Journalism students’ three big mistakes

I’m not sure whether I should feel sorry for Alex Myers, or jealous of him.

After all, it’s not every Aussie journalism student who finds themselves in both The Huffington Post and Gawker.

Particularly if it enhances your reputation as a writer of hard-hitting, non puff-piece profiles.

Of course, as it always is, the story was a tad more complicated than that.

As Mumbrella reported earlier this week, Myers caused offence when he emailed one of his potential sources regarding the person he was profiling and stated that the comment “does not have to be positive”.

But what really got the Charles Sturt University student into trouble was that he appears to have misrepresented himself – he didn’t tell the source that he was writing the piece for a student project.

And that’s a lesson for a lot of journalism students: Be upfront.

But Myers is not alone in this approach. I get a fair few emails and phone calls from journalism students looking for a quote about the media.

And they often go wrong. Here’s a few ways:

1. They obfuscate about being a student journalist.

They either don’t say, they give the name of the college publication as if it’s a consumer title, or they fib that it’s for a mainstream paper when what they mean is that they intend to offer it to them when it’s written.

I understand why they do it. I think they fear that if they admit to being a journalism student, busy people won’t bother to find the time.

It’s a common approach. I reckon about half of those who call me do so.

But anyone with even a tiny profile on a particular topic has heard from student journos plenty of times before – maybe even more often than from the “real” media.. So they don’t fool you.

And it doesn’t get the journo-source relationship off to a great trusting start if you’ve already been caught lying.

In my case, I’m always happy to chat to student journos. But  I’ll tend to set the timings more to my convenience than I would if a media outlet was asking, in which case I’m generally their dancing monkey.

There’s another reason for being upfront about it. You’ll get better quotes – if a source knows they’re probably not going to have to justify their quotes later then they’ll often be more outspoken, just because they can.

It happens often enough, that I’m pretty sure most courses don’t address this with their students.

2. They rely email and fear the phone.

I find it quite depressing how many student journalists send me an email asking for my comments on a number of questions by return of email.

I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this. For one, lots of young journos are afraid to pick up the phone. I was. In my first job I used to go and hide in the cuttings library to call contacts where nobody else in the newsroom could hear my awkward attempts.

Less justifiable is convenience. Which tends to annoy me. I do take the view that I’m happy to chat on the phone for ten minutes, but I’m not going to spend half an hour writing you an essay by email just to make your life easier.

I also find myself suspecting that they’re not interested into getting into the heart of a topic if they don’t even want to conduct an actual interview about it.

3. Be persistent

Particularly with young journalists, I think it’s hard for them to picture what it’s like being really busy – I know that I failed to see it. Busy potential sources often don’t actively decide not to talk to someone – it just slips away. Particularly if you don’t follow up.

In my case, I might ask a student journo who calls my mobile to phone back three or four times until they finally pick a moment when I’m clear. I’m happy to do that when the moment comes. But if they don’t call me, then I’m not going to remember to call them. I’d advise to keep trying until you actually get told “No”.

The fact that Alex Myers found himself in trouble while on an exchange to the US does make me wonder. Do American J-schools expect more from their student journalists than we do here?

Tim Burrowes


  1. Amelia
    16 Nov 12
    12:52 pm

  2. As a UTS journo student, I learned these lessons pretty quickly this year when I first started studying. Now when I see friends making these mistakes I point them out – I never realised how shy I was until I started the degree and how much it can hold you back, luckily I’ve gotten over that and learned to suck it up!

  3. Isaac
    16 Nov 12
    2:12 pm

  4. You do have to wonder if misrepresentation is such a big no-no when professionals do it fairly regularly too. Or is it a question of how much obfuscation is acceptable? Case in point: the journo who broke the Alan Jones story failed to declare he was a journalist when getting access to the event.

  5. Louis
    16 Nov 12
    2:24 pm

  6. Did a student journalist score a job on the SMH? This from a story today…
    “…he noted that the home faced either the street or the backyard for the majority of the year”
    It seems the word “majority” is misused nowadays the majority of the time … sorry, most of the time.

  7. Shayne
    16 Nov 12
    2:47 pm

  8. As a teacher of journalism, I’ve had to deal with numerous students who find making a phone call a terrifying prospect.

    Regarding transparency, I would have thought the lecturers would have made it clear that before you do an interview, you explain what it’s about and where it will be published.

    A lot of students drop out when they realise journalism isn’t a glamorous career and that it is hard work.

  9. Kath
    17 Nov 12
    1:18 am

  10. I agree with two of those, but from my experiences so far, admitting I’m a student journalist within the patch we work in can severly set me back.

  11. Colleen
    19 Nov 12
    7:46 am

  12. There is another mistake. I have had students emailing or phoning for information about an assignment. While happy to provide background or data, I expect them to do the research using the information sources I identify. I am wary of taking student calls now due to expectation I will do part of the writing for them.

  13. Jenna
    19 Nov 12
    8:46 am

  14. I often get approached by students to answer questions on behalf of my clients. I refuse to answer questions by email because I don’t want to write their assignments for them.

    If they pick up the phone I will go out of my way to provide them with their answers. Don’t worry about the nerves in asking questions over the phone. I’m going to help you not laugh at you.

    Think about this if you’re a journalism student. This could be the difference between a good mark and a great one. It could also see you create a new contact to add to your network – valuable for any aspiring young journalist.

  15. Ed
    21 Nov 12
    1:29 pm

  16. Tim – Enjoyed this post. Coming from that background myself, I was running parallels while reading between the words you wrote and what young ad kids do (the same things): hype up their ad experience, email don’t call, persistence. Definitely made me think.

  17. Bob
    21 Nov 12
    2:03 pm

  18. Their first mistake was doing a journalism course…

  19. CL
    5 Dec 12
    9:49 pm

  20. American J-schools ABSOLUTELY expect more than ours. I’ve done both and I wish I had never studied in Australia. What a waste of time, money and effort.

    Their extra-curricular journalism activities also make ours look like kindergarten. The journalism students at the (public, fairly average) school I went to in Colorado ran a daily broadsheet newspaper, a 24/7 radio station, a monthly glossy magazine and a television channel. We’re talking a student-led sales team for advertising and paid editorial staff, too. Compare that to the University of South Australia, which has a single student-run university-wide publication with no paid staff and precious little content.