Whatever else changes, we still need a principled press.

Word cloud of the Pew's principles. The words mentioned most often are the biggest -- notice that citizens are bigger than journalism itself.

“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.”

So says the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. But the center does not define the word in an absolute or philosophical sense. They mean truth in a practical sense:

“…Journalistic truth is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation.”

Although journalistic guidelines vary between nations and media outlets, the Pew Center’s  list has really resonated with me. I have penned their guiding principles onto the inside cover of my notebook.

I’m not trying to be cute. If we don’t stick to best practices, we’re likely to do more harm than good. We’re likely to contribute to the problems that we cover instead of helping our fellow citizens access the information they need to understand the important issues of the day.

As the new media landscape continues to change at breakneck speed, we have to get a grip on our values. We won’t always be the first, but we must strive to be the best. Our information should be verified, our sources credible, and our reasons for doing this clear. This is true in any medium.

I’m sorry to sound preachy. I’ve just been feeling a bit disillusioned lately, and I have to remind myself why I’m in  this. It’s not for the fame, fortune or the stability … it’s because I took the admittedly cliched advice to be the change I want to see.

The nine principles are as follows:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience

In the original text, each principle is followed by an explanation, which are all thoughtful, succinct, and well worth a read.

For instance, here’s principle 9:

Every journalist must have a personal sense of ethics and responsibility–a moral compass. Each of us must be willing, if fairness and accuracy require, to voice differences with our colleagues, whether in the newsroom or the executive suite. News organizations do well to nurture this independence by encouraging individuals to speak their minds. This stimulates the intellectual diversity necessary to understand and accurately cover an increasingly diverse society. It is this diversity of minds and voices, not just numbers, that matters.

Personally, I feel that accountability is better enforced when it is embodied. As the mission statement of the Real News Network reads:

“We all have interests. We recognize that bias will affect the elements in a story we choose to highlight, the facts we consider important and the sources we decide to trust. To be human is to have bias. The answer is transparency.”

Whether framing stories with contextual disclaimers, or clarifying our positions in editorials, full disclosure is, I would argue, part of the shift away from top-down unidirectional media. In a media culture that itself overuses the affix –gate, the more upfront we are about our subject position, the better our readers can assess the message they are receiving.

The best journalists I know do this with humility. They examine their own power to influence others, and don’t take their audience’s trust for granted.

But they’re also imperfect people, just like everyone else.


For all you romantic reporters

My personal favourite. Source: 10,000 words.

Dear secretly romantic reporter,

Today is Valentine’s day — and since Al Capone isn’t having rival gangsters shot this year, maybe it’s a slow news day for you.

If so, why not peruse the scores of mass-produced sentiments written by someone else. (Okay, those weren’t actually my words. I got them here.)

Options abound! You can ask someone to be “your exclusive,” convince a reluctant lover to go on the record with you, or lament the loss of the ever-so-discrete dark room.

Who knows, one little valentine may even make that stony-faced editor smile.

“Dear Ed: You gave me 400 words, but I only need three ;-)”

If you’re worried about how hard it would be to find professionally-tailored tokens of affection, fear not!  The good folks at 10,000 words have already done all the work for you! Behold —

Valentines for Journalists

❤ Part One
❤ Part Two
❤ Part Three

If their cards fail to move you and, frankly, you’re more in love with your cynical side, check out the growing collection of anti-valentines. Sample below. Happy (or crappy!) Valentine’s day!


Aspiring journalist take note: 24 tips from rising stars

Photo by baatarscc on Flickr.

The site I just created — So, you want to be a journalist — is like an advice column combined with the “most likely to succeed” section of a high school year. I designed it for a group of first-year undergrads at UBC.

(Note: I can’t take credit for the good taste: I generated the list by asking my peers for their recommendations.)

The site is self-explanatory, but I simply have to highlight how much street cred the advice-givers have earned in their relatively short careers.

For instance:

Bethany Horne beat mainstream media giants on a major G20 story. She was among the very first to report that the police had been granted more powers to search, detain and arrest people in and around Toronto’s downtown security zone.

