Many people have an incorrect idea of what it is to be a journalist. Indeed, it is very complicated to define who a journalist is and what they do.
The word journalist comes from the French journaliste, derived from jour (day), journalier (daily) and latin diurnalis. At first, a journal was a book where the daily acts were written. It evolved to be the newspaper we know now, telling the news of the day.
But, what is a journalist? What is the reality behind the word? Every day, we all access some kind of content that was created by a journalist, whether it is the news on TV, a radio show, a documentary, an article on social media, etc. For better or for worse, journalism is everywhere, and journalists are not always portrayed as they should.
In this article, I would like to share what it can be like to be a journalist. Of course, I am a young journalist, with a lot to learn; I can only speak about my experience and everything I have learned so far.
Let’s start at the beginning: the unrealistic depiction of journalists and the unreachable expectations. Yes, I want to talk about fictional journalists and how these characterizations to a real occupation gave quite the reputation to the job.
When I think of fictional journalists, I first think of Lois Lane and all her comics friends (Marvel or DC). That’s the superhero journalist. They help fight bad guys, always want to bring justice and truth to the world. They are in the middle of the action, and they want to serve a greater purpose. They are “bad ass”, adventurers and travelers. That sounds amazing. Who wouldn’t like to be the good guy that writes a killer article on corrupt politicians or witnesses the daily fight of heroes around the world?
Reality is very different – and a lot less romanticised. It is not that easy to write an article on a corrupted figure, have it published, and then go to sleep feeling safe. The same way, journalists in the middle of the action, in war zones, don’t get back to their homes every night. They take risks, sometimes live through traumas that haunt them, or get kidnapped, tortured, and killed more often than you know. It is a vocation, a call, and only a few chosen ones live this life.
Then, you have the corrupted journalist, whether corrupted by power figures or fame or just so focused on being on the front page that they forgot common decency. If you think that journalists are ruthless, corrupted, untrustworthy, manipulated or manipulative, then this one’s for you.
How many times in movies or TV shows have we seen a journalist publishing what was supposed to be confidencial? Or a journalist harassing someone to have info, entering their houses, following them, or hack their computer, all for a headline, a front page, or a corrupted power figure? I am thinking Rita Skeeter in Harry Potter, countless episodes of Smallville where a journalist only wants to publish what matches their beliefs, Miranda Priestly being the worst human being in The Devil Wears Prada, or the reporter in 27 Dresses that publishes the pictures and the article behind the girl’s back.
But, let’s bring this closer to home: how many times, in real life, do people blame journalists for what they report? Politicians will blame journalists, saying they are biased and corrupted by their opponents. Civilians will blame journalists when they didn’t bring light on an issue no one had any idea existed. They will also blame them when they do bring up issues that end up having consequences on their lives. Yes, not all journalists are good, decent human beings: some are indeed corrupted, but it’s not fair to blame an entire profession for the mistakes of a few.
Finally, there is my favorite fake journalist kind: the too-personal journalist, in the likes of Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and The City) or Jane Sloan (The Bold Type). Women writing for women, using personal issues for article ideas, and making a show out of it. Sure, we all get inspired a little bit by our personal lives, but we have to be able to write about something regardless if it affects us or not. It is highly unrealistic to believe that I can go to my editor and say that, because I am going through something, I will write about it.
I think the closest fictional journalist to reality would be Rory Gilmore, from the Gilmore Girls show. She is a student, writes articles about her school, has an editor, and is assigned a beat. Yet, she has it quite easy. She studies at Yale, has grandparents with money, a boyfriend whose father is one the owner of world-renowned American newspaper presses. She works hard, sounds smart, but any journalist would tell you that it is not enough to make it. She has the name of a fancy school and a relatively extensive network, that’s the difference. The most reliable part would be the revival, where we discover that Rory is unemployed, had only one big article, has trouble finding a job, and has to have a pitch always ready if she wants work. Now, we are getting close to reality.
What makes a journalist?
Most up-and-coming journalists study journalism, communications, or English. However, there is not only one path to follow to become a journalist. Many have different backgrounds and bring other experiences with them. There is not one profile to being a journalist, even though there are some true cliché: a journalist often likes to read, write, have opinions they like to share, and want to make a change in the world.
Have you ever realised that many journalists are also writers, as well as many other things? Maybe it is actually the other way around: people are a lot of things and also journalists. That is also maybe why there are so many of us. Everyone thinks it’s one of the easiest jobs. We just sit and write about whatever we want. It is like writing a school essay. I can tell you right now that it is a bit more complicated than that.
Can anyone be a journalist? No, but everyone can have a shot at it. We all have the potential for one or two great articles about something we care about and are specialised in. Time splits specialists from journalists – not everyone will have the patience and the passion to keep on writing, day in day out, about different things.
To answer what makes a journalist is nearly impossible. There are many types of journalists, divided by the type of journalism they do. There is online journalism, blogs (though it is not always journalism), TV, radio, newspapers, documentaries… There also are new kinds of journalism, thanks to social media: videos or posts shared online. It raises the question where amateurism stops and journalism starts?
The day to day reality
As I said before, being a journalist is not all fun and “let’s write about myself”, says the journalist writing about being a journalist. An article must have a point and some added value. It can share information, be a testimony, or give advice. It works as long as readers get something out of it. So, what is my point here? That being a journalist is not what people imagine.
First of all, jobs are hard to come by: paying jobs. Big companies ask for a lot of experience, a unique style, an opinion and yet to be unbiased. We have to be ready to work for nothing, have no recognition for our work and keep on writing until we have an ample portfolio.
Then, we have to be relevant and be able to write about what people want to read. Pretty unclear, right? That is, unfortunately, how it works. Every company has a unique target audience. Some companies will assign articles, which can be annoying but convenient. Others expect journalists to know what their targeted audience wants. It is the reason why many people are writing about the same things: if it worked at some place, they hope it will work somewhere else too.
Now, add Covid to the equation.
When thinking about journalism, people think of TV, cameras, fields, war zones, interviews. Well, not as much anymore. TV journalism stayed the same, but not online journalism. People stay at home: it’s hard to talk about restaurants, activities, travels when everything is closed. A new kind of journalism from home emerged, where we try to stay optimistic and spend a lot of time rating movies, books, songs, or write articles on people that got impacted by Covid. We are far from Lois Lane.
I have been a journalist for about 5 minutes, and yet I feel that I know the basics of the job. I was one of the people growing up, wanting to be somewhere between Lois Lane and Rory Gilmore. Quality journalism, acute sense of duty, and I am not against Clark Kent by my side.
The reality is much more lonely. No one is hiring; the only gigs are unpaid. I spend my days home alone, writing about diverse things. I spend a couple of days on each article, I try to gather as much info as possible before sending my work to be edited. Now, I only have to change a few things: do the final touches, get the layout ready, prepare a caption for social media, schedule publication, and continue with another work. Rinse and repeat.
What I did not expect was the insecurities that come with being published. The numbers. I always thought Youtubers were a bit crazy when talking about views and numbers, what is working and what is not. I was never one to care about what people could think of me – until I had the chance to see how many people are actually reading my articles.
I am not sure which is worse between getting hate for your work or getting ignored. I don’t wish hate on anybody, but working for days on an article, believing in it, sharing it to your family, to see almost no one caring about it is not the greatest feeling in the world. You start to wonder if you are good enough, if your work is good enough, if you should do something else. You wish you could change a sentence, add more details. It is hard to let go and accept that once an article is written, it is out of the journalist’s hands. Sometimes the article was good and didn’t find its audience.
Out of all the journalists, probably about 20% work for big channels, famous newspapers, or big websites. Being part of the 20% is what we reach for. Until then, it’s a long and lonely path of unpaid internships, failed articles, self promotion and wasted ideas.
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Here are a few important things to keep in mind about being a journalist or wanting to be one.
Always be true to yourself: never write things that make you uncomfortable. It will be out there and can always come back later.
Research as much as you can: writing is fun, but an article has to be accurate. The more you know about the subject, the better the article will be. I know I am always worried about writing something very wrong and realising it too late.
Take time to write about things you care for: maybe it will not be published, or not right away, but you will enjoy working on it, and you can always have it saved for job prospects.
Keep track of everything you post: make a list, save the drafts, have it somewhere safe. You need to be able to access your work, either to share it or to use it.
Be open to feedback and editing: you love this sentence but your editor says no? Ask why, and grow from it. Sometimes, some sentences are too aggressive or unclear: what is fun and clear for you can be wildy interpreted by others.
Most importantly try: maybe you won’t like being a journalist, but you cannot know if you don’t try. Start small first: a blog, the school newspaper, a small website. Get your feet wet and see if you like it. It takes time to feel confident.
For the longest time, I was scared to put myself out there, scared I wouldn’t be able to write long enough and good enough content, scared I would get hate for what I write. Today, I am happy I took that leap of faith: am I the best journalist there is? Of course not, far from it. Do I always put out great content? Probably not. But, does it make me happy to learn, write, and share? Yes, and that is what makes me a journalist.