This is the fourth post in a series about what I think are the five most difficult parts of journalism. My opinions are based on one year at Mizzou in Columbia, Mo., and a summer internship at KCNC-TV in Denver.
People often shrink away in terror when I tell them my major is journalism. Following the shock, a common question is, What do you want to do with that?
My response usually has two parts. I say, ideally, I’d like to be a political columnist, but my realistic goal is simply to land a job.
Journalism has an uncertain future, and I can’t afford to be picky right now. I’ve accepted, and even embraced, that my first job will probably be a general-assignment reporter at a small news outlet.
That means I’ll need the skills to gather information about almost everything. If there’s a fire, my editor will likely give me the story. Is the local grocery store recalling its green onions? I’m on it.
Which takes me to challenge No. 2: Journalists have to know a little something about everything. Our job is to observe the world and then present it in a way that people can understand.
If we don’t get it, can we expect the same of our audience?
This requirement isn’t just true for the general-assignment folks. I interned at KCNC-TV in Denver this summer, and I observed that beat reporters still know how to cover a wide range of news.
Kathy Walsh has worked at the station since 1984. She told me her area of expertise is health, but she covered high gas prices when I went into the field with her on May 16.
Gas prices were dropping nationally, but not in Colorado. Walsh learned from petroleum expert Troy Hill that low state petroleum supplies were partially to blame.
It was a simple answer, but one that neither Walsh nor I probably would have understood without taking a college economics course.
Which brings me to my next point: It’s not OK for journalism students only to succeed in their journalism classes. General-education and minor courses are key to developing a well-rounded understanding of the world.
I never thought there would be overlap between my 17th- to 19th-century humanities class and my first journalism class. But there was: Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative — that no action is ethical unless it could be made into a universal law — is one way to decide whether to pursue a story.
The expectation that journalists understand the nuts and bolts of many topics is overwhelming but also practical. After all, there’s no such thing as an isolated beat. Business reporters need to understand government policy. Restaurant critics should know a thing or two about the Food and Drug Administration. And it couldn’t hurt art critics to learn the basics of crime-scene reporting. A few thieves have run away with nearly priceless paintings.
Journalists aren’t rocket scientists. We’re not physicists, surgeons or engineers. Calculus may not be in our repertoire. But the ability to turn important events into approachable stories is.
It’s a tall order, but one that I embrace. I’ll be entering my second year at the Missouri School of Journalism this fall.
And that means I have a lot to learn. Check back for No. 1 on the countdown.
Cross posted from Andrew Gibson’s personal blog.
Photo at top from lu_lu’s Flickr account.