What is Journalism?


Journalism is the act of writing about news related subjects for all mediums, print and non-print. It is also the complicated process of taking information and sifting through it, editing information, and giving it context. The journalist is always involved in the selection and presentation of what he or she considers to be noteworthy, and in meeting the standard of truth and honesty in reporting. Journalism incorporates everything from the "hard" news of politics and public affairs, to the softer side, which includes human interest and celebrity stories. Today, journalism also delivers lifestyle messages, medical updates, weather, science, education, and much more.

Before news can be published on newsprint or read from a teleprompter, however, the ideas must be penned by an individual. This person is a journalist, and is most likely schooled in the art of writing for news outlets. That is because journalistic writing is much different from any other style of composition. There are several steps to the process of journalism that begins with gathering news from the local, national, or world community, and ends when it is disseminated via any number of media channels. These include radio and television, newspapers and magazines, and now, the ever-present and ubiquitous Internet.

The majority of the global population relies on journalism to remain informed. Journalists act as the eyes and ears of the average person, and often as their mouthpiece, as well, which is not always advantageous. One thing is certain, journalism is an expanding profession. But, the question is, what type of people are journalists? The answer may surprise you. First and foremost, the majority of journalists are white males. Across the board, it is estimated that minority journalists comprise about 12 percent of any media outlet. This has been the reality since the late 1970s, even as most news organizations have claimed their goal is to increase the diversity of their newsrooms. Too, a journalist must have above average, or excellent, writing ability. This is not a skill that comes naturally to most people, but one that must be developed and honed. It is an expertise that takes hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to gain competency.

Therefore, if you are interested in pursuing a career in journalism, you must realize from the outset that you are going to spend many hours alone with your pen and paper or word processor, practicing how to craft words and ideas that will be engaging, intriguing, and thought-provoking.

Let us consider what is meant by the term "news" before moving forward. In its simplest form, news is a recounting of an event, an opinion, or a fact that will interest people. The account is usually of a current incident, and avoids libel or dishonest slandering of another individual. There are a number of conditions that are usually applied when a journalist is deciding if information is newsworthy. First, those events that occur closest to the recipients of news are usually of greatest interest. While people may be mildly interested in the happenings on the other side of the world, they tend to believe it has little relevance to their own daily existence.

Secondly, if information is about people that are well-known, this tends to be more interesting to the average individual and, therefore, noteworthy and newsworthy. While it may not impact a person to learn about the trials and tribulations, successes and failures, it is usually a welcome distraction to the sameness of a person's life. Next, people find information that is novel and timely to be newsworthy. People love to learn about quirky events, and breaking news has become one of the most common catchphrases in journalism today. Finally, stories with conflict will generally captivate an audience, although they will want closure as well. When a story, such as the gulf oil spill, goes on for weeks or months, people lose interest.

Also, 24 hour news cycles have changed the work dynamic of journalism. Deadlines that might have been once in a 24-hour period are now fluid, continuous, non-stop. Today, there is a much greater reliance on audio and video than print, and people who work in this part of the business consider themselves to be as much a part of the journalistic process as the writers and reporters. The paradigm of journalism is changing.

Types of Print Media

It might be helpful to the beginning journalist to better understand the various classifications of print journalism. The three main types are newspapers, magazines and books. Newspapers come in the form of international, weekly, Sunday edition, national, local, tabloid, and broadsheet. Circulation figures also delineate newspapers -- the larger the numbers, the greater the advertising revenues, and the more influential the paper.

Magazines are a separate and broad form of print mass communication. Generally speaking, they cater to different age groups and/or interests, such as business, the arts, teen fashion, homemaking and dozens of other subjects and specialized categories. They are usually printed on glossy paper, with lots of color and photographs, soft-bound and issued according to a calendar that appeals to their consumers. Some are weekly, others bi-weekly, and then there are the most common form – the monthly magazine. Except for those that are intended to deliver hard-hitting news, most magazines are designed to be recreational reading, with short articles and an abundance of pictures. Magazines are usually not meant to be educational, although they can be; nor are they expected to be used as reference, except for the special category of academic and peer-reviewed journals that are written to appeal to the educationally-immersed segment of the population.

Books are the third form of print media (hardcover and paperback). And these date back to the very earliest days of mankind. There was a time when books were created by hand, one at a time. Few were educated in the art of reading back in the days of ancient mankind, and even fewer had the ability to write or copy with the tools of the trade that were popular at that time, such as the quill and ink. While none of these scribes could be characterized as journalists, they give an almost romantic bend to the story of the history of writing and publishing. Moreover, it offers an authentic view of the beginnings of journalism and writing long before the invention of the printing press.

Characteristics of a Journalist

Journalists are a special breed. Perhaps the characteristic shared by all is a fascination with the printed word, and a tendency to manipulate it for their own edification as much as for professional purposes. Journalists love words. They love the infinite ways they can be arranged to convey a message or information to their audience. Writing may be a challenge, but it is never a chore. The journalist looks at the profession as a calling, and they tend to be motivated by a responsibility to keep the public accurately and honestly informed about events of import on a local, national, and international level.

