Skills for journalists: Again, the question

What skills does today’s journalist need to have? I do not think this question has only one answer.

In a comment on a blog post by Robert Hernandez, Michael Grimaldi wrote:

The highest skill of journalism is knowing the number of questions to ask, how many people of whom to ask them, and then reporting the answers as thoroughly and accurately as possible to convey the truth.

That’s journalism. The rest of it (touch typing vs. hunt-and-peck, spreadsheet software, graphic design/page layout, programming, code, photography or whatever) is technical skill and important to know, but, I suggest, not the essence of the profession and vocation of journalism.

Knowing which questions to ask — and of whom to ask them, and where to find those people (or those data sets) and how to get them to give you answers — yup, absolutely, these are essential skills …

For a reporter. But it takes more than reporters to produce journalism, and it always did. No, I’m not going to claim that the pressman was a journalist — he was not. And the IT guy is not a journalist either. But I think Michael Grimaldi and others who agree with him need to recognize that editors and designers and photojournalists and data journalists are, in fact, journalists.

They do journalism work. They produce journalism. And they don’t all go out with a pen and a notebook and ask questions of people on the street.

They do, however, ask questions. Lots of questions.

If you don’t understand that a graphic designer asks (and finds answers to) a very large number of questions before producing something like this, then I would suggest you do not understand how journalism is done in 2010.

See more opinions about data journalism: My Delicious bookmarks for data + journalism.

6 Comments on “Skills for journalists: Again, the question

  1. Well said. To define question as asking questions and reporting the answers is a one-dimensional view of journalism. It does not recognise interrogating and representing data is journalism, how one photo can be a far more powerful work of journalism than 2,000 words.

    Dismissing everything else as a “technical skill” also underestimates how important it is to conceptually understand the affordances of different types of media and story-telling.

  2. Someone made a nice comment to me the other day that journalists traditionally recognise asking questions of people as a key skill but not asking questions of data.

  3. It’s baffling to me that this split continues in 2010.

  4. It’s baffling to me that this split continues in 2010.

    Not to me at all. Wait long enough and you’ll see another round of “are bloggers journalists?” come up.

    As an aside, I wonder what the commenter would say about photojournalists?

  5. I think the criticism here of Mr.Grimaldi is a bit harsh. I think he’s saying at the heart of it – “highest skill” – you need the ability to question to ferret out the truth to be a journalist — whether your a reporter, editor, copy editor, photographer, graphic designer, etc.

    This method of objective reporting is what’s most important. And it goes on throughout the editing and production process as we question each other to eliminate as much bias as possible.

    I agree the rest is just technology that provides us ways to communicate that information through either print, online, broadcast, words, pictures or video. To be successful you need skills in both, but I would argue you’re doing something else if you fail to have that commitment the truth that relies on how to question things.

  6. Hi, Mindy:

    Thanks for the further comment and reflection on my comment about the vocation and the profession of journalism.

    Some have taken my reply too literally. I did not mean that “reporting” in the traditional sense was the only expression of journalism. A photojournalist reports with images, not words. I most definitely consider editors, designers, photojournalists and data journalists to be journalists. They must be question askers, too. Many of the best journalists I worked with were copy editors who never talked to a source.

    I do not dismiss technical skills; each journalist expresses the truth through those skills. For some, it’s grammar and vocabulary. For others, its f-stops and lighting.

    A photojournalist on assignment must understand why the images being captured are important to communicating the truth. This means knowing more than how to capture the image; it means the photojournalist ought to have a sense of the history, culture, philosophy or other context the subject. The photojournalist needs to ask questions to do the job right.

    Much journalistic question-asking occurs among journalists. Designers, data journalists, as well as assignment, managing and copy editors must challenge a reporter, and vice versa. This is how journalists learn and then communicate the truth.

    Are bloggers journalists? The best ones are, because they ask questions of others before they blog. The problem is that not all bloggers are created equal. (Of course, not all newspapers, magazines or television news stations are, either.) For many bloggers, “first” is more important than “right” or “complete.” This doesn’t devalue their work; it simply means their work must be consumed and understood in its correct context.

    I especially Like Chris’s comment that you’re doing something else if you fail to have that commitment to truth that relies on how to question things.

    – Michael Grimaldi

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