What a Journalist Needs
A veteran newspaperman and curator of the Nieman Fellowships at Harvard University for the past eighteen years, LOUIS M. LYONS has worked at home and abroad with the foremost journalists of our time. He is widely known also for his news analysis, which is carried on many educational television stations. Whether the journalism school offers any advantages over learning on the job is a question on which few Americans could speak with more authority.
WHEN an editor hires a reporter, he hopes to get not an encyclopedia but a man with the capacity for finding the answers and communicating them effectively. How do we identify and how do we educate good journalists?
Writing is the tool of the journalist’s trade, whether his product will be published or broadcast. Good writing is one of the hardest products to come by, as every editor will attest. Journalism requires a lean, muscular prose that marches on strong verbs to clear, precise statement of facts. A skeptic may doubt that writers can be made by teaching, especially in an age that has seen most good grammar recede into mystery, but it is still true that writing can be improved by practice and conditioned by good reading.
The editor’s first problem is to discover and select people who can write decently. Having always a plethora of applicants, most of them under delusions of glamour about the job, the editor usually hires only when he is short a man at the moment. Too often it is a sheer gamble and one which results in as high a proportion of misfits as in any calling.
The editor is quick to blame this on the schools of journalism. They are to blame insofar as they have responded to his pressures to devote their most intensive labors to training people for the tricks of the trade — to concoct leads and write heads and to think in terms of “human interest” instead of striving to write copy that will be intelligible and informing. Every trade has its tricks, which are readily learned on the job and probably never effectively acquired any other way. The trouble with so much “journalism education” as presented is, first, that it steals time from the broad-based education the journalist should have; and second, that it drills the student in conventional forms that may already be out-of-date in a medium that can never move fast enough to keep up with change. Would Luce and Hadden ever have created a new form with Time if their preparation had been limited by the prescriptions of journalism courses? I don’t suppose a journalism school would expect to produce either a Herblock or a Walter Lippmann. But what would journalism be without such men?
Most professional schools build their specialization on top of a general education, and require their professional student to have completed the four years of college. But journalism schools have sold journalism short as a profession in not requiring that the basic education come first. They take their professional curriculum out of the few precious years of college, with a resulting loss. Columbia’s graduate school of journalism is the only exception.
The pace and pressure of the journalist’s work, furthermore, give him scant chance to fill in the gaps in his cultural background. The panorama of the day’s assignments is so variable from day to day, and the deadline so inexorable, that the journalist is flung into his assignment with what he carries under his hat.
James Reston has vividly described the necessity of the journalist to give his assignment everything at the moment the news is hot. Tonight he may read up on it. Tomorrow he may be able to consult an authority. But tomorrow is too late. The story has gone off the front page. The journalist has to work against the clock. This is the limitation and the opportunity of his task. A million readers will decide the issue upon what they found or failed to find on the front page of their newspapers.
The pressures on news space have become so great that condensation is the skill in most demand for the great body of the news. Gone are the days when a Van Anda paid a premium for every additional fact in a New York Times story. But the column rules will still bend for the big story. When Herbert Matthews achieves a dramatic interview with the Cuban rebel chief in his secret fastness, the Times throws open a whole page for it. When Homer Bigart explores a new frontier war, there is no problem of either space or cable costs. When John Hersey reconstructs the tragedy of Hiroshima, the New Yorker turns over the whole magazine for it. Writing is by no means a lost art in journalism.
But the finest stylist may still be a very imperfect journalist if he lacks the many other dimensions of his demanding craft.
The first essential for the journalist is to realize that education must be continuing — that he will learn something from every new assignment if he can keep alive his interest for the quest. He also needs to appreciate both the importance and the difficulty of independence of mind. For the dominant pressures in his work are apt to discourage it or even eliminate it. He must assert his independent view boldly and maintain it stoutly once he has honestly reached it on the basis of his findings; it is all too easy for such individuality to be smothered in the grooves of whatever is commercially profitable or politically comfortable.
The journalist of integrity will have to stand up again and again for the necessity to publish or broadcast facts that will be unpalatable to some; to insist on repeating truths that have become uncomfortable. The cards will usually be stacked against him, for the stakes on the side of following the path of least resistance are always high.
Journalistic standards can be high in America, but they are in the main individual standards, and so their uniformity cannot be certified. If they characterize an institution, it is because of the individual who planted them there. They do not grow automatically in commercial journalism; they will be sustained only by stubborn insistence of individuals who will sometimes have to be unpleasant about it.
Such toughness is not developed by “vocational” courses, nor do their faculties present the continuing criticism of journalism that our law schools do of the law. The lack is more than one of curriculum. It is a lack of character and responsibility— of a realization of the full dimension of the journalist’s role in society. These are the most conspicuous and fatal defects in the bulk of current journalism education, and they demonstrate that our education for journalism is not good enough. It is true that the standards of the employers are no higher. But it is in the nature of a school rather than of a business that it should cultivate the character, courage, and criticism required.