Journalists are careful people for the most part. They tend to check their sources, check their wording, check their quotes, and even their spelling. Journalistic standards require this. On the rare occasion that a journalist is "outed" for providing false or misleading information, it becomes a badge of shame, much like Esther's scarlet letter. For many in the industry, it is nothing short of a professional sin to make a mistake accidentally or deliberately in the process of reporting to the public.

Journalists are very conscious of, and abide by deadlines, datelines, and bylines. Moreover, journalists always give credit to their resources and avoid reiterating what is only rumor – unless, of course, the journalist is in the business of rumors, such as in the entertainment industry.

Of course, there are other commonalities shared among budding and seasoned journalists, and all are of importance; but of equal value is developing a style, a voice, that is all your own -- one that is authentic, informative, and a reflection of the person that you are. As you can see, becoming a journalist is much more challenging than you might have first imagined!

The Future of Journalism

There is not a profession in the world that doesn't take time, now and again, to reflect not only on where they've been and who they are, but also where they are going. That is a subject that is always good for a hearty debate. What we do know is that journalism was like an ember; it began as an ash in ancient civilizations, and by the late 1600s, it became a single flame that, with proper tending and oversight, grew into the conflagration it is today. There is so much information now that people cry overload and are beginning to turn away, toward a simpler time when news did not consume them.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Journalism course?
When information technology was introduced to the world, journalists were excited about how it could be used to shape and propel the profession. However, there can be no question that, instead, it has consumed the practice. Technologies also continue to fall over each other, and segue from rigid formats to multi-modalities. What is true, though, once all of the bells and whistles are stripped away, is that the essence of journalism remains the same. No matter what journalism looks like in the future, the practitioner must be unbiased and their work plagiarism-free. They must not bow to bribes or cut corners to get a story to market before a competitor just to be first. The journalists of today and tomorrow must continue to be driven to work to inform the public without fabrication, and be willing to practice the craft tirelessly, so they maintain and improve their ability to reach their audience through the printed word. It is obvious that journalism will remain ensconced in the category of "profession," because of the high expectations it imposes, and the high skill level it requires.

Journalism of Import

This has been a broad and fairly comprehensive introduction to the essence of journalism, and the most important aspects of the profession. You have had the opportunity to develop your aptitude in finding stories that are newsworthy, interviewing and note-taking, and identifying and manipulating the most common structures to the writing process. You have learned about the ethics and legalities that accompany the practice of journalism, and had a review of grammar for the writer.

Let us first consider the art of depth writing. While most journalists may find themselves sticking only to hard-hitting news iterated in a few paragraphs, there may come a time that your editor calls on you to write something longer and more complex. You should have a basic idea of how this is done.

In-Depth Reporting

A journalist who sets out to do an in-depth report understands from the outset that it requires extensive research – turning to numerous databases and resources, and probably interviews, in order to collect the breadth of information that is needed to offer the reader a detailed account of a news story.

One of the most well-known examples of in-depth journalism occurred in the 1970s, when the seemingly innocuous break-in of a hotel room in Washington, D.C. eventually brought down the President of the United States after reporters uncorked the Watergate scandal. It is instructive to visit a library and sit down and review the actual newspapers as they appeared – available now on microfiche. It is more real to the student than reviewing it on the Internet, where it loses much of the urgency that accompanied the story in those days. In-depth reporting is synonymous with investigative reporting, and the purpose of that is to follow a story with the expectation of uncovering or exposing an individual, or event, (or both). Most often, the activity in question is illegal and the perpetrator is deliberately keeping the public in the dark.

In-depth stories tend to utilize a component called the nut graph -- also spelled nut graf. This is a journalism term that names a particular part of an depth story or news feature. It is generally the second paragraph of a long article – a sort of paragraph within a paragraph – that acts as an internal lead. It is called a nut graph because, like a nut, it contains the kernel or essential parts of the story. The word graph is an abbreviation of the word paragraph. The purpose of the nut graph is to sum up the main idea of the story. Because investigative journalism is designed to be lengthy, the nut graph is added for the readers' sake – to give them the gist of the story at the outset.

Nut graphs can also contain other types of information. They might explain the timeliness of the story, its importance to the reader, and act as a transition from the lead to the heart of the matter. The challenge to the writer is the segment can be longer than a single paragraph, but not quite the length of two. How about an example?

Margie Madison walked out of her dorm building on Tuesday to find nothing but an empty lock hanging off the bike rack where her bike used to be. "Somebody stole my mini bike," she said.

Nut Graph

Mini bikes are the newest target of campus thieves across the country. In Polk County alone there are an average of 75 mini bikes stolen each year, a number that continues to spiral upward.

The mini bike industry does big business with the college crowd. Many cannot afford to purchase a vehicle, and this motorized bicycle is more trend-setting than the typical bike.

  • The writer then goes on to discuss aspects of the minibike industry,

  • And how they are all the rage of college campuses today, and

  • Theft rings that target them. The story might even talk about local related

  • Crime figures and criminals.

