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Raise your hand if you know Journalism Things

Blogging always leaves me with the sense I am Doing It Wrong. As soon as I hit post I think ‘well…is that what a blog is for? That thing you just sent into the world?’

I do know that one of the things you can do on blogs that is harder to do in a news outlet is have a rant about something that made you indignant. I haven’t tried that before. So here’s one now:

On Wednesday night I went to what was a truly awesome media industry night put on by the University of Melbourne’s Media and Communications Student Society. The speakers were all lovely and most of them were calm and practical in their advice about breaking into the media industry. There was mingling and networking and food and it was generally a great night. Speeches and panels covered practical things like being the annoying person who wants to learn all the time, calling strangers for interviews, and moving out of Melbourne to get a start in journalism.

One part of the evening bugged me though, and the reason it got me muttering swears under my breath was that I had heard the line before – from other speakers, from older journalists, from people who say it in a joking way that suggests they’re talking to the exception rather than the rule, and from others who think they’re  insulting you in cock of the head, wink of the eye sort of way. Wikipedia them, won’t you kid. 

“Hands up if you know who Woodward and Bernstein are” is the line I’m talking about.

The idea being that young journalists or wannabes don’t know about investigative journalism, or about the history of their craft. That they all go into interviews and choke and say “I just really like writing” when asked why they want to be reporters and think that research is done all on the internet and because the industry has changed so much we don’t deserve it as much as the generation of people who begged their way into the industry before us.

Whenever I hear someone assume that young journalists don’t have an appreciation for investigative journalism it actually reminds me of Bob Woodward, even if his name isn’t invoked.

This is a story that has been overshadowed by the fallout, where those who posted about it as though Woodward had made the story up wound up apologising. But it’s an important story in its own right.

“Woodward and Bernstein: Could the Web generation uncover a Watergate-type scandal”  by Dan Zak at the Washington Post tells of a panel at the American Society of News Editors conference in April 2012 where Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein tried to look at how Watergate would have been reported if it had happened today. Here’s Zak’s recount of the event:

“One of the colleges asked students in a journalism class to write a one-page paper on how Watergate would be covered now,” said Bob Woodward, “and the professor — ”

“Why don’t you say what school it was,” suggested Carl Bernstein, sitting to Woodward’s left in a session titled “Watergate 4.0: How Would the Story Unfold in the Digital Age?”

“Yale,” Woodward said. “He sent the one-page papers that these bright students had written and asked that I’d talk to the class on a speakerphone afterward. So I got them on a Sunday, and I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote that, ‘Oh, you would just use the Internet and you’d go to “Nixon’s secret fund” and it would be there.’ ”

“This is Yale,” Bernstein said gravely.

“That somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events,” Woodward said. “And they went on to say the political environment would be so different that Nixon wouldn’t be believed, and bloggers and tweeters would be in a lather and Nixon would resign in a week or two weeks after Watergate.”

Now, uproar ensued because some journalism professors thought the retelling of the student’s responses by Woodward had been flippant – that no journalism student would actually write “Oh you would just use the internet” as a response.

Obviously it was a paraphrase, but I think more importantly the retelling suggests that this was all the students who responded to the Watergate hypothetical wrote. For one, they were not told “there is something shifty about a break in at the DNC headquarters, look into that” they were asked how would you report on it in the digital age, which suggests that you would not be answering the question if the following essay was a big stuff you to technology.

The Yale professor who runs the class tells Micah L Sifry of Techpresident here that at that time he’d run the exercise for three years, and every year the students surprise him with the amount of trust they put in the internet as a news-gathering tool. That’s not the same as all the students saying “Oh you’d use the internet”.

It riles me up every time. Dan Zak writes that after the anecdote:

“A small ballroom of journalists — which included The Washington Post’s top brass, past and present — chuckled or scoffed at the scenario.”

And I can hear the chuckles and scoffs, because I have heard them. I heard them on Wednesday night, from some of the Real Journalists raising their hands in the room.

In the four years I’ve been studying journalism at the University of Melbourne, no one has even tried to show me how to use the internet properly as a news gathering tool. As far as cultivating “human sources” we’re told to Google experts and cold-call them. Which is good advice for a student writing something that may or may not be published anywhere, but is also the limited sort of advice that comes when we are learning journalism in a classroom instead of on the job.

Want young journalists who have a greater sense of what human sources and less faith in the wonders of the internet? Hire us straight out of school. Offer cadet positions or trainee positions that train on the job.

If you think there are young people coming into your newsrooms without an appreciation for investigative journalism, maybe it’s because we’re not being taught to value it. Or maybe it’s because Woodward thought that the students advocating using the internet to investigate would limit themselves to Googling “Nixon’s Secret Fund”.

So rant over. I want to be a journalist, and I know who Woodward is. I’ve read his articles and his books and sometimes I find him awesome and other times I find him smug.

But our litmus test for being a Good Young Journalist should not be who knows about Woodward and Bernstein. There were a bunch of great journalists in the pre-internet world. How do you know I put my hand up because of a love of investigative reporting?

I could just be the world’s biggest Robert Redford fan.

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3 thoughts on “Raise your hand if you know Journalism Things

  1. Pingback: Update Journalism Education if You Really Want to Save Journalism - Matthew Delman : : Matthew Delman

  2. Something I learned about cultivating human sources once I started work is that a lot of contact work is about going to industry breakfasts and asking people for their business cards, and calling people partly to ask questions about their press release but mainly to introduce yourself, and then staying in touch with these people until they like chair an inquiry or get a promotion. This is hard to learn/do at university for obvious reasons.

  3. Pingback: I have a crazy idea about how to fund journalism | Elizabeth Redman

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