Ten Myths about Journalists
People are often wary of journalists - but that's often because they have no idea how they work. Here, I explode the top ten myths about being a journalist and reveal how we all benefit from a free press...
· Journalists don’t have any scruples or morals.
FACT: Most journalists do their job because they are driven by a great sense of justice. They want to help the man in the street get his story or complaint out there. They want to expose corruption that otherwise would simply not be heard. Behind every story is someone who has come to a journalist to ask for help or to expose a wrong doing by an individual or organisation. Without journalists to question the government or writers to voice an opinion (which you might not agree with but at least in the UK you are still allowed to say that!) we would just have to believe what we are told by a few (the government for example.)
·Journalists make stories up.
FACT: Journalists report things as they are. Sometimes individuals who come to journalists fail to see how what they are doing appears to others. Unfortunately, journalists can’t help it if, having reported a story, the person in it (who might well have been paid and had the copy read back) then wishes he hadn’t done it. There are rogues in every profession. But in fact it is simply impossible to make any story up – every story must go past a lawyer at a paper or magazine and every single detail in that story must be stood up as fact (often with legal documents or recording an interview with an interviewee.)
· You can’t trust what you read in the newspapers.
FACT: You can. That old saying, there is no smoke without fire, really does apply to what you read in the press. In fact, legal or other issues sometimes mean a paper can’t report everything, quite often because it would be too shocking for a family newspaper. In rape and sex abuse stories, for example, the gritty details are usually too dreadful to print in full.
Sadly, we are now living in such a litigious age that the general public has no idea of half of what goes on. Papers only scratch the surface – financial constraints mean reporters no longer routinely cover courts for example. And people would be horrified if they knew the sheer number of shocking stories that DO NOT make the papers. Legal restraints and extreme privacy laws mean some stories that would previously have been printed to huge public interest now never see the light of day. Getting an expose into print is now so hard and takes so much time (and money) that they are often shelved as too much work.
It’s become fashionable to jump on the bandwagon of wanting to clamp down on the press. But what those people fail to realise is without a free press their own liberty will be equally affected and corruption (as above) will thrive.
· Journalists get facts wrong.
FACT: Like everyone, journalists are only human and as such do sometimes make errors. They might get a name spelt wrongly or inadvertently write down someone’s wrong age. Journalists don’t want to make a mistake and they do everything they can to get the facts right, often against tight deadlines. Interviewees can do much to help the journalist writing their story by pointing out if their name is spelt an unusual way for example, by supplying documents to back up their story and by making themselves available so when that journalist rings to check a detail, they pick up the phone. Interviewees can also guard against mistakes being made by asking for copy to be read back – often only available if you go via amedia agent such as Featureworld.
· Journalists get their stories from hacking phones.
FACT: In 30 years of journalism, no paper, magazine or any other publication has ever suggested this and I have never ever come across it. So although it appears a tiny minority of reporters might be guilty (and it might well come out in the end they were not) it certainly isn’t something that will even have crossed any normal journalist’s mind (not least because if someone hacked my hours of phone messages for example they would hardly find anything to write about – ‘can you pick up some peas on your way home’ is the most likely message to me for example, and I would imagine this is the norm for 99% of people, including celebrities…) And then frankly most journalists are also not technically minded enough to know how and simply wouldn’t be able to get hold of private numbers to hack.
· Journalists earn a fortune for their stories.
FACT: Most journalists work long hard hours writing lots for small amounts to make a very average salary (many journalists on local papers earn a lot less.) If they are employed by a publication they will be paid a set salary and for the average freelancer, such sensational stories that might pay thousands can be counted on one hand (and many will never sell or uncover a national front page exclusive in their whole career.) If you look at the Rich lists published every year, journalists do not feature in them (unless they have diversified – written a bestseller for example.)
· Anyone can be a journalist.
FACT: Many people call themselves ‘journalists’ but if you define a bona-fide journalist as someone who is paid for writing and makes their living from researching and writing (or editing) stories for mainstream publications, this whittles the numbers down a lot. And incidentally, journalists are usually extremely well educated. So many young people want to be a journalist these days (and there are fewer jobs than ever) that it is very competitive. It is therefore virtually impossible to get into the industry without at least one good (preferably very academic) university degree – and the vast majority of trainees also now hold an MA or further journalism qualification.
· Everyone whose story appears in a newspaper or magazine is paid for the story.
FACT: Most interviewees are not paid for their story. Payments for stories are not routine and in fact some papers and sections of papers have a policy not to pay anyone for their story. As a media agent I believe interviewees should be paid for their time and it is only fair to do so. And that is part of my policy when people come to sell my story website Featureworld.
· Journalists need your permission before printing a story.
FACT: If you appear in court, legally a journalist is allowed to print the proceedings without your permission. If you knowingly speak to a journalist and then pose for photos, you are giving your permission for your story to be printed. That journalist does also not have to read your story back. This is why selling your story via an agent is different and gives you more peace of mind. Your story is always read back to you and you are required to sign a form saying you are happy to sell your story and do give your permission.
· Journalists aren’t regulated enough.
FACT: Any bona fide journalist, newspaper or magazine will abide by the Editor’s Code of Practice, which clearly sets out how it expects journalists to behave. Newspapers and magazines do not want to be dragged into expensive litigation and they must trust the freelancer giving them a story. So the simple way to find a bona fide journalist is to ring up the publication and check who they are or google their name. If they have happily written hundreds of stories for years for numerous publications or as a media agent, represented interviewees for a number of years, they have a reputation to protect. And that is the sort of journalist or media agent you can completely trust to sell your story.
Alison Smith-Squire is a media agent selling stories to the press and you can find more on the stories behind the headlines by reading her blog: Sell Your Story UK
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