One of the biggest benefits of the Missouri School of Journalism is the Missouri Method, which allows students to learn in real-life situations. Media outlets that serve mid-Missouri also serve as our training ground. We stick our arms into the dough and start kneading, rather than watching someone else do it.
But I have made plenty of mistakes as a student-professional. One of the biggest challenges has been learning professionalism in a very ethics-centered profession. The lessons have been tough:
1. I want to be friends with everyone I interview. As a journalist, I can’t. I need to maintain a position where I could write any story without worrying about offending someone I have a personal, friendship relationship with.
I talked to a couple of sports reporters who are now at the top of the field about how they maintain relationships with sources without being too close. I got advice including “tell them you’re not friends” and “you can be friendly, but you still have to be able to write the DUI story when it comes up.”
When you’re a beat writer, you spend a lot of time with one group of people. I love people, and I love sports. One of my advisors said maybe I should write about something less dear to my heart.
2. I want to be a fan at every game I watch. Missouri Honor Medalist Greg Lee told me I just have to swallow my fandom: Hope for wins so you can write good stories, he said. It’s tough not to have a preference when a team is on a 25-game winning streak, but I’m learning to not care who wins.
3. I also am learning to swallow my opinions, which is ironic because I’ve finally developed and solidified many opinions since coming to grad school. Case in point: I accidently broke a conflict of interest policy by signing a small local petition in my home state early in the semester. I sign petitions once or twice every twenty years, so I never thought I’d have to worry about breaking the rule against “political lobbying.” I didn’t even realize what I’d done until over a month later, when open records and petitions came up in my law class.
I hate having to keep my mouth shut, and I ADORE transparency, but I also recognize the need for objectivity in journalism. (Perhaps journalists should only value democracy and objectivity.) I don’t want to read the New York Times and see strong bias in the writing. But I also am not sure that our solution — have journalists be bland members of society — is the solution. Some suggest that journalists shouldn’t vote, and Mike Allen makes a very convincing case. But John Harris returns with this statement:
“My belief is that being a journalist for an ideologically neutral publication like Politico, or the Washington Post, where I used to work, does not mean having no opinions. It means exercising self-discipline in the public expression of those opinions so as not to give sources and readers cause to question someone’s commitment to fairness.”
Hm. Looks like I still have some thinking — and learning — to do here in Columbia, Mo.