Journalism 101

Some good—and seemingly obvious—advice

Attention journalists! The flat thing on the desk in front of you is a keyboard. When you wish to write a story, press the little buttons with letters on them, and continue to do so until you’re all out of things to say.

That’s the impression I got last night when reading an internal Associated Press newsletter posted on Romenesko, in which former AP reporter Ron Fournier reminded the wire’s scribes how to do their jobs. Admittedly, I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life, but it read like the kind of thing you might learn in an Introduction to Journalism class at one of our nation’s more prestigious community colleges.

All joking aside, I have to say that while the memo relays some advice that shouldn’t have to be given to a professional journalist, many of Fournier’s tips sound like things CJR has griped about as being absent from too much contemporary journalism: things like following up on important stories once the initial splash fades; taking time to rebut, contextualize (or simply decline to publish) obvious falsehoods and spin; using the lame “critics say” construction without ever defining just who these critics are; and refusing to give all sides an equal say when one of those sides is obviously full of it.

In other words, as Fournier notes, reporters should “commit yourself and your leaders to the truth.”

I’m not criticizing Fournier here—what he says makes sense. The problem is that he felt compelled to write this primer in the first place. That some of this stuff might make light bulbs go off over some reporters’ heads is the kind of thing that should keep assignment editors—hell, the American people—awake at night. In a perfect world, of course, things like “Tak[ing] action when you hear a public official ‘spin’ away from the facts or lie. Don’t just roll your eyes and mark it off to politics as usual,” should be second nature to anyone who cashes a check written by a news organization. Apparently it isn’t.

Sticking to the “spin” theme (we’ve written dozens of posts about it, and not enough can be said of the importance of weaning journalists off the habit of simply writing down what they’re told), Fournier adds that journalists shouldn’t “give equal weight to spin. Just because a public official says it doesn’t mean you need to put it in your story or give his claim equal billing to what you know to be true. We have an obligation to write factual and fair stories, but we are not obliged to print attacks, spin or distortion under the cover of ‘fair comment.’”

Got it? There will be a test next week.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.