The worst mistake a new journalist can make is to write an inaccurate story. An inaccurate story can cause an audience to become enraged and absolutely lose trust in anything the journalist has to say in the future — not to mention the endless headaches these kinds of articles cause for the editor who will often be forced to “stand by the story” no matter what. Editors hate admitting wrong, so as a new journalist you want to make sure to protect your editor by reporting as accurately and objectively as possible — doing so will help make sure your career and reputation get off to a good start.
MISTAKE #1: Being The First To Break A New Story
The temptation will always be there for novices to rush a story in order to “scoop” the competition. Of course, breaking the big story can be a career altering event, however, if you get it wrong it can have damaging effects on your career in the long run.
MISTAKE #2: Complacency and Laziness
These are the enemies of the journalist who prematurely deludes herself into believing that the accuracy of her story doesn’t need to be improved upon. If you blow off follow-up questions, or are too afraid to ask enough questions in the first place, you are likely to blow it, period. Much better to ask questions and clarify before you go to print with inaccuracies.
MISTAKE #3: Rude Behavior
Don’t let your new title go to your head. Just because you’re now an “investigative journalist” it doesn’t mean you have a license to run rough shod over other people. Your unquenchable search for the truth can only be satiated if other people are willing to work with you. That means seeking better collaboration with co-workers and having more empathy for those telling the story. Just because someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, that doesn’t mean their point is not valid. Be grateful and empathetic to those willing to provide you with info instead of outright dismissive of people with differing outlooks and opinions. You never know what you might learn.
MISTAKE #4: Looking At Only One Side Of The Story
We all have biases and we’d all like to see the world run a certain way. And when we don’t like a person, it’s easy to want to persuade others to feel the same way. As writers, we know how to persuade, therefore it’s important that we do not report from a position of strong bias. When reporting, it will be natural for you to want to talk to sources that confirm your bias. It will be natural for you to only want to report only from sources who agree with your world view. However, if you fall into this trap, you can end up reporting only one side of the story. We’ve all read supposedly professional journalistic pieces that are laced with abusive epithets, ad hominem attacks, unflattering descriptions or mischaracterizations against their target. These can unconsciously slip into your vernacular in your desire to get the audience to “pile on” to a perceived common enemy in your story. While you may be successful in manipulating your audience to “pile on” in the short run, you also risk losing their trust in the long run if they catch on to what you’re doing.
MISTAKE #5: No Professional Standards
Young journalists don’t realize that what they put online is going to be there for a long time. Even if they get embarrassed and delete their mistake-ridden story, someone can always dig it up in the web archives, so be careful what you write and say. That said, rather than vetting information and confirming it before posting, today’s young journalists often publish info rapidly and try and confirm it along the way. This is partly because today’s media culture is so harried, but it can also be due to a lazy journalist just being lazy — lazy in their choice of words, sloppy with their facts, playing it fast and loose with their sources, being too gullible and quick to believe what they read in so-called internet news groups (which are oftentimes little more than gossip filled chat rooms).
To illustrate the Top Five Worst Mistakes a Journalist can make, we will use a podcast by Carrie Poppy and Ross Blocher, called “Oh No! Ross and Carrie!” Carrie Poppy is an investigative journalist fresh out of the USC journalism department. Even though she has graduated with a Master’s degree, we still find her committing all the above rookie mistakes and more. However, we’re using this study not to assign blame to Carrie Poppy and Ross Blocher. After all, they’re still new and more prone to these kinds of junior mistakes. We are only using their mistakes and mischaracterizations as a teaching tool, an illustration of how not to do it, how not to repeat these same mistakes yourself.
The forthcoming articles will illustrate these mistakes in greater detail.
– Richard Harvey is a journalism major from San Francisco and a first-time guest poster on this site.