Jesse McLean was entrepreneurial enough to get to Haiti with an NGO while interning at the Toronto Star. At the age of 22, he was one of the first Star reporters to get there after the earthquake, then turned in assignments that showed skill past his years.

Allison Cross, Leslie Young, and Kate Allen were all part of a documentary team that won an Emmy for their film on e-waste. While still in J-school, they earned one of the highest honours you can earn for investigative journalism, beating out established heavyweights like 60 minutes and Nightline.

Bottom line: If you want to get into journalism, you want to read what these fresh minds have to say:

All the following posts are available here.

  1. Filter everything for yourself, including this advice. Advice from William Wolfe-Wylie
  2. To write interesting work, you have to be interested. Advice from Leslie Young
  3. You have to love it. Advice from Lauren Pelley
  4. Come to grips with the worst case scenario. Advice from Arden Zwelling
  5. When you think you’ve worked hard enough, work harder. Advice from Lucas Timmons
  6. J-school isn’t the only option. Advice from Tamara Baluja
  7. Get inspired. Respect your audience. Think ahead. Advice from Bethany Horne
  8. Live an interesting life. Advice from Jessica Linzey
  9. Don’t do it for fame or fortune. Advice from Liem Vu
  10. Ten things you can do right away. Advice from Dylan C. Robertson
  11. On student papers, digital footprints, and the art of networking. Advice from Sarah Millar
  12. Focus on your own journey. Advice from Evan Duggan
  13. Constantly update your skills, and never stop writing. Advice from Nick Taylor-Vaisey
  14. Cross-platform ‘clippings’ are key! Advice from Erin Millar
  15. Take every opportunity (even those that aren’t paid!) Advice from Devon Wong
  16. Be relentless and build yourself a name and a niche. Advice from Amanda Ash
  17. Pay close attention to your world. Advice from Chloé Fedio
  18. Don’t wait until you’ve graduated. Advice from Jesse McLean
  19. See if you enjoy writing for an audience. Advice from Beth Hong
  20. Be part of the student press, and get on twitter. Advice from Stuart Thompson
  21. Just do it. Advice from Rebecca Lindell
  22. Get outside the classroom. Advice from Adrian Morrow
  23. Learn by doing and learn to pitch. Advice from Kate Allen
  24. Be flexible. Advice from Allison Cross

Ah, new journalists – what do they know?

Despite what it seems like, I haven’t been slacking off. In fact, I’ve been intensely working on a blog … just not this one. This screen shot is pretty self-explanatory:

If you haven’t been following my mini-saga, here’s the short version: my first-year undergrad students want to learn about the most promising young journalists. For the past week, I’ve been collecting nominees and soliciting their advice.

Honestly, it’s been more of a time commitment than I expected, but it’s really been worth it. All the nominees were asked a very general question: “What advice would you give a first-year undergrad who’s thinking of getting into journalism?”

The responses have ranged from general encouragement to specific strategies. Many entries manage to be hopeful despite realistic assessments of the challenges we face.

What has surprised me most, though, is how humble so many of these up-and-comers are. When asked to offer their insight, some began with paragraph-long qualifiers. This would make sense if their journalism looked, sounded, and read like the work of rookies, but it really doesn’t! In fact, I’m more excited than ever about the number of smart and talented people getting into the industry right now. Despite the non-stop parade of gloomy predictions, they’re rolling up their sleeves and saying “let’s do this thing.”

To answer the question for which this post is named: new journalists know a heck of a lot, and anyone interested in the future of news should pay attention to what they’ve learned so far.

The site isn’t really live yet because my students haven’t seen it, and it won’t be “googlable” until they do. For now, here’s a sample entry if you’re wondering what to expect.

As you can see, I start by showcasing the pointers, and then tell you a bit about the author. I’m also including links to their work or embedding multimedia wherever possible. It’s a simple formula, but hopefully a useful starting point.

I’ll definitely follow up when the site is ready to be read. For now, back to marveling at my peers.