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Apr 03 2012

What is a reporter?

Simone de Beauvoir famously said “One is not born a woman, one becomes one”. Recently I’ve heard a veteran editor paraphrase the very opposite about news reporters. “Either you are it or you are not. News reporters are a species”, she said.

The remark was made flippantly but I remembered having similar thoughts when I used to recruit news reporters back in Jerusalem in the late 1990s – early 2000s. We were a dedicated editorial team with big ideas and a lofty ethos, and we were adamant to unearth any bit of corruption in the municipality, the government or the army.

We nurtured dubiousness towards young people with ironed shirts and media degrees. Between us, we used to think of the reporters we wanted as “alley cats” – curious, hungry, shameless, relentless and suspicious to the point of paranoia. The kind of people who would search the floor of a meeting room to find notes passed between politicians and nag neighbours and eye witnesses to get access to places where they are not wanted. But we also knew that journalism cannot work without those we secretly referred to as “accountants” or “geeks” – those who would meticulously read through thousands of pages of protocols or expenses sheets and put their finger on the discrepancy that would shake the system or find the quote that would cause mass institutional embarrassment.

We didn’t attribute much importance to the ability to “write nicely”. We wanted people who could retrieve the information. Everything else, we could edit and make presentable.  We didn’t believe in good news and indeed, there was none to be found. We dealt with a corrupt municipality (Mayor at the time and later Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert currently standing trial, among other things, for corruption allegations exposed by these reporters), suicide bombings, an army that has lost any respect for international law in its conduct in the West Bank and successive governmental scandals.

The last decade has brought vast changes in journalism. Schools of journalism have replaced the somewhat vague media degrees and many of them seem to be doing a good job at training young reporters, especially those that provide some scope for real work experience. This is important, as while the “personality traits” of the “reporter specimen” are still invaluable, journalism is not merely a personality disorder (as more than one journalist described it to me over the years).

It is a trade. There’s a lot to be learned. Indeed, as any reporter worth their salt would admit – most of it is learned on the ground, by making your own mistakes, being shouted at by a grumpy editor for not cross-checking your information, and working with more experienced colleagues. And still, the changes in journalism over the last years make training of all sorts more and more important.

I often go on in this blog about the transformation of reporters into all-in-one units. You need to be able to gather information, cross check it, document it on camera, edit film, create packages and podcasts and write perfect copy that could go on line within minutes of being delivered. Piling up great information and trusting an editor back in the office to turn it into something readable is no longer going to cut it.  Similarly, one cannot rely on being saved from mistakes by in-house legal teams. The speed of all media nowadays, and the fact that so many journalists are freelancers, enhances even further the centrality of both reliability and liability. Each journalist has the responsibility to be aware of the rules, and laws, of ethics and slander or consequences could be dire both legally and professionally.

GRNLive’s Henry Peirse observes with concern the fact that what used to be known as “institutional knowledge” seems to be going out of fashion. “Knowing a beat, a story a country – every angle – covering all your life – this used to be the way people progressed in journalism. A very specific knowledge, unfashionable now, but vital. So that, for example, when a new policy is being introduced the reporter who has been covering that beat for years, recognises it to be the same old stuff in different packaging”. In an era of “parachuted journalism” when so many reporters are here today and halfway across the world tomorrow, this kind of knowledge is becoming more and more rare, hence uniquely valuable.

For many of us there’s a decisive moment in which we know we’ve been initiated as reporters. For me it was one day in 1998, holding the phone receiver with a shaking hand after having attached quite clumsily a borrowed recording device to it. I listened with horror to a policeman admitting to me to having sexually molested his young nieces for years, a torment which led one of the two to commit suicide in the most terrible fashion, setting herself on fire at the bottom of the desert cliff of Masada. It was the end of a journalistic investigation in which I was helped by a veteran journalist who had all the traits of a bloodhound. Together we’d chased documents across the country, pleaded, eavesdropped, infiltrated into private gatherings, hassled family, relatives and social services and scavenged pieces of a diary together to create a jigsaw of evidence. The day this man was sentenced to 7 years in prison was the first time my work made me cry. I also knew I was in the right profession.

When did you know you were a reporter “for real”? Join our conversation and share your story and insights!

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