Few legends are more pervasive on the American campus than the legend that repressive and restrictive forces limit the role of the press. This legend paints an exaggerated picture of our journalistic limitations. But it is supported by enough evidence in the local press and the experience of students’ older friends to persist as a factor in diverting students of talent and character away from journalism. Relatively low pay and the lack of any effort by most of the press to get at the best available talent are other factors. But neither of these counts as much with men who are willing to dedicate themselves to a calling as the conviction that their dedication is not wanted, that principles must be compromised and the searcher turned into the sensationalist. This murky picture may be out of perspective, but its persistence is a major factor in limiting the field for journalism and peopling it with the too familiar cynic.
Insurance against cynicism is a priceless asset for the journalist, for cynicism is one of the commonest faults of his craft. Who is to steer him to a sure source of values that will prove durable under the stress of his trade? Some men find philosophy in history, some in literature, some in the classics, some in science. Certainty about means can be treacherous, but exposure to possible means is the function of education.
The lessons learned, one hopes, will include ability to distinguish the important from the trivial, the real from the phony. But this cannot be guaranteed. The faculty, like the coach, must have material to work on. Those who manage our communications media cannot escape responsibility for selecting those who have what it takes.
Journalism is a daily education for the man with any capacity for it. The incitement of journalism is its own incentive to learn. Great editors have been produced by the impact of life upon them as they watched and described its activity. All is grist for the journalist’s mill: he picks up a useful background almost in spite of what we call education. Often the kind of formal schooling he had seems to be a minor factor in his actual preparation. One way and another he has filled out a background for his job.
Walter Lippmann began as a researcher (we would say today) for Lincoln Steffens. James Reston began as publicity man for the Cincinnati Reds. James Morgan began as a telegrapher. Christopher Rand started in the insurance business. Edwin Lahey, leaving school in the eighth grade, used to read Dickens on his freight-handling job and amused himself by trying to write sentences like Dickens’. A generation of Chicago Daily News readers have had reason to be grateful for the color and movement of Lahey’s model.
So let no one be dogmatic about the studies of the journalist. Only give him a chance to fill up his mind. One may safely suggest the great literature, in order to know what men have thought. Equally, of course, history, to understand the world he will be trying to describe, and primarily American history, if only because his reporting will be chiefly on the American scene. This will include the history of journalism and journalism as a factor in history.
The inquiring mind will want to know enough about science to understand the scientist, enough about economics to realize that most political issues have an economic base, and enough about the arts and professions to understand at least their vocabulary. Let the journalist study languages not alone for their utility in reporting abroad but for the incidental acquaintance they yield of other cultures, other literatures, and most of all for the facility they promote in more flexible and precise use of English.
Beyond conscientious industry in pursuing a trail and checking his facts, the journalist needs to be able to know what he’s got when he’s got it. The tools of the researcher are invaluable. A little knowledge of statistics will often save one from being fooled by them. Even a little mathematics, if understood, will help to estimate the probabilities in handling vast and imponderable figures. When Ed Lahey was a Nieman Fellow, I joshed him for spending some of his precious year on so mundane a study as accounting. “I’m going to be able to pick out the loaded dice in a municipal budget,” he said. I’m sure his accounting has given expert confidence to his fisheyed skepticism about this very special field of mythology.
Whatever else, a journalist must learn to read. He needs to read vastly, and to select swiftly what he must extract.
One’s own keenest interest is the surest guide to profitable study. To know something well is vital. To dig into any subject is to discover unsuspected relationships with other fields. Relationships are perhaps the most important things for a journalist to understand.
If we think we can prescribe the tools of the journalist, what then? How do we educate for the qualities journalism demands? How does one learn competence without cockiness, caution without timidity, skepticism without cynicism, responsibility without egotism?
How docs one educate for judgment, for resourcefulness, for courage to withstand pressure, for capacity to sift out the sense and the fact from a jungle of claims? How can one develop the detachment to deal with facts factually, to subdue personal predilections and stick to the evidence — to acquire that quality the journalist calls objectivity? Objectivity, this essential discipline of journalism, is a habit of mind, a factor of temperament, almost a trait of character. These qualities probably are not produced in the classroom, but are part of the process of growth. What we should be looking for is a man who will grow on the job.
The vital question isn’t, what is his education, but can he learn? Will he grow on the job? This is the larger question. For we cannot finally define what we need from the communicator, since part of what we need is that he discover for us what is outside our reach and that he bring it within our ken. A capacity for discovery and interpretation is perhaps as close as we can come to what we need from him.