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Tips for training ethical reporters


by Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE

What’s the best advice you can give your beginning reporters? What’s going to help them enjoy what they are doing because they’re doing it well?

Columbia Journalism Review had an outstanding article in mid-August by Adeshina Emmanuel and Justin Ray. “Top journalists reveal the best reporting advice they have received,”  which covers a wide range of suggestions from keeping lists for future story ideas to starting at a small news outlet so you can make your mistakes there. (Maybe that applies to student media, too?)

But to me the best suggestions are those that warn young reporters not to have preconceived notions when they start to write an article. It’s hard to get at the truth that way.

An exchange with student reporters that always raises my hackles:

Me: How’s your story coming?

Cub reporter: I just need one more quote.

No! She may need a quote to show an expert view or make the article more lively, but the thing she really needs is more information – and not necessarily when she thinks she should go out and get.

In the CJR article, The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan says she’s not sure where she learned this – maybe “Reporting 101,” but she still finds it helpful. “Report against your own biases. That is, include the reporting that has a chance of proving you wrong, not just confirming what you already think or think that you know. At the very least, this will allow you to know in advance what the objections to a story might be. It tends to make reporting more fair—and more bulletproof.”

The underlining is mine because this may be the most important lesson to learn about ethical journalism. Any reporter who approaches a story convinced about what he or she will find is going to miss the real story out there. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds can be so sure what’s right and wrong, real and false, they make assumptions that destroy their reporting.

So, the most important thing they need to learn is probably not AP Style or where to put the commas – it’s starting out with an open mind that will allow them to find and write the truth.


Note: Another CJR article full of good suggestions and a link in this same CJR piece is “Eight simple rules for accurate journalism,” by Craig Silverman, written in 2011 but very true still today.

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