The Good and Bad Practices in Journalism

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Journalism internships at media outlets teach us useful techniques, lend us valuable tools, and provide experiences and strategies highly useful for producing quality work.

Newsrooms themselves, however, are universes in which the best practices of the trade can sometimes converge with vices and bad habits to undermine credibility, integrity and future employment of would-be journalists. And in journalism, once credibility is lost, it is difficult to regain.

We reached out to David Haldane for his ideas on journalistic practices. He’s an American journalist, author, columnist, and sometimes radio host with numerous accolades and a distinguished career including 23 years on staff at the Los Angeles Times, where he wrote about a wide range of topics and helped cover two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories.

He has published several books and many essays, including some focused on the central theme of searching for a permanent and meaningful home, both physical and spiritually.

Haldane’s memoir, Nazis & Nudists (2015), and another forthcoming book entitled A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino, both focus extensively on this topic. David also writes a weekly column for the Mindanao Gold Star Daily on expat life in the Philippines, where he and his family currently reside.

Here then is the advice of Haldane and other experts on the do’s and don’ts of professional journalism:  

  1. Don’t assume you know everything.

Although it’s the responsibility of journalists to handle general cultural issues, to be moderately informed of the reality of their environments and to continue training after passing through the university, this doesn’t imply that they dominate the world.

Maturity and responsibility are necessary to assume the kind of professionalism requiring constant learning. Colleagues, often experts in different subjects, can always teach us ethical, professional and technical lessons.

It isn’t a crime or sign of weakness for a journalist to admit being unaware of certain things or to ask for input from others. Nor is it in any way demeaning to acknowledge the efforts of those who offer support.

  1. Do be observant.

This detail cannot be overlooked. Observing the environment and asking questions is the key to obtaining valuable information and, at times, can even help maintain safety.

Rather than spend time staring at the screen of your cell phone, spend it observing the environment and periphery of your surroundings.

In adverse contexts, such as the coverage of protests, wars, or natural disasters, such close observation can make the difference between life and death.

  1. Don’t bet on technology to save the memory.

The good office of journalism does not require an elephant’s memory, but neither does it recommend betting everything on technological devices such as recorders, videos and photographs.

Among the instruments of every good journalist, the humble pencil and paper should never be overlooked. Sometimes in our highly technological age, after becoming familiar with various sources, interviewees and topics of coverage, a journalist may rely too heavily on a press release, unreliable memory, or even recorded video and audio, as the unwitting accomplices of an agonizingly blank mind. Never put yourself in the position of having to ask, “why didn’t I write that down?”

One of Haldane’s favorite stories from his years at the LA Times recalls a long interview he did with James Ellroy on the publication of the bestselling author’s breakthrough 1987 novel, “The Black Dahlia.” After an hours-long talk over lunch for a major cover profile in the paper’s feature section, Haldane returned to the newsroom only to discover that he’d left his notebook behind. Rushing back to the restaurant for a thorough search proved unfruitful. The only solution: an embarrassing call to Ellroy to re-schedule a complete do-over for the next day. Fortunately the famous author, also then in the early stages of his career, did not object. And the ensuing article became an authoritative source, quoted for decades, on what was to become a major turning point in Ellroy’s literary career. Which perfectly exemplifies another basic journalistic necessity, namely:

  1. Do be prepared to improvise.

Things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes required sources aren’t available, or don’t say what you expect them to say. And, obviously, sometimes things can go horribly wrong.

So give yourself a break by coming prepared. Know what you’re going to do. And if, for whatever reason, you can’t do that, then come up with – or have prepared – an alternate plan.

  1. Don’t let egotism get in the way.

This profession gives a voice to those who otherwise might not have one. Journalism, however, like any profession, requires complementarity and cooperation in order to succeed.

Remember that no matter how skilled you become, what awards and recognition you receive, or how high you rise in the profession, journalism is about people working collectively for a single mission: to report.

Although the work of a journalist is usually published under the name of its immediate author, never forget that other journalists, graphic designers, photographers, cameramen, editors, proofreaders, sources and even humble assistants who prepare coffee and clean meeting rooms participate in the process.

  1. Do maintain a separation from the source.

In the journalistic enterprise, any personal link to the subject or source of coverage should be avoided or kept to a minimum. Otherwise, serious conflicts of interest may occur.

  1. Do not become the “judge or prosecutor” of the subject on which you are reporting.

The journalist’s job is to inform rather than pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of any person; that is what judges are for. With the victim writhing in pain on the ground after a horrible motorcycle accident, in other words, don’t stick a microphone in his face and accuse him of being drunk.

  1. Do refrain from letting your own religious beliefs or political ideology frame the context or facts of a news story.

Religious belief and/or political ideology should not be expressed, nor affect the presentation of any story not on the opinion page or otherwise marked as opinion.  Stating alleged facts, contrasting information and consulting witnesses or experts is necessary to inform. Editorializing, except in an editorial, is simply unethical.

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