The debate the other day over whether an undergraduate journalism degree is worth the money or not reminded me of an interview I had a couple of weeks ago for a constituency internship with a back bench MP (which I didn’t get) where I was virtually interrogated by the MP’s head of staff about the validity of ‘career journalists’ questioning ‘career politicians’.
Now, this guy clearly had a blanket hatred for journalists (although I got the impression that he had a reason for it) but it got me thinking about whether journalism is a richer or poorer industry for having so many wannabes entering it without much experience of the sectors they report on/write about.
Having never done any sort of journalism qualification I am probably not best placed to comment but from what I gather the main criticism levelled at them is that they ‘only teach you how to write’ and doing a non-vocational degree like English, History or Politics first gives you a much better understanding of the world you’re reporting on.
However, for those of us that do go down the latter route, if we run to a masters, an NTCJ short course or the first editorial assistant job that will have us, how can we say we have more ‘real world experience’? With the possible exception of investigative journalism, instead of entering journalism straight away, could the media industry be in better shape if its commentators and writers had had experience of the industries and sectors they are reporting on?
If we stop and consider a journalist’s fiction counterparts: authors, screenwriters, directors etc; they are constantly told to ‘write what they know’. It is said that a writer cannot accurately capture love, hate, jealousy etc if they have not experienced it themselves. So why would this not apply to journalists equally? After all, they are still writing about the human experience even if its in a different form.
Of course, not all financial journalists can start out on the floor of the London Stock Exchange and not all sports journalists can be retired professional footballers. But instead of many hacks focusing on getting experience directly in journalism at any magazine, newspaper or production company that will have them, maybe they should try experiencing what it is they are talking about?
Whatever happens, it will probably look good on your CV. I remember meeting a political writer from the Guardian at a party during my third year of university, and she advised me against doing a Masters because she got her job there with no training over a City graduate because she had had previous experience working in Westminster.
I know I certainly feel more knowledgeable about politics, the economy and society at large having studied how it has formed over the past 500 years during my History degree but I sometimes still can’t help feeling like a fraud; talking about the inner workings of Westminster and the motives of politicians when I’ve never seen what it’s like close up.
On the other hand however, the cost of university is going up and up and journalists are increasingly being drawn from the same private school bubble politicians are condemned for belonging to – leaving only a few brave/mad people entering the profession on a hope, a prayer and a graduate loan. Therefore as politicians, businessmen and journalists are becoming increasingly interconnected as they are drawn from a smaller and smaller section of the population it is perhaps best that journalists remain aloof from the people they write about.
The Leveson Inquiry is all the evidence we need about the dangers of politicians and journalists getting to close to each other.
Then there is investigative journalism which is a separate set of skills entirely. The ability to spot a story and pursue it until there is sufficient evidence is a skill that not all journalists possess. Perhaps it’s better to train them young and stop them from being too tainted by association with those whose wrongdoing they expose.
Truthfully, I don’t have an answer to this one. In theory, I want more direct experience of politics before I write about it professionally but as I have even fewer contacts and experience of politics I, rather bizarrely, have more chance of succeeding as a journalist than I do in any other part of the political sector. Futhermore, there is nothing I’d rather do, so why wait?
What do you think? Do you think that journalists are better or worse when they’ve got more experience of what they are writing about? Leave a comment below or tweet @wannabehacks.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look