Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 5, 2002

Newsroom teaches fundamental lessons

Work in a newsroom for a while and you’ll learn a few life lessons. These lessons, however, aren’t useful for journalists only; almost anyone can benefit from heeding these newsroom tips:

Wear your seat belt. When there’s a fatal or serious injury wreck, the newspaper frequently has multiple photos from the scene to choose from, including some that are too graphic to print. Look at a couple of these and you’ll be buckling up whenever you slide into a car.

I’ve been a confirmed seat-belt wearer my entire life; I’m just not much of a risk taker – I don’t smoke, don’t skydive, don’t even enjoy gambling. But even the most adventurous person wouldn’t have to cover many accidents to notice a definite pattern: People who don’t wear seatbelts – regardless of who’s at fault in the crash – die in accidents a lot more frequently than folks who buckle up.

• Teamwork is important. Journalists tend to think verbally, photojournalists visually. Together, it’s a potent combination.

Although I take issue with the old saw that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” photos are undeniably powerful.

An average news story runs 600 to 750 words, and I don’t know of any photo that could replace an article, but good photographs can add a dimension that the most gifted writer would be hard-pressed to describe.

By the same token, even the most telling news photo still needs words to complete it. Of course the words comprising the photo credit are most important to the photographer, but the reader has other needs, also known as journalism’s famous five W’s: Who are the people in the photo, when and where was it taken, what were they doing and why were they doing it.

• Manners count. Journalists frequently have to deal with the same people repeatedly, including politicians, committee members and community leaders. Be polite, and they’re going to be much more likely to return phone calls, answer questions, share story tips and be helpful in general. It’s in anyone’s self-interest to treat sources – and everyone – with respect.

But, like life, this is a two-way street. Those who deal with the media need to remember their manners, too. When a reporter calls seeking comment on a story, remember, he or she has a job to do. It’s nothing personal. Return the call, even if it’s just to say (politely) “no comment.”

It’s also important for those who find themselves in the media spotlight to remember that the vast majority of journalists are trying to present a fair, balanced story. The report may not contain the ‘spin’ that the subject would like, but that’s not the journalist’s job.

• Don’t assume anything. The truism about assumptions turning you into a donkey’s behind is a lesson most journalists learn early. Verify name spellings – even Smith and Johnson, which Murphy’s Law guarantees will be Smythe and Johnsen if you don’t – as well as any detail you haven’t checked.

A corrollary lesson is to proofread everything multiple times. A writer – whether a newspaper reporter, resume writer or business paper author – is intimately familiar with his or her work, and it’s amazing how the mind will fill in missing words, skip duplicated words,or read the wrong word the way it was meant to be, not the way it was actually written.

• Plan ahead, but be flexible. How’s tht for asking for the moon? Nevertheless, it’s critical. In the news business, we have to plan ahead for stories and photo assignments, or we’d be distributing blank newspapers. But the operative word is news, and when it breaks we have to change our plans.

Planning and flexibility are incredibly useful outside the newsroom, too. The ability to roll with the punches makes life much less stressful and much more enjoyable.

• Respect deadlines. The most life-changing, shocking or passionate story is not useful to anyone – editors, advertisers or readers – if it’s not turned in on time to be printed.

Besides being a pain in the proverbial behind, deadlines are also useful. They serve to sharpen a writer’s focus, and to force creativity. When a reporter can’t get needed information from one source, he or she has to find it somewhere else. Sometimes, the not-so-obvious source turns out to be better than the original – more articulate, or just a fresh voice.

There you have six lessons – some easier to heed than others – that will put anyone in good stead in almost any area of life. But there’s one thing thae newsroom hasn’t taught me: how to make following advice as easy as giving it.


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