A few weeks ago, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work and were inundated with thoughtful, challenging questions about journalism. In the first in an occasional series of short columns by our staff, ProPublica Emerging Reporter Natalie Escobar answers this inquiry about journalism training.
I would like to understand more about how young journalists are trained and mentored: What are the hallmarks of competent reporting? How has that changed with the advent of cable news 24-hour coverage? —Gloria Singer
Journalism school is often compared to trade school, since most of what students do in the classroom is practice for the real world. During my freshman year in Northwestern University’s journalism program, I wrote just about every kind of basic news story that reporters write at the beginning of their careers: weather, profile, news conference and local event stories.
At Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, every student lives in fear of the teaching tool called the “Medill F.” If you get one fact wrong in your reporting — whether it’s a misspelled name or a misstated job title — you automatically fail the assignment. I have friends who have worked hard on stories only to receive an F because they didn’t fact-check their work. I never got one, but they still haunt me.
It may sound melodramatic, but I have nightmares about finding mistakes in my reporting. Other journalists get them, too; ProPublica senior reporter Pamela Colloff calls them the “error terrors.” It’s a testament to the lessons that good editors have drilled into my brain about what it means to be a good reporter. They’ve taught me to be skeptical but not cynical, to work quickly but report thoroughly, and to prize accuracy above all else.
This dedication to responsible reporting lies at the core of typical journalism curriculums. I took a media law and ethics class that required me to become conversant with libel law and the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code. My magazine editing professor gave me my first crash course in fact-checking, giving our class a story that took days to verify all of its information. All of my professors have required me to provide full source lists with each person’s name, age and phone number, in case they want to double-check our work.
Of course, not every young reporter goes to journalism school. Friends and colleagues of mine have gotten their feet wet by working at their college newspapers, magazines and radio shows, which do incredibly important local reporting. Some of the most important mentors I’ve had have been other students, senior editors at my student magazine North by Northwestern, where I’ve been able to report on the university administration. Other journalists get their early experiences from internships at local publications, where they learn from editors at every step of the way. And some journalists come from other fields; they start as scientists, lawyers or soldiers and later decide to become reporters or editors, bringing other valuable experience to their work.
I’ve learned a lot the hard way about how to be a good journalist, both in the classroom and in professional internships. When I spent a quarter as a student journalist in Washington, D.C., I initially wrote a lot of mediocre stories that often took politicians at their word without questioning their dubious claims. I used to blow deadlines because I spent too much time agonizing over word choice. And once while interning at Smithsonian Magazine, an expert on viruses took the time to comb through an article I wrote on the groundbreaking vaccine inventor Maurice Hilleman and emailed my editor about small errors he had found. I was mortified, but I learned my lesson about triple-checking my facts.
At every step of the way, though, I’ve had teachers and mentors to steer me in the right direction. I’ve learned to set aside my fears and ask better questions from authority figures. I now find multiple sources to back up each fact in my reporting, and I try to figure out as soon as possible who else I need to interview to make my story more complete.
I judge my work based on how fair I am to everyone who has a stake in the story. I once spent months writing a story for Northwestern’s student magazine about faculty members who weren’t eligible for tenure and were trying to unionize. People were terrified to talk to me on the record, fearing retaliation from their colleagues. I held a lot of people’s trust in my hands, and I took that obligation seriously. I spent weeks fact-checking the claims made in the story instead of rushing to publish, and the story became better for it.
The intensity of the news cycle often challenges these hallmarks of good reporting, since media outlets feel pressure to be the first to break a story. For example, reports of terrorism attacks frequently misstate the number of victims, speculate about perpetrators and use second- or third-hand information. That’s something that would never fly in journalism school. As a professor once told my class, it’s better to be second than to be wrong.
The specter of the Medill F will probably haunt me throughout my journalism career, and that’s a good thing. If nightmares about story corrections plague my dreams for the rest of my life, so be it. I’d rather get my facts right than get a perfect night’s sleep.