Anybody can go into reporting. Few, though, are actually good at it.
Being a journalist does not require a specialized degree, although some reporters are j-school grads. Reporting is a trade that, to a large degree, can be taught through on-the-job training. In fact, if a new reporter is lucky enough to be mentored by an experienced journalist, that new reporter will get an invaluable real-world education. Sadly, this era of media consolidation has seen many of the most experienced journalists put out to pasture, simply because they are the biggest expenses on their corporate masters’ budget sheets. The net result? There’s a lot of new reporters out there, often looking like deer trapped in headlights, given bylines and put on the air before they’ve mastered the basic mechanics of their trade.
There’s also an element of journalism that can’t be taught: Some people instinctively can smell a story. They’re the ones who always seem to be at the right place at the right time to produce a story no one else has, or they find a story angle everyone else has missed. As you might imagine, this type of reporter is few and far between.
So how can you tell which reporters are the good ones? The kind that make you sleep easier at night, knowing your country’s fundamental precepts are in good hands? And who are the ones who are screwing everything up?
Here’s some telltale signs:
- Attention to Detail. A good reporter doesn’t take anything for granted. Expect the spelling of your name and title to be verified, especially if it’s a reporter who’s new to you. Titles do change, and so do companies’ names, now that we feel the need to rebrand everything we touch. Women’s names change, too. If it’s been awhile since the same reporter has called you, he or she should reconfirm this basic information with you. Expect other basic facts (places, people, dates, numbers) to be confirmed as well. Such an attention to detail tells you the reporter is committed to providing accurate information.
- No Assumptions. Good reporters make no assumptions. Even though we no longer live in an age of beat reporters (those who specialize in a particular field of reporting), even general assignment reporters should have the basic concept of why he or she is calling you at this time in history. A good reporter will have checked out your website, searched for any recent news articles about your organization, and may even speak with other reporters who have dealt with you, all before he or she calls you. That research will help dictate the types of questions the reporter asks and which details will be confirmed.
- Properly-Phrased Questions. If you’ve ever watched a crime drama on television, you’re familiar with the scene where a trial lawyer raises an objection against another for “leading the witness.” Leading questions are the hallmark of a reporter who is trying to get you to say what he or she needs you to say, to make the story work. For instance, a leading question would be, “Did it make you feel good when the jury read the verdict?” A properly-phrased question would be, “How did it make you feel when the jury read the verdict?” A reporter who continuously tries to lead you to say what he or she wants you to say is trying to write a story for the sake of a story, not for the sake of the facts. Good reporters properly phrase questions. And bad reporters? They should be told, politely, to rephrase their question, each and every time they ask a leading question.
- Quote Confirmation. Often, a reporter will read back key quotes you have given, to confirm they are accurate. But not always. The key here is to know that you have every right to ask the reporter to read back your quotes. You do not have a right to see the story before it’s printed or broadcast. A good reporter will be happy to read back your quotes to you, and may seek clarification upon review. Bad reporters will get tripped up, if they’ve only written down part of your quote and taken it out of context.