Depth Reporting…continued

In depth reporting, the story needs to be developed to a much greater extent; the depth reporter must rely on research, organization, and good writing. If you are going to write an in-depth story, you must be sure to allot the proper amount of time necessary to research and investigate, write, and edit. There is no question that depth reporting consumes more time, effort, energy, and thought. It can be compared to writing a 10-page paper for a midterm.

Therefore, the depth reporter must be given the proper amount of time to research and collect information on the subject. In-depth stories also come with deadlines, and the writer must learn to budget his or her time, so they are not investigating or writing the story at the last minute. The concepts to be included in the story should be developed early in the process, not at the end. This is necessary to ensure the article has the proper structure and direction intended.

While the journalist who undertakes the challenge of writing in-depth articles may have gotten the idea for their story from something they'd read, heard, or seen that piqued their interest, the writer must always be mindful of the need to write to the interest or needs of the audience, and not themselves. As with every type of writing, the story should be about people, or how something is affecting people. Interviews and dialogue help to break up long pieces that might otherwise be rather dry to read after a few paragraphs.

In-depth writing mirrors the needs of online or Internet writing, in that too much print without any breaks can turn your reader off. An in-depth story begs to have graphs, charts, images, and the like included.

Still another interesting aspect of the in-depth story is that the writer has several options. First, we know that it does not have to be of the breaking news standard required by hard-hitting news. But it can be a spin-off of a recent story, examining it from a different point of view. Also, readers enjoy reading, and in-depth story writers tend to enjoy writing, articles that can appear in series format where they are broken into parts over the course of several days. It can also be run as a single story, as well, giving in-depth reporting more versatility than other types.

Investigative stories are the hallmark of in-depth journalism. But there are other types, as well. For example, social, political, behavioral and other trends are great topics for depth writing. A depth story might also be an analytical piece that breaks down a large topic into smaller bits for a closer examination. In-depth stories can be interpretive, as well, providing readers with a purported meaning of one thing or another.

If you are going to enter the field of journalism, you may not overtly choose to specialize in the art of in-depth writing – but do not be surprised if it is expected from you now and again. It is a good idea to practice this type of specialty writing on your own time, so you can gain some expertise before your editor foists one on you! The last thing you want to do is say, "But I have never done an in-depth story before." That is not the mark of a good journalist!

Journalism of Import

Now, what does that phrase mean, and why did we save it until the very end?

It means you are entering a profession that can influence and alter the course of people's lives. Journalists venture into all areas of interest to the public: science, art, politics, business, even the media, itself. Their goal is to keep the public informed, because an informed public is less likely to be taken advantage of, or controlled. In a democracy such as ours, a free and open media is all that stands between individual rights and tyranny. The news is generally not pleasant, and is designed to reveal an underbelly of society that is not something we are able to take pride in.

For example, the continued reporting of the unfair number of black men who are victims of police harassment and violence. No American likes to hear this. We like to believe that our police forces are fair and honest. But, in case they aren't, who is going to reveal this? The average person rarely has the time to investigate problems of this nature – they are engaged in their own lives. But that is not to say we don't want to know about it – or that we don't care and want things to change. That is what the purpose of the journalist is – to reveal social, political, and other problems as a precursor to public engagement and change. Journalism is honorable work, and a satisfying pursuit, as well.

The journalist is the watchdog of every group. We have priests who abuse children, charities that steal money, teachers that have sex with students, and government officials who work for their own interests, instead of their constituents. And these are supposed to be the good guys!

As in no other profession, the first obligation of a journalist is to the truth. His or her first loyalty should be to the citizens, and their aim should always be to verify information before it is printed. There are few things harder to erase than damage to an individual's reputation due to sloppy and inaccurate reporting. Journalists must not get cozy with the people they are reporting about, or engage in the events they are researching. For instance, you can't be an addicted gambler and write about the ills of gambling in your community. Journalists instigate public commentary, criticism, and compromise. Journalists should not substitute their opinions and judgments for an unbiased representation of the truth.

Here, the lesson will pause long enough to acknowledge that this does happen in journalism, nonetheless. There are times that a news medium or journalist claims to be fair and balanced and is anything but. It is fortunate that there are so many outlets for news these days that people have an opportunity to hear more than one side of a story.

The point is, you are bound by your own ethics, your own obligation, to present the truth – or at least all sides of a story so the reader can draw their own conclusions. Journalism is not writing for an English class. It is not writing for entertainment – even if it is entertainment news. It is writing to inform, first and foremost, and that is followed by providing the reader with an interpretation of events – clearly marked as such – and acting as an agent of change.

Yes, the journalist brings stories of import to the public. It may be that the world would never know a fact, if you had not taken the time to pursue it and share it with them. You serve the public, you influence for good, you are interested in the world around you – with a keen mind, an able pen, a facility for language and the determination not to be swayed from your goal.

Now, there is really nothing left we can teach you about being a journalist.

Go get ‘em writer!