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



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing