A journalistic career
I would imagine that a lot of people blogging on wordpress or blogger or wherever probably harbour hopes of becoming a journalist. This is a fine and noble profession. At least it is if it is done correctly. The protector of free speech and the exposer of corruption is one of the most important people in a functioning liberal democracy. Why else would dictators and other trouble makers around the world imprison them and punish them for letting the world know what is going on? When journalists put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, camera to eye then the dictators know that they are soon going to have to start giving some thought to human rights and justice because the people are going to start hearing about them and they will eventually take action if they are being wronged. Naturally the journalist does not have a great time throughout a lot of this mistreatment.
In everyday life away from battle zones and horror the journalist’s life is not a great deal easier. Naturally there are some journalists who will spend their time simply sitting in an office interpreting the latest feeds from Reuters; they are just another bunch of office workers, like the rest of the slaves of the personal computer. Those who need to go out and source the news though do not have a good time. If you want to become a journalist, as many of you will then you really need to consider if it is the right move for you.
I decided to move in that direction many years ago and applied to study journalism at degree level because the normal thing to do when you wish to enter a field is to get a degree. Of course if you then decide the field is not for you then you have wasted three years of your life getting a useless degree. I escaped in the first year and transfered to law because I realised that the kind of journalist the degree course was for was the kind of journalist who would be working at the bottom level on the local newspapers around the country. It is probable that journalism is indeed a highly competitive area to enter. However everyone needs a milkman or supermarket checkout operator now and then but most people get by without journalists to a great extent even though society itself depends upon them. Despite the limited number of places available it is unlikely that there will be a great number of people to fill the places because a lot of people will point blank not wish to do it. Of those who do it there will be a lot who do not do it very well and of those who might wish to do it and might even be skilled at it they may not have the stomach for it.
My degree course had a number of modules in the obvious practical skills of copy writing, shorthand, page layout, etc; but the thing where it is easy to fall down on is actually getting the stories. If you can’t do that then you are little more than a secretary. Parts of the degree required finding random people in the street for voxpops, i.e. hearing the voice of the people, the vox populi. This is tricky if you are shy but not as bad as death knocks. Thankfully there was little opportunity for tutors to send the students out to do this but they made it clear that in a lot of instances the place to get a story was at the front door of grieving families who had just suffered a horrific loss.
Despite having left the degree to move onto another course it is plainly obvious from the fact that I am writing here that I have not abandoned the idea of publishing the written word for the public to read. I did learn a lot on my degree, although I believe in ignoring most of it, and I do always carry a camera for potential journalistic use. This evening I encountered a situation that a journalist on a local newspaper will at some point be forced to face that would make them wish they were on a battlefield bringing out the truth about the psychotic dictator who would probably be locking them in a dungeon next week. It was a situation that my wife had had to face a few times in her own time working on the local newspaper as a photojournalist. A serious traffic accident.
My training told me that this was a situation that needed to be reported. The bystanders who were watching attested to the interest that the public had. An entire section of the road around Cirencester was shut off this Sunday evening with the attendance of more police cars than I have ever seen in one place in Cirencester. The air ambulance appeared to have been called as there was a helicopter hovering above. There were also a number of ordinary ambulances parked alongside. It was difficult to see how much damage had been done because the area was so busy. There were far too many blue flashing lights to be able to see clearly from a distance. Certainly too many lights to allow a camera to take a photo from a distance.
Part of the training on a journalism degree is about the importance that the news should be reported. Just as there is importance in reporting a battlezone or a court case there is importance in reporting a road accident, especially one that looked as major as this evening’s. If road accidents were not reported then people wouldn’t realise the importance of road safety and the result would be more road accidents. Driving into Cheltenham this morning my wife mentioned the danger on the particular stretch of road we were using. I had never had any idea of the danger there before and had always travelled down there as fast as I liked. According to my wife there had been about eight fatalities on that stretch of road in the last four years. If people read about this then they would not travel fast; they would take care; there would be fewer fatalities. I never travelled down there thinking it could be the last thing I ever did. I went down there like a bat out of hell without a care in the world. My wife said the tendency was to report the story in a tiny little paragraph that barely anyone ever saw or remembered.
If people read these stories and remembered them then people would make sure to be more careful on that stretch of road and they would not get killed. The journalist could save those lives. Why was it that the story took such a small space? Largely because there were never enough photos to make it an important front page piece.
I found myself this evening in Cirencester with a camera in my hand and a major road accident. I don’t think there were any fatalities but the accident was definitely of the kind of magnitude to make for the kind of spectacular pictures that would get a story put around them that people would read and remember; the kind of story that would make people take care on that stretch of road.
I couldn’t do it. If I had been a jobbing journalist I would not have been able to do my job. My wife told me that she had only had to do it three times; it was the kind of job that no one wanted to do. It made me feel sick to even think about taking photos of what was a horrific and extremely personal moment for the people in that crash. The police were there keeping the situation under control and the paramedics were there making sure the victims survived. I have just explained that the journalist would be saving lives too, but that is not how it looks, nor is it how it feels. The journalist just looks as though he has taken rubbernecking to a professional level, a vulture making a living off the misfortune of the wounded. In that moment I would far rather have been under fire taking photos of scenes of carnage in Afghanistan, at least there would be some heroism in that. My wife had been here before, she suggested a better spot from which photos could be taken. I told her ‘no. Let’s go. This makes me feel ill.’
If you want to become a journalist then be aware that a journalism degree is not going to make you into a journalist. The degree will teach you the side of the job that you don’t want to know. If you write, then the way to do it is to just focus on the thing that drives you and get into that. Some people will be driven by the desire to report the news but those people are few and far between. Most publications are magazines and most writers are interested in writing for those magazines. Just be aware that a journalism degree is not going to focus on that kind of journalism. It is for the all rounders and it will teach you the murkiest harshest side of the career. Make sure that is what you want if you are going to apply. And remember, if you do get the degree it still won’t guarantee you the job.