series. The series will be updated with new examples, resources and research.

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