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Why Do Many Journalism Students Skimp on Reporting?

Some Try to Rely on Writing, Rather Than Interviewing

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Why Do Many Journalism Students Skimp on Reporting?
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I've written before about how beginning reporters don't do enough reporting. They write news stories that read more like essays for an English class, full of generalizations that aren't supported by things like statistics or quotes from actual sources.

In fact, I've seen weak reporting so often in my journalism classes that I've formed a few ideas about why this occurs. They go as follows:

1. New reporters lack the confidence to go out and ask total strangers lots of nosy questions.

I suspect this is a big part of the problem. A lot of students take journalism classes because they're good writers, but good writers aren't always the most confident or outgoing personality types. Confronted with the need to suddenly start interviewing people, these students freeze.

I can empathize. I'm not the most outgoing person on the planet, and I can still recall how I had to gather up my chutzpah when I first started reporting. But what I found, and what I suspect most journalism students will discover, is that the more interviewing I did, the easier it got. Experience builds both skill and confidence, and even the shyest person can become a terrific reporter with time.

2. New reporters are too lazy to do the hard work involved in going out and interviewing people.

I like to think my journalism students are generally hard-working, so I don't want to spend too much time on this one. However, I do occasionally come across students who, having watched too many news anchors sitting at desks reading headlines, think journalism is a glamorous and easy life.

Here's a news flash: Reporting is very hard work, and the people who do best in the news business are invariably those who work the hardest. That means working nights, weekends and holidays. It means that when a big story breaks you can forget about going home, even if you've already put in a full day. It means schlepping through snow or soaking rain to knock on one more door, to interview one more person, to get one more quote.

The good news is, if reporting is what you love doing, then it doesn't seem like work at all.

3. New reporters think they can "write their way" out of having to do real reporting.

You can't write writing. Melvin Mencher, my grad school journalism professor, was fond of saying this, and truer words were never spoken. Fiction writers have the luxury of spinning tales from their imagination, but in the news business we have to keep it real. Everything we write has to be based facts, observations, quotes and background information that we gather from a variety of sources - interviews, reports, the Internet and so on.

Journalism students who try to skimp on their reporting by doing as few interviews as possible quickly discover that weak reporting leads to weak, poorly sourced news stories. On the other hand, students who do what I recommend - over-report - find their articles are invariably richer and more detailed for it. They also discover that it's much easier to write a news article when you've done more reporting than needed, not less.

So there you are, my ideas about why beginning journalism students under-report their stories. If you're honest with yourself and decide that you fall into one of these categories, then the solution is easy: Keep reporting. It gets easier the more you do it. Work hard. This is a business that rewards the industrious.

And don't fret too much over your writing. That will come with practice. Focus instead on reporting every story you do as thoroughly as possible. Do that, and you'll be successful.

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