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Just In: What Journalism Does

– by Owen Scrivener

Six years it’s taken me. Six years of scraping together every penny I can to prevent myself from dehydrating while away from the comforts of my kitchen, six years of pulling my hair out for not waking up before the sun rises, six years of arduous trips on the grubby disease factory we call public transport.
Yes it’s taken me six years to accomplish a degree in journalism, and in that time I’ve hardly chipped the surface of what journalism is. So strange, now to call myself what I aspired to be, almost as if that little piece of paper was purely decoration. Perhaps this is because journalism is an ever continuing practice as well as an evolving profession.

The transition from education to work isn’t as shocking as one might think. Television is perhaps the most exhausting, since it’s a performance heavy visual medium. It’s also the field with the least amount of work available. Understandable, as Australia only has a handful of networks.
Radio is more abundant employment wise, and while not lucrative has more paid openings. It’s distinct from television in that it condenses similar television content to digestible soundbites. In many ways radio must say much more without visual cues in limited time frames.
Print and online are not the same, though similar in language. Thanks to smart technology the news is now in our pockets, and we can access the latest by “plugging-in,” yet print still lingers. Print has fewer freedoms. Even now as I write this I’m editing non-digital articles to suit advertisement space. It still finds a readership, many under25.

We can establish from the above information that journalism is a fractured industry and so it should be. Our job as journalists is not to be mouth pieces for government or corporations, though they may be the ones who pay our checks. Believe it or not editorial independence is a crucial characteristic of  mainstream journalism. Here in Australia we have various media watchdogs, and they aren’t as dodgy as one might think.
This and the market of information is what drives ethical journalism. If there’s an undiscovered story worth cracking every competitive bastard with a press ticket will climb mountains to get it. That’s no exaggeration either, journalism is a physical job.

A core tenet of journalism is honesty but not necessarily truth. You, as a journalist are relaying information in a digestible way. A story will often require contrasts and contradictions, questions. We are not there to amplify revelation but to investigate content of both public interest and content that is interesting to the public, and yes they are different.

To make sure we aren’t simply amplifying bias we have to give opposing voices air time, often those voices will be wrong and we may well know it. This isn’t a secret of our trade as much as it is fairness. And in that itself, balance is a matter of perception. Why give a voice to anti-vaxers in a story or article on the benefits shown by scientific evidence? Because we cannot ignore perceived equivocations, false or otherwise.

We are required to engage with an viewer/listener/readership on a level they understand. Cultural baggage matters. Write an article on race or religion, and identities will be discomforted. Often we in the industry face criticism for our prejudices but those are inevitably what gives our stories a sense of importance. We can deny those identities all we want but inevitably they will set the context for how we intercept new information.

As agents within the media machine, we are expected to engage with current affairs with initiative. We have to consider who we’re writing for. How many people it will reach? What will be their average age? Who will it resonate with? Who will it offend or affect? And considering those what choices we make, what we omit and what we include in the whole package.

One of those choices may be what is appropriate for a consumer. Censorship doesn’t just exist to protect us from what is sometimes a brutal reality, it also exists to protect the vulnerable from exposure. There are ethics and laws in how to treat certain victims, children in criminal investigation stories are not meant to be identified. The safety of vulnerable people in criminal cases has been compromised by unethical and incompetent journalistic practices, it should be in the back of our minds that the actors in a story matter.

So what are the characteristics of a good journalist? I like to think a good journalist is first and foremost a net-worker. They will create bridges, they will create a pool of resources. Breaking a story may require some unique perspectives. It really can get you unstuck to be on friendly terms with people in various industries, people who can find the talent you need or perhaps even be the talent you need to get that unique angle.
This of course requires some fluid social skills. A journalist without social skills will procrastinate, will find it hard to communicate with the average person and will likely not succeed in painting the picture they wish to paint when composing a news story. Communication is in the job description, we are mass communicators. Introverts have no place in media.
This may seem like a tough pill to swallow but we are the “just in” people. We can’t afford to cushion the world for our speakers. It’s a risky job.

It’s also not the most forgiving field, nor seemingly the most rewarding. But in the work itself there’s a great sense of achievement, the benefits are the work itself. You are the ultimate adventurer, not simply an observer, a participant in reality’s wilderness.

Image from CNN

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