Journalism isn’t rocket science, it’s much harder

Whenever I hear someone say, “Journalism isn’t rocket science” or some variation thereof, I refer to a blog post by Chip Scanlan, an instructor of The Poynter Institute’s online NewsU classroom: “Yeah, it’s much harder.”

He goes on to explain that journalists work hard to report the news and tell timely stories with all the creativity, energy, passion and critical thinking skills to reflect the community in which they live and work, “all while covering an eight-hour marathon council meeting” or “staying on top of a fluid election and producing story that is fair, accurate, balanced, solidly reported and written with compelling clarity.”

I would also add that journalists today must also be technologically web savvy. There’s a ton of information out there in cyberspace, but you can’t trust everything that’s on the internet.

Imaging, while working at your job, a situation in which you ask a question and 1) you can reach anyone, either by phone, email, text, whatever, and 2) you leave a message and that person doesn’t get back with you, again, for whatever reason.

You need this information to adequately perform your job. Do you depend on the usual suspects, or do you get creative and find another way?

In a journalists’ case, we can’t just make it up. It’s morally and ethically wrong. We sometimes must learn as we go, but that’s not always the best approach. If all else fails, journalists may rely on past stories they’ve written.

Case in point: We wrote a recent story that involved a high-profile individual who, we learned through talk around town, was dismissed from his high-profile job. We sent a quick email and phone calls to official folks close to the situation to confirm this before we proceeded further. To my knowledge, the phone calls were not returned. An reply email more than 30 minutes later revealed the “rumors” around town to be true, but there would be further information coming “in the next few days.”

Journalism doesn’t work like that. If most of the community already knows or has heard about it, and the local media doesn’t have anything on it, well, it makes us look – to be kind – silly, and it makes the other party not being forthcoming with information look as though they’re trying to hide something.

Our response question, “Is there a chance of getting something sooner?”

During my 29 years, I know better than to wait and be spoon-fed with a press release that sounds like a press release, quoting people in ways in which they don’t normally talk. So, we went with the confirmed information and added background from a previous story. We also looked up the LinkedIn pages connected to a couple of individuals and gathered even more information.

Journalists, at times, must get creative in the sense of where they get their information. LinkedIn is a credible source as long as one ensures the page and information is connected to the individual in question.

In the case of criminal justice stories, journalists can’t really rely on online court records and social media accounts. Some online court records may be incomplete and almost never contain all the information one would see on a hard-copy document. And social media … well, I need not explain further on that one.

The best information can be had through publicly accessible hard-copy court documents, especially in cases in which information is difficult to come by through traditional interviewing tactics.

Of course, there are always interviews with witnesses and neighbors, which can be unreliable and inaccurate, at best. I’ve never been a big fan of that approach.

Every day is different and brings new challenges. Sometimes those challenges present themselves at the drop of the hat. The key is to always be prepared, have a plan once the proverbial floodgates break and hopefully learn a little about a lot of things.

Time to start building that rocket.

Rough Writer

By Michael Johnson


Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.