So you want to be a journalist?

First loyalty is to the people

Tim Knight works out of Cape Town and for 10 years was head of TV journalism training at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

This column is the last of his series of Master Classes on the craft of Broadcast Journalism for The Journalist.

Let it be impressed upon your minds, let it be installed into your children, that the liberty of the press is the palladium of all the civil, political and religious rights.

Junius

In spite of what a lot of bosses want you to believe, journalism is not a business. For one thing, journalists — unlike politicians and businesspeople — have to know the difference between price and value.

Journalism is a craft.

And a cause.

Somebody once said that our job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Which means that the powerful can — and do — look after themselves. Very well indeed.

The people who need us are the weak, the powerless and the downtrodden. The screwees of this world.

To serve them is a duty, an honour and a privilege.

In fact, I can’t understand how anyone who cares about justice, integrity, generosity and democracy — given any choice — would want to be anything other than a journalist.

It’s by far the most satisfying, gratifying and important profession there is. And to cap it all, journalism can also be loads of fun.

So you want to be a journalist?

My ideal journalist — and an ideal view it is — has:

  • The ability to subordinate every personal interest to the service of the people.
  • A strong regard for individual liberty and social justice.
  • The ability and audacity to think independently — to bravely stand for those things you believe to be right.
  • A high opinion of freedom and democracy, along with a low opinion of hypocrisy, cant, patriotism and nationalism, those first refuges of the scoundrel.
  • A need to challenge conventional mores and accepted wisdom.
  • An ability to see powerful institutions — political, religious, social, financial etc. — as they actually are, rather than as they would like to be seen.
  • Maturity enough to be both rugged individualist and committed team player.
  • A genuinely inquiring mind.
  • Confidence without arrogance. Modesty without subservience. Courage without recklessness. Skepticism without cynicism.
  • A love of reading and the ability to write and report simply and accurately about complex matters.
  • Maturity enough to understand that when you cover a story — any story, including war — you’re not reporting as a woman or a black person or a Christian, or a South African. You’re a journalist. You have no gender, colour, religion or nationality. You’re the classic disinterested (but not uninterested) observer.
  • An undated letter of resignation in your back pocket.

The first loyalty of us journalists is not to our employer. Nor to any union. Or cause. Or nation.

Our first is to the people.

We are the protectors of society, guardians of the free marketplace of ideas — one of the glories of democracy — and watchdogs over the use and abuse of power, whether political, economic or religious.

Which gives us, for good or ill, great power ourselves.

But such power can lead to corruption. Not usually financial corruption, the curse of politicians and businesspeople, but ethical corruption.

(In all my years as a journalist I can count on the fingers of one hand the colleagues who ever broke the journalistic rules to their own financial advantage — excluding, of course, a little creative writing of expense accounts which is considered a grand old tradition and should be cherished).

No. Journalistic corruption comes when journalists abandon the people and become part of the ruling class — the Establishment — and live comfortably apart from the real world ever after.

Establishment journalism builds a wall around itself. And Establishment journalists living in the shelter behind the wall start to believe that being bricked in is normal and natural.

After a while, they can’t even see the wall that stands there, blocking their view of the outside world.

When that happens, these journalists no longer make journalistic judgments through the eyes and needs of the people.

Instead they make journalistic judgments through the eyes and needs of their fellow members of the Establishment.

They stop being independent (sometimes subversive) journalists devoted to the people’s right to know.

Instead, they become mere employees, pragmatists serving the greater good of the status quo, the employer, or the cause (whatever it is).

And when that happens — when journalists abuse their power by joining the powerful — something rare and precious and vital to democracy inevitably dies.

Journalists sometimes take incredible risks to bring information to the viewer, listener and reader.

The highly respected international, non-profit NGO, Reporters Without Borders, reports that so far around the world this year, 48 professional journalists (and 13 netizens and citizen journalists) have been killed in the line of duty.

That’s roughly one of us every week.

During the same ten months, another 314 journalists have been imprisoned.

So why do we risk our lives to cover news stories?

After all, we don’t have to go to such hellholes as Syria or Iraq or Sudan or Somalia to practise our craft.

We aren’t drafted. Each one of us can find excellent reasons for staying out of such wars.

But we go.

And we do the job as well as we can.

And some of us die.

We go because we believe, along with Reporters Without Borders, that:

“Freedom of expression and of information will always be the world’s most important freedom.”
And “almost half the world’s population is still denied” that freedom.

Most of us, of course, won’t ever get the chance to cover foreign wars.

But that doesn’t lessen our responsibility to the people as their protectors, guardians and watchdogs.

The same journalistic ethics apply whether we’re covering a war in Syria or a meeting of the local school board.

We really have no choice.

Not if we believe that journalism is public service.

Not if we believe that it’s an honour to be a servant of the people.

It’s the eleventh instalment in Knight’s Master Classes for The Journalist on the craft of broadcast journalism. Earlier columns were The Business of Social Journalism, How to Interview (parts 1 and 2), The Unknown SABC Story (parts 1, 2 and 3), Storytelling Is Magic, Screw The Inverted Pyramid and The Curse of the MAMCWWM, Write Like You Speak and Expose Yourself on TV (parts 1, 2 and 3) and Knight’s Theory of Bedtime Conditioning